What Armenians should know about life in America
April 4, 2020 6:32 PM   Subscribe

What Armenians should know about life in America. The US has always done an excellent job of marketing itself as the promised land, and the global reach of its mass-cultural and media exports to support that narrative is unrivaled. So, I don’t really need to tell you what is potentially good about it. Instead, I’ll speak to the more ambiguous notes.
posted by simmering octagon (43 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
great tldr

As I tell every Yerevan taxi driver who lyricises America, “like everything else, it’s got its pluses and minuses”.
posted by sammyo at 7:02 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


That perfectly describes my experience in the US too. I'm still trying to figure out what they do with all the tax money because I think I pay more here when you add it all up (property taxes especially) but somehow get much less for it.
posted by fshgrl at 7:07 PM on April 4 [12 favorites]


Haha, my cousin moved to southern California from Yerevan 5ish years ago with her husband and young child through the green card lottery. Within a year she was back in Armenia... and divorced. I'm super amused to find this writeup of many of their complaints.
posted by potrzebie at 7:19 PM on April 4 [12 favorites]


After hearing all the horror stories of what happened with guest workers in the preparation to the Sochi olympics, despite the last three years I'm still shocked by this essay in how it compares immigration to the United States to performing guest work in Russia, like they're on the same plane. What a slap in the face. Objectively well deserved, but my ears are ringing.
posted by ocschwar at 7:27 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


Some tweet I read recently said something like "America is a second class country wearing a Gucci belt" and that sentiment just crystallized a bunch of thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for a bit now. This is a very well written essay that fleshes out that idea for me, thanks for posting it.

Shoulda left when I had the chance...
posted by Vatnesine at 7:50 PM on April 4 [9 favorites]


Unless where you are living is quite literally a death pit, immigrating here is possibly not the answer to your problems. Sort of a "the grass is always greener" type of thing. But hey, if you show up, welcome and best of luck...
posted by jim in austin at 7:57 PM on April 4


Reading on mobile and found myself screenshotting a couple of passages. As a European transplant to an American-influenced car culture city, these really resonated with me, especially under the Current Circumstances:
The reality, however, is that the impact of this way of designing the world goes far beyond mere aesthestics–which, by the way, are terrible; the suburban landscape is unrivaled in its monotony and depressing blandness. The problem is more insidious, though; the way that we build our settlements has deep implications for our civic life, our communities, our patterns of interaction, the relationships we form, the company we keep, and ultimately, the purpose and meaning we find in our lives.
and
Therefore, I’m moved to say that one of the most important things about the US is that it’s lonely. They built it that way.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:09 PM on April 4 [34 favorites]


This was an amazing read.

I'm desperate to leave the US. This country is going to kill me without firing a shot. Hardly any hope of that now, it seems.
posted by captain afab at 8:14 PM on April 4 [6 favorites]


The salaries thing is very well-observed. It’s very hard for Europeans like me to understand US salaries, because a typical salary for any given profession in the US will be about twice what it is in Europe, for the reasons described - Americans pay the same in taxes, but also then pay for all the services that Europeans get in return for their taxes, and running a car and other expenses are near obligatory to a degree that is unfamiliar in Europe. I think that Americans come out behind to be honest, and back of the envelope calculations suggest the same. I think it’s a bit like the medical bill that comes out at 50k, but for complex reasons you’re getting a discount to 5k - it looks “good” on paper, but you’re still getting fucked.

It’s equally hard for Americans to understand European salaries. I saw someone I like on twitter who was recently baffled by British starting salaries for nurses, and they’re right, those salaries should be higher - but for a job that you can get out of vocational college, the salary is about 80% of median UK income. And it goes up with experience! Nurse Practitioners (a reasonable mid-career goal for a nurse) earn about 150% of median income! It was baffling because they were converting it into American numbers: “well, that’s bar work”. No! Bar work is not paid at $15 USD in the UK. There’s a welfare state, and most barstaff work within walking or public transport distance of their job.

