I thought that since Azerbaijanis watch American movies on DVD (but they aren’t on TV much here), study about America in school and see news about America on TV, they would know more about America—we wouldn’t have to explain the basics to them.
Some things we expect to explain—like the fact that in America we usually don’t have individual water tanks in our home in which water is placed by the local utility several times a week. We don’t ever run out. It just comes. From where, many of us are not sure. And that we rarely have gas or electric power failures, schools have heat in the winter, that most stuff in America works most of the time and that many Americans like to buy Japanese and German cars because they are concerned with quality over patriotism.
Also, we expect to explain that our public transportation system is lousy and expensive, comedians make fun of our president and other national leaders every day and people love it (this is illegal in Azerbaijan), we eat a lot of processed food, we don’t have two kinds of cheese—we have hundreds of kinds, we have a lot of restaurants, many of which serve foreign food (restaurant food in Azerbaijan is monotonous) and that people often eat out, that women who drink and smoke are not necessarily slutty.
But I didn’t think I would have to explain that we are not all rich, many Americans don’t have homes, the government doesn’t give us homes, renting is not anything to be ashamed of, some people (including children) are homeless, the quality of the food here is much better than American food, why most Americans are overweight, poor people are usually forced by economics and zoning to live in neighborhoods by themselves with few resources, most of us don’t find spouses for our children and most of us don’t get nervous if our daughters are not married by age 22—in fact we are often nervous if they are.
The list goes on: Clothing is cheap in America and quality is good, as in most countries in this part of the world, men are not required to join the armed services, in America about 1% choose to join and get a good salary and training, 20 percent of children in America live in poverty, most poor children receive a poor education, most poor girls have unplanned pregnancies in their teens, most American baby boys are circumcised (Azerbaijanis think it is only a Muslim tradition), Americans are mostly too busy or are not qualified to take care of elderly, ill parents in their homes, and many Americans have lots of books in their homes and read for fun.
Also: Most wealthy Americans don’t feel a need to use their wealth to eradicate poverty, it is common for some upper and middle-income Americans to blame the poor for their poverty, high schools and universities in America offer elective courses, you don’t have to know your major before you start, majors can be changed, university is not free for most students, most people don’t mind if you walk in their home with your shoes on, many states are radically different from others culturally and topographically and America is 50 times larger than Azerbaijan.
Some things I don’t want to explain: why the American people wanted to start two wars back-to-back, even though no other country in the world thought this was a good idea (Azerbaijan was one of the Iraqi “coalition” for 5 years and did non-combat work. Many Azerbaijanis say they helped so that America would help them in any future war with Armenia, a naïve thought at best. Georgians were also in the coalition and some told me that when the war started with Russia, they were stunned and angry that we did not support them against the Russians the way they supported us), why American women appear to enjoy sex, why women who have sex before marriage are not slutty, and how Americans prevent pregnancies instead of ending them in abortion. I try to avoid political discussions, but with the news on every day, it is hard to escape politics, especially with my host family and their guests.
Of course each volunteer answers these questions differently. We usually say that many Americans think “A” because of “B” and others think “C” because of “D”. In conversation after conversation I have found that at the end of the discussion, they usually ask me what I think, don’t comment on the flattering things about America and then scold me on behalf of America and tell me to pass it along.
So here is two years worth of Azerbaijani indignation in a nutshell:
How can you have all that money and have no cheap way for poor people to get to a workplace? If Azerbaijanis can efficiently move the poor around rural regions, and have a beautiful, expanding subway system in Baku the equivalent of 18 cents a trip, why can’t America?
Why do the wealthy not make it a priority to help the poor and not isolate them?
Pregnant unmarried teens are a complete scandal and not taking care of your elderly parents at home is a shame.
Why do you tolerate guns? We have no guns and our murder rate is next to nothing.
What do Americans accept eating processed food and not know where their food is coming from?
We understand why you start wars now—because you don’t have to go. How do you feel about sending mostly poor boys off to their deaths when you don’t want to go yourselves?
Why don’t you listen to other countries before you start wars? We know the Soviet Union was a very powerful country and very unsuccessful in Afghanistan. You don’t have a different plan than the Russians, so why did you think you would succeed?
How can you do things like eat in restaurants when people, including children, are living on the street?
I try to avoid these discussions because I have found I don’t get anywhere. If I have to say something, I say that our culture is different and we value different things. We have more emphasis on self-reliance. We also tend to think of solving our problems with force since we have the largest military in the world. And when we want a war, we don’t think much about the cost at the time. We want the war and no new taxes and not to have to go ourselves. Later when we are not so angry, we change our minds.
I also tell them it does not seem practical to put restrictions on teens to keep them from getting pregnant and we are not as liberal as some other countries who distribute free contraceptives to those who want them. All of this sounds pretty lame to them. My last resort to get them off the topic is really pretty easy—I whip out a People Magazine or a Brides Magazine. The men huff and walk away and the women forget about nursing homes and start critiquing the dresses!