Thursday, January 27, 2011


I don't seem to be able to run far enough to prevent my compatriots from shaming me.

I was sitting peacefully in my office yesterday trying to submit an article for publication when a colleague I had never met before called me on the phone. He'd received an e-mail from a friend in Ukraine and was mystified by what it said. All he managed to get out of it was "tragedy," "horrible problems," "life has no meaning," "senseless," and "really bad." Obviously, my colleague got very worried that somebody had died or gotten really sick. So he called me to see if he could come by and have me translate the e-mail. Of course, I agreed.

The longish e-mail addressed a single issue: money. There were endless complaints about how the author of the e-mail hadn't been receiving her salary for 3 months and will probably not receive any salary in the future either (like anybody forces her to stay at a job that doesn't pay.) And her daughter had to offer bribes to pass every single course she is taking in college (which, I'm sure, nobody is demanding of her. My people love offering bribes when nobody is asking. It's our national pastime). And she had to spend all her savings on those bribes And life has no meaning any longer because there is no money. Money, money, money. The e-mail ends with this Ukrainian person congratulating her American friend on his wonderful life, filled with travel and fun. Which is something she will never have because she has no money. And her life has no meaning.

While I was translating this letter for my colleague, I was curling my toes in shame. There he was, looking like a kind Santa, this academic who spent his entire life travelling to underdeveloped countries with the goal of helping people. How could I tell him that his so-called friend was taking him for a ride? That she probably dresses a lot more expensively than he does? That, in all probability, she owes her place of abode while he either pays rent or has a huge mortgage? That it's highly likely she considers all Americans to be stupid and there to be used?

"Life is pretty difficult over there, right?" the kind colleague asked me.

"Erm. . . yeah. . . I guess," I managed to mumble.


Anonymous said...

I'm from Ukraine but have been living in the US for the last 17 years. I'm surprised at your interpretation of this woman's email. I agree that talking about money to someone she probably doesn't know very well is inappropriate, however I think you are too quick to judge her. You didn't mention her profession but I know from my friends in Ukraine that working without payment is very common and it's not so easy to find another job. Even then there is no guarantee of payment. And yes, the bribes are expected at every level, so to say that nobody is demanding them is laughable. Also, you don't know this person so you can't say whether she's better dressed than your colleague or owns a home. Even if she did own a place to live, it is most likely a tiny apartment, like the majority of dwellings there.
I remember you saying in your blog that materially you were much better off in Ukraine than you'll ever be in the US and I'm surprised. I've never met anyone from the former USSR who was better off there than they are here.
And yes, life there is much harder than in the US and will not get any better in the near future. I don't know whether you've been to Ukraine since you left, but I went there twice and can say with absolute certainty that I would never want to live there regardless of how much money I would have there.

Clarissa said...

When you were leaving Ukraine 17 years ago, how much debt did a regular person carry? Zero? And how much debt does a regular American person carry? Mortgage, car payments, credit cards. I could look it up for you but I remember hearing it's over 40K. Did you own your place in Ukraine? How about here? Do you know many immigrants who own their places? And I mean actually own, not have a mortgage or two on them.

Also, in your own country you have a whole network of support of relatives, friends, acquaintances, neighbors - your own and those of your parents, grandparents, etc. In your country you speak your own language and you are not a second-class citizen like every immigrant is. All these assets lead to better employment opportunities.

Of course, I didn't emigrate to better myself financially. I was doing fantastic in that sense. I emigrated to get other things and I got them and I'm happy. But financially I will obviously never catch up, which I knew this entire time.

As to people who agree to work without pay, I have no pity for them because that's their conscious choice. If I found a way as a 22 year old full-time student to make bundles of money in 1995, so can they. They just prefer to milk compassionate American gentlemen rather than bust their asses working. Remember, I lived there. These sob stories leave me with a nasty aftertaste.

Anonymous said...

When I lived in Ukraine I didn't have any debt, but I also have zero debt here. Yes, my house is paid for. My parents and I (I have no other relatives and wouldn't have them in Ukraine either)paid off our three cars a long time ago. I paid for my education out of my own pocket (it's not as impressive as yours, but still). I have no credit card debt. The biggest difference between life here and there is that here I have many opportunities to better myself and my life. I owned a one-room apartment in the big city there but I can't compare it to what my family was able to accomplish and acquire here- and I'm not materialistic at all, although I know a lot of our compatriots who are. As far as jobs are concerned, not everyone is as talented and capable as you are, so it's strange to expect everyone to be able to find a fantastic job that pays good money. I used to think like you before- that everyone should be able to act as I do, but the world isn't perfect. I suspect that the woman in question might've tried to elicit your colleague's pity, but I think there is some grain of truth to her story.
Also, I never felt like a second-class citizen in America, but when I went for a visit to Ukraine after 7 years away, I was made to feel like a second-class citizen, or rather like nothing by my fellow Ukrainians.

Clarissa said...

"I have no credit card debt."

-Well, I do. Hence my statement that I definitely lost out financially when I emigrated.

When I was a student in the Ukraine I kept offering my friends opportunities to work with me - in their field of expertise, doing intellectual work for VERY good money. Every single person refused. Every single one. Our people don't like to work. Which is not a bad thing at all because they are enjoying themselves.

As for the bribes at universities, if you are a stellar student, you don't need to pay bribes and you will get into any university you want completely for free. But people keep giving bribes because, once again, they enjoy it. And good for them, too.