US salaries suffer the same kind of inflation that the OP describes in healthcare, and for the same kind of reasons.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:43 PM on April 4 [21 favorites]


I'm still trying to figure out what they do with all the tax money because I think I pay more here when you add it all up (property taxes especially) but somehow get much less for it.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 8:44 PM on April 4 [6 favorites]


I'm still shocked by this essay in how it compares immigration to the United States to performing guest work in Russia, like they're on the same plane. What a slap in the face.

I mean it is the same for young people who just want to go make some money and travel a bit- but the risk is so much higher in the US if you get sick or hurt. A MASSIVE number of people just left and flew home when the coronavirus broke out because of this.
posted by fshgrl at 9:04 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]


Even in Canada I hear people talking about the US as the promised land, the place you move to if you really want to make money. And not in a "tech startup" sort of way, but they look at comparable salaries in the US and the exchange rate and suburban housing prices and don't factor in all of the extra costs. And that's in Canada, where our system is basically USA + health care. I can't even imagine trying to make an apples to apples comparison between the same job in the US vs anywhere else in the world.
posted by thecjm at 9:14 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]


It's striking how many of these self inflicted American problems have their roots in racism. For example, the loneliness and car culture of suburbia. We basically have suburbs in order to cater to white racism. Like the fact that suburbs are inconvenient and remote is a feature, not a bug. We're allergic to any sort of social welfare because a huge portion of the USA hates the idea that the wrong people would benefit. In fact, they hate the idea so much they'll vote against their own interests just to make sure the benefits don't go to the supposedly undeserving. Oh, and you say the court system is wildly punitive. Gee, wonder why? The weird thing is, racism isn't even that great for racists. The price is surprisingly high.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:17 PM on April 4 [61 favorites]


The salaries thing is very well-observed. It’s very hard for Europeans like me to understand US salaries, because a typical salary for any given profession in the US will be about twice what it is in Europe, for the reasons described - Americans pay the same in taxes, but also then pay for all the services that Europeans get in return for their taxes, and running a car and other expenses are near obligatory to a degree that is unfamiliar in Europe.

I still remember when I learned that people in the other nations took a month-long vacation as a given. As an adult, the real safety net stuff (health care, unemployment benefits, etc) are certainly more important to regular stress levels. Just watch our country implode under the pandemic to appreciate what a fragile, precarious system we've constructed! But even as a child, I understood that the "comfortable middle class" was getting screwed when they got at most two weeks vacation (and really only ever took about 6 days off per year). And the part about health costs is bitterly funny -- even Americans don't fully understand/accept how expensive our system is.

Re: taxes...fine, the federal taxes feed the military-industrial complex, but, as a fellow Californian, I also wonder where the hell our substantial state taxes go? They don't appear to be fixing the roads or housing the homeless. Grade school education is funded more locally (I think), and college level tuition increases so quickly that I can't imagine we're sending much of our taxes there. So...what gives?

That was a great post. In tone, it reminds me of the person who talked me out of grad school. The writer isn't entirely dismissive, but they don't permit any unwarranted optimism.
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:44 PM on April 4 [16 favorites]


The salaries thing is very well-observed. It’s very hard for Europeans like me to understand US salaries,

Keep in mind that most companies are also paying an additional 30% over the salary in health insurance benefits for each employee. It really cripples small business.
posted by fshgrl at 10:14 PM on April 4 [3 favorites]


Re: taxes...fine, the federal taxes feed the military-industrial complex, but, as a fellow Californian, I also wonder where the hell our substantial state taxes go? They don't appear to be fixing the roads or housing the homeless. Grade school education is funded more locally (I think), and college level tuition increases so quickly that I can't imagine we're sending much of our taxes there. So...what gives?

Right?
posted by fshgrl at 10:14 PM on April 4


This is a really interesting article that is a really interesting window into both Armenia and the USA. Thanks for sharing!
posted by freethefeet at 10:43 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]


When I think of the US and the contortions that arise from slavery and later migrant work, I think about the Spartans and the helots and how Sparta over time became a failed state that couldn't respond to events, as described here. Which is not to say that those of us who live in other former British colonies in the Anglosphere don't suffer from related pathologies.

