Drawing by Niyaz Karim
Last month, I spent two weeks driving through the western United States. Although I visited some major cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, I learned more about the American mentality during short stops in small towns, having a snack in numerous diners and paying for gas.
Everyone I talked to—waiters, cashiers, mechanics—all wanted to know where I was from. I was proud to tell them that I traveled all the way from Russia to visit the U.S. And I felt they should be a little surprised at this fact, seeing as I flew 13 hours with only two meals and severely limited foot space.
Nobody was shocked. Instead, every person started mentioning some connection they had to Russia—even though it seemed that some of them weren’t quite sure that Russia was a country. Someone’s nephew has just married a Russian girl—“from San-Diego, and she’s a keeper, I must tell ya.” Somebody’s Russian great-grandfather traveled across Siberia all the way to Alaska, met Rothschild and ended up as a carpenter somewhere near Seattle, “so I’m 15 percent Russian, for sure.” I met a Latvian guy who spoke Russian with barely any accent and a Russian guy who moved to the U.S. so long ago he could not remember a word in his native language.
The Russian colleague I met in New York, who had already spent a few years in the United States, had adopted this interest Americans seem to have about people’s origins. “That’s a nice accent you’ve got!” she said to a waiter in a restaurant. “Where are you from? South Africa? Amazing!” His accent even made her tear herself away from the delicious oysters in front of us.
Asking “how are you” on any possible occasion lies in the same psychological paradigm. Russians generally feel that a stranger asking about your business is faking his interest. Don’t you dare ask a Russian how his or her things are. You’ll find yourself at some café a few hours later with a strong feeling that you can easily become his/her biographer. Of course in America nobody wants to hear the story of your life when asking how you are doing. But it’s a sign of pleasure, hospitality and interest.
This curiosity and desire to find connections between people, to find mutual roots, has been important in shaping American society. While boiling in a melting pot, you need a hand from others more than in other places. But creating this American “soup” has helped Americans get through challenges in their history—such as the craziness of the Wild West, the Great Depression, Civil Rights and even the latest economic downturn.
With low-cost airlines, Facebook and Coca-Cola, our world is gradually but inevitably turning into such a melting pot as the U.S. has long been. There are virtually no bounds between us, and the key to living in this new society is being curious about one another.
Such curiosity also helps people overcome stereotypes, which are still strong in many places, and almost always irritating.
“You don’t look like Russians, guys,” a museum worker in Death Valley said to my friend and me. “You look like you’re from here. I’ve been to Portland once and met real Russians there…with beards and stuff.”
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