Expat headaches: Red tape American style

In the days when I visited Washington, D.C., as a tourist, my dream was to ask for political asylum at Whole Foods Market (kind of like Robin Williams at Bloomingdale's in the film “Moscow on the Hudson”) and settle down to a socially relevant life on Wisconsin Avenue. As we all know, the danger of the dream is that it may one day come true. Today, I am working as a journalist for a Russian news agency in D.C., competing with the other Russian news agencies, and the U.S. press, too.

I start my day at Starbucks, and then I walk past the Washington National Cathedral every day. I read the Washington Times, where you can always find something unpleasant, and therefore interesting, about Russia.
I even shop at Whole Foods Market, but mostly on payday. It seems that the organic food store does not accept political refugees. But I am happier here as a guest, as it turns out. I have learned, shockingly, that life here is actually stressful. There are long lines and service interruptions and unhelpful people, just like at home.

In the first year of my life and work in the United States, I frequently felt a deja vu, as if I heard or experienced what was happening before. Much to my chagrin, my life in the United States seems to have a lot in common with my life in Russia.

Acquiring a Social Security number required several months of waiting and hoping. Upon my first visit to the agency, I waited in line for about two hours. I finally got to the window, where a nice woman informed me that the Department of Homeland Security had neglected to put my name in the computer system.

And my name is not there yet.

On the second visit (I waited for two hours again, de rigueur), my name could not be found of course, but the woman in the window agreed to accept my documents anyway. It took about a month to get my number. And even then, my name on the Social Security card was spelled incorrectly. Americans have a bit of a hard time with the name Cheremushkin. When I went to the Social Security agency for the third time, concerned about the misspelling, she said, “I think you can live with this spelling.”

I had a similar experience with the motor vehicle department in Georgetown, the details of which I won't bore you with. But I was struck that the 100 surly people in line really reminded me of 100 surly people in Moscow. This was a weird revelation, but there was one significant cultural distinction. The Line in America is impossible to avoid. In Russia, we find all kind of ways to figure out the culture and physics of The Line, and how to get what you need without actually waiting for it.

People tell me the situation here is better outside the capital city, but I wonder.

So I am giving up the idea of getting an American driver’s license until better days. I ride the bus, which I find quite convenient, or a taxi in an emergency (I'm late). Like everyone else, I live on my cell phone. But communication services here are also a bit of an oxymoron. When the first technician showed up, he was not surprised that my cell phone doesn’t work well in the apartment: “Oh, there is a Russian embassy near here...don’t be surprised with all sorts of communication problems,” he said.

Make no mistake: I am not trying to say that U.S. bureaucracy and inefficiency is worse than in Russia. But I think American bureaucracy is almost impossible to avoid—unlike in Russia, there is no official and unofficial life here—and therefore it all seems so much more serious.

While I was walking on Wisconsin Avenue recently, thinking about all the documents still in front of me, I had to motion the truck driver heading toward me to stop. I started to walk ahead, while on his right side a Lexus appeared with a woman on the phone behind the steering wheel, who also showed no sign of intention to stop at the crossing.

My American friend recently reminded me of the Russian proverb: “You don’t bring your own laws when you visit somebody else’s monastery.” But in Washington, knowing the rules of Moscow is saving my life and, more importantly, my sense of humor.

Peter Cheremushkin is the Interfax correspondent in Washington, D.C.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.