This article is cool, and I'd like to see an equivalent for my own country and say the Phillipines, which is a major source of aspiring migrants. It does seem like the extreme case of moving to the big city from a little town and discovering that it's not all that, the big money largely exists to compensate for big problems, and you miss home.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:07 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


but, as a fellow Californian, I also wonder where the hell our substantial state taxes go?

How do you think all those other red “taxes are theft!” states stay afloat? We pay for them.

Also, when the bodies are counted up, pay attention to how low California shows up on the list when adjusted per capita.
posted by sideshow at 11:11 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]


Also, for some industries (such as software engineering), the US just pays more.

More of than a few of my coworkers have moved from our London office to the Bay Area, and even after considering health care premiums, buying a car if they choose to, etc, etc, they all feel they come our ahead.
posted by sideshow at 11:17 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]


The US is the best country in the world to live in, if you are rich, well connected and white. If you aren't in that category, you would be happier and better off in any other first world country.
posted by monotreme at 11:47 PM on April 4 [14 favorites]


Dallas, for instance, is not a city by the global standards. Much of it should probably be reclassified as a rural area.

That's hilarious because it's true.

It's a very well written essay, and I'm afraid few will read it because they think it's about What Armenians Should Know About Life in America, while it it obviously about What Americans Should Know About Life in America. (Otherwise it would probably have been written in Armenian, duh).
There are so many great things about the US, and a lot of them are not what the official America RAH RAH thinks they are. But I wish America would be kinder to herself.
posted by mumimor at 3:47 AM on April 5 [14 favorites]


All of these discussions re: the welfare state in European countries being wonderful might have been germane a couple of decades ago.

Have you read the (real) papers there in any European county recently? It's not as bad as the US, but they are catching up with the same playbook. (and still with high taxes...)

Medical bankruptices are't a thing but the poor and disadvantaged slip through the (deliberately widened) cracks at a greater and greater rate. The applications process and resultant benefits for "universal credit" and disability allowances in the UK is even more punitive than some US states, which is saying something.
posted by lalochezia at 5:00 AM on April 5 [2 favorites]


lalochezia, several Mefites are living in Europe right now and know everything there is to know about European struggles with the economy and healthcare. There are huge issues, but I can promise you that nothing, absolutely nothing in the EU compares to the situation in the US. Not even the UK, which is very, very bad by European standards with thousands of homeless and a dithering NHS.
posted by mumimor at 5:44 AM on April 5 [18 favorites]


Having left America ten years ago, coming to the UK in the midst of Austerity and experiencing what life can be like when you go to a totally new place as a significant other and as a stranger, I see the one giant mistake that almost everyone who emigrates will experience. I have worked with refugees who have lived in camps and faith workers who have come to Europe from Africa, Asia and South America to minister in churches and mosques. The experience that sets apart the successful migrant from the unsuccessful one is the ability to go native. A lot of experience divides the tourist from the settler.

America is ruled by self-effacing to the point of it being detrimental to its own political situation. Americans are taught to be self-effacing at an early age, to stop at nothing in respecting their own version of the truth, often one that is cobbled together within a place not of reference, because sources are obscure, but of self-reverence.

That is why it is so difficult for migrants to move up the ladder in America. They play the same deferential game they learned that America refuses to play, however much r/insaneparents transparently shows how much parents wish to instill a culture of deference on children slavishly consenting to their own instilled virtue to worship the self in the same way their parents do. Perhaps this is why America has so many authoritarian cults.

It can be difficult, as an American, to be in a country where deference is normalised sometimes to the point when it transparently becomes abusive. Anti-immigration language is a language deeply seeking to preserve a culture of obedience against myth of the mysterious godlike stranger.

But going native is not about the acceptance of the deus ex. It is about the will to ask for help when fellow natives warn that help is pointless. Going-Natives are forced to look and learn not just what can't be changed but what are not changes. Tourists make the mistake of assuming changes can be made for them. Self-reverence deflates and deflects these requests before they are even made, which is why enclaves form and integration is difficult for all but a handful who are willing to transcend their own embarrassment that their version of the truth is on course for a radical correction.

The most staggering thing is to see so many Europeans who live hand to mouth and deeply precarious lives because of the automation and digitisation of benefits becoming a more difficult labyrinth to access and use. The fact that one family is limited to accessing a food bank twice per year in the UK is practically criminal.

The Covid-19 pandemic has begun to unlock for many who never experienced it the staggering reality of Universal Credit's deep failure of purpose. Florida's benefits system copied it wholesale.
posted by parmanparman at 6:06 AM on April 5


I've always thought it rather amusing, in a sad way, that people from the former Sovjet Union share a lot in values and experiences with Americans.

Anyhow, as it says in the article, the US healthcare "system" makes a huge difference. Austerity has wrecked the lives of many Europeans, in the UK and in many other countries. It has also brought healthcare to it's knees in the same countries. But there is healthcare. Even if you are homeless or on a tiny pension or jobless with a ridiculous unemployment benefit. That makes a huge difference, and not only because of the coronavirus.
posted by mumimor at 7:07 AM on April 5


When I was much younger I viewed the success of post-war America (such as it is) as a relative success of capitalism, certainly when compared to veritable nightmares like East Germany or Albania. America was the land of promise, perhaps rough around the edges, but promising nevertheless. It took me a long time to begin to understand (and longer still to fully comprehend) how much of that success was predicated & propped up by structural advantages borne of conquest, e.g. the expropriation of native American land, the economic contributions of slavery, and later the institutional advantages provided by post-war organizations like the World Bank, IMF, GATT & WTO, not to mention the numerous military interventions in Central & South America and the Middle East.

Looking at the development of policy in Europe (which is what I'm most familiar with) over the past thirty years, I feel I'm watching my younger self at work, like a kind of sorcerer's apprentice, cheerfully waving an invisible hand over society, blissfully unaware of the forces they unleash.

My younger self understood capitalism to mean something like equal opportunity in a free market under law. But smarter people than me have always made compelling arguments that the rapacious, domineering aspects of capitalism are part and parcel of what capitalism is, except that people tend not to notice, because those aspects are mostly directed outward. However as resources become more difficult to commandeer or outright steal, the system looks inward to satisfy its appetite, and you're left with not even a nominal or limited sense of equality, just survival. The beast quite literally starts devouring its own muscle & its own brains. Amid the carnage, at least I'm thankful it devoured my younger self as well.
posted by dmh at 7:09 AM on April 5 [12 favorites]


State government budget information can be searched; here are two summaries of the Tennessee budget. Here in Tennessee, property taxes appear to be assessed at the county/city level, so those taxes go to your local governments.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:33 AM on April 5


There used to be a site called "what we pay for" that broke out the Federal budget in great detail; it's disappeared, but there are plenty of other resources that show how the budget breaks down. I think the IRS used to publish a pie chart in the tax form instructions. CRS would probably be useful here, too.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:35 AM on April 5


In this atmosphere, the almighty car–still a matter of social status, prestige and perceived convenience in Armenia–falls from grace. It’s no longer a luxurious way to thumb your nose at the teeming masses. You are one of the teeming masses. A lot of your energy and money and will go toward the purchase and upkeep of a rapidly depreciating hunk of metal in which you will spend a significant fraction of your life, all alone. It’s only cool when most people don’t have one; when four wheels have replaced two feet, it’s just a needlessly expensive way to traverse pointlessly large distances of identical-looking road for unclear reasons.

These descriptions are so accurate.
posted by Ender's Friend at 8:21 AM on April 5 [5 favorites]


Thank you for the article - I found it interesting and insightful. I particularly hadn't considered the party about the American justice system being overly obsessed with rules - but I guess there's a reason why "got off on a technicality" is in the common vernacular.

> as a fellow Californian, I also wonder where the hell our substantial state taxes go?

California income taxes are higher partly because they fill the gap left by Proposition 13, which freezes property tax assessment rates at the price that you initially bought the property for. People who bought property 20 years ago, are paying 20-year-ago taxes on that property, and the rest of us are paying the difference.
posted by bring a tuba to a knife fight at 8:43 AM on April 5 [11 favorites]


That two sentence paragraph about section 8 housing says a lot about the author, their knowledge gap, and bias.
posted by jojo and the benjamins at 8:53 AM on April 5 [3 favorites]


jojo, I found that striking as well. It is better described as “apply for waiting list and wait 1-2 years, hoping your approval goes through and status doesn’t change, then move into either dilapidated state housing with no privacy (due to constant checks, including unannounced entry and or cameras) or into one of the handful of units set aside in a new building to be shunned by your richer neighbors as the ‘quota’ poors”
posted by zinful at 9:16 AM on April 5 [2 favorites]


jojo, agreed.

Reading this. . . its like I agree with the words or the individual sentences of what the author is saying, but the essay as a whole feels . . ?? I dunno . . although its written in English, I'm going to chalk it up to not being the intended audience. . .
posted by flamk at 9:29 AM on April 5


I agree with everything, especially the critique of suburbia, that there's no there there, even injecting a little Kunstler (although he's hardly an architect: merely a writer and architecture critic.) Her aesthetic complaints, quite valid, would fly over most Americans' heads, who've never been out of the country and so have nothing to compare their environment with. But this essay is for Armenians (and I think useful for anybody considering immigration to the US) as it addresses common assumptions and misconceptions, fostered I guess by Hollywood movies and TV shows.
"You're American, what's a hundred dollars to you?"

posted by Rash at 12:10 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]


I'm glad someone out there who can go granular has written something like this about the US vis-à-vis its PR and popular media.

But I'm EXTREMELY surprised that, as someone who lives in Atlanta, even, Mr. Balashov apparently had not one word about race and the social hierarchy in this country. Not even to say, "There is a racial/social/economic hierarchy here, but please don't buy into it."

Or did I miss a sentence or paragraph somewhere? I would be happy to be corrected.
posted by droplet at 1:13 PM on April 5


droplet, I started on a comment, inspired by the discussion about section 8 housing, and then gave up again. But way up, I noted that I've always thought it rather amusing, in a sad way, that people from the former Sovjet Union share a lot in values and experiences with Americans. I should have specified white, middle class Americans. I think that's the best way to explain it.
posted by mumimor at 1:29 PM on April 5


Re: racism and roots of American dysfunction, the following from transit analyst Alon Levy (who has a similar Euro outsider view, which is interesting even if I don’t always agree and I think he has his own blind spots) comes to mind:
The underlying cause is that it is very difficult to have a clean herrenvolk democracy. Neither of the two main examples of herrenvolk democracies, the American South in the eras of slavery and Jim Crow and South Africa in the apartheid era, had good government. On the contrary, the antebellum South opposed public infrastructure investment (“internal improvements” in the era’s language), and the Jim Crow South was a single-party state ruled by corrupt political machines. Apartheid South Africa, too, was effectively a single-party state with totalitarian characteristics trying to stamp out communism. The ability of the state to respond to even the white population’s economic and social needs was constrained by the overwhelming need to credibly promise to maintain apartheid. ...

The only way to maintain racism is to weaken institutions. It’s hard to have a clean system of apartheid justice, because then the oppressed minority can simply demand the state treat it the way it treats the herrenvolk. A state that attempted to impose apartheid with clean government would not be able to credibly promise to the racists that the system would stay as is. Instead, it would need to engage in arbitrary justice, giving individual cops, judges, and juries broad latitude to make decisions, which could survive the end of formal apartheid to some extent.
(Note: link contains an uncensored quoted racial slur.)
posted by en forme de poire at 3:03 PM on April 5 [6 favorites]


The US is the best country in the world to live in, if you are rich, well connected and white.

To be honest, if I were rich and well-connected I'd rather live in Switzerland, sorry.
posted by Grangousier at 3:22 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]


To be honest, if I were rich and well-connected I'd rather live in Switzerland, sorry.

Gstaad be representin', yo!
posted by Chitownfats at 7:30 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]



lalochezia, several Mefites are living in Europe right now and know everything there is to know about European struggles with the economy and healthcare. There are huge issues, but I can promise you that nothing, absolutely nothing in the EU compares to the situation in the US. Not even the UK, which is very, very bad by European standards with thousands of homeless and a dithering NHS.


(emphasis mine)

I live in the US. I'm also European. I'm from England.... lived there for 30 years, my family and friends still live there, and i have friends and colleagues from all over Europe (france, netherlands, spain, austria, germany, italy, denmark off the top of my head) who I am in regular contact with. And I read the papers, and analyses from charities in both countries.

I'm sorry, If you want to play atrocity olympics - particularly outside of medical bankruptcies/healthcare costs, the UK is well on their way to catching up with the US.

easily found examples from the last 2 years in the UK.

Universal credit plunges kids into poverty and 120,000 have died because of austerity – but Jacob Rees-Mogg wants more cuts

More than 17,000 sick and disabled people have died while waiting for welfare benefits, figures show

Disabled man starved to death after DWP stopped his benefits


I'm quite sure if you go to other countries that have swallowed 'austerity' in Europe, and go to their press, you would see similar stories.
posted by lalochezia at 8:17 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]


lalochezia, I know things are bad and getting worse in the UK, and I worry a lot about that. My old stepdad lives there. Austerity is cruel and needless - look at how they can suddenly find the money now. In Southern Europe, the poverty is even worse, not least because of all the refugees, many of them homeless. I'm not saying things are fine and dandy in Europe.

But being poor and not having access to healthcare, as is normal in the US in states where medicaid wasn't expanded, it's so frightening. I remember when I started reading MetaFilter, long before I started posting, I really wondered about all the questions about health in ask. I wondered why people didn't just call a doctor. When I lived in the US I had a platinum insurance, and I didn't think about it*. Then gradually I realized how many MeFites were uninsured or underinsured. It freaked me out completely.

There's one thing I'd like to say about comparing news between countries: everyone writes from where they are. Things that are totally scandalous and will cause frontpage headlines here in Denmark are just Tuesday in Greece. There was an international conference about social housing some years ago in Copenhagen, and the organizers brought experts from Detroit, Rotterdam and Paris out to see the worst "ghetto" in Copenhagen, and the experts literally couldn't see it. They could see nice brick buildings in a well-tended park, filled with well-dressed people living their normal lives. But if you looked at the Danish headlines of the time, you'd think that area was very dangerous, with shootings and all squalid apartments filled with drug addicts. Because compared to the norm in Denmark, it was more dangerous and there were more vulnerable citizens. That's a good thing. But it means that an article in a Danish paper about poverty is not about the same thing as one in the US. (I know, those are extremes, but there is a sliding scale, even within countries, that makes it hard to compare directly). TFA tries to address this confusion.

I wonder if it is something like this that went completely wrong for the Global Health Security Index, that ranked the US and UK as number 1 and 2 just a short while ago. Now we know that preparedness has to weight political leadership, economic security and universal access to hospitals and testing very heavily to get a true image of preparedness.

*Though there was a thing when I was very young where a colleague was mugged and we all thought it was really weird that the ER asked for his creditcard before treating him
posted by mumimor at 1:37 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]


That two sentence paragraph about section 8 housing says a lot about the author, their knowledge gap, and bias.

I find it really odd that he keeps critiquing suburbia, but keeps listing off sentences like "that housing in the kinds of places where most Armenians would want to live and seem to agglomerate, e.g. southern California" and comparing theoretical families in Fresno and the lack of public transit -- it's like the cognitive dissonance is too strong.

"Armenians are sometimes under the impression that lots of Americans own houses, too. This is a misapprehension; Very few Americans own homes free and clear. " Also, also the stuff about loans and debt is kind of odd too - it's not like American's can't live in cheaper places, it's mostly by choice that we pay more, not at all unlike choosing to be a new immigrant and choosing southern California over North Dakota.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:13 AM on April 6


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