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Being American Makes me Bad at Visiting Other Countries

Sometimes I think growing up in America makes me incapable of understanding the mentalities and challenges of other countries.
This is Armenia.
This is too, only zoomed out a little more.
I used to think that Poland was the most geographically unfortunate country in the world, but now I think Armenia takes the crown.
Before it was a country, Armenia was a group of people, a cluster of Christians on a small, jagged patch of the South Caucasus.
Stuck between the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires, the land under them got passed back and forth, conquered and divided, burned down, built up, bargained for, traded, given away. Always the subject of history, never its designer.
Most of us know ‘Armenian’ as the word you hear before ‘Genocide’ every once in awhile, but we’re less familiar with why so many Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire in the first place, how the lines on the map hopscotched under them dozens of times as the great powers traded their territory back and forth.
Armenia’s national symbol, Mount Ararat, isn’t even in Armenia. It’s in Turkey, across a border Armenians aren’t allowed to cross.
After World War II, Armenia was unified, but under the control of the USSR. In 1991, it finally got independent, became its own master for the first time in 70 years. These days it’s no longer a client state, just a poor, landlocked country that has closed borders with two of its four neighbors.
To the right, Azerbaijan is pissed at Armenia over an ongoing border dispute from the early ’90s. The two countries don’t even have embassies in each other’s countries, no trade or cultural exchange whatsoever. They communicate through intermediaries, like a couple going through an ugly divorce.
To the left, Turkey not only supports Azerbaijan, but still refuses to admit to the aforementioned genocide. Borders are closed there too.
So Armenia can only trade to the top (Georgia) and bottom (Iran).
But in the middle, away from all the economics and the politics, you don’t see any of that. All you can tell about Armenia is that it is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.
You get the feeling the Lord of the Rings movies were actually shot here, and that New Zealand is just faking it for the tourism.
The country is also, considering all the factors stacked against it, doing OK economically as well.
A per capita GDP of $6,300 ain’t Belgium, but it ain’t Burundi either. The infrastructure is good, and since 2008, the country has grown at around 5 percent a year.
On the overall tale of the tape, though, Armenia’s biggest advantage is probably its diaspora.
Only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia, but an estimated 8 million live outside of it.
Every year remittances, tourism and investment come home from the US, Lebanon, Australia, Italy. The joke here is that Armenians are successful everywhere except Armenia.
The population is still shrinking. All those Armenians living abroad, everyone’s got a friend or a cousin or a company that can give them a reason to leave.
The countryside is dotted with half-empty villages,
factories someone switched off when the USSR abandoned them and never switched on again.
Maybe it’s because I’m American and maybe it’s not, but I find it difficult to process the sheer depth of Armenia’s roots–and its conflicts.
I think of the citizens of my country as a ‘people’, I guess, but not in the ethnic or religious or historical sense, not the way Armenians feel connected to their past.
The idea that the land where I grew up, where my grandparents come from, could be taken by another country and locked to me, is utterly unfathomable.
This, I think, is why I struggle to understand conflicted parts of the world like the South Caucasus or the Balkans: Nothing here reflects the relationship I have to my own country, nothing reminds me of myself. There’s this part of me that hears about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and thinks ‘Why don’t they just get over it and move on?’
Which is shitty and myopic. And maybe why I like visiting this part of the world so much, why I’m so keen to come back, why I find the reasons to ignore that question in my head so fascinating.
It’s like reading fiction. I’m entering this world that my imagination doesn’t permit me to invent, but doesn’t want me to leave.
Not until I can see myself in it.


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‘That’s barely a sentence’

Best Texts From Last Night entry ever:

(256): You took my girl thats shot the Fuck out. You better watch your skinny ass.
(1-256): That's barely a sentence. Who's your girl? I think you've got the wrong number. I haven't even lived in Alabama for 4 years.
(256): Yeah, I do, I'm sorry. I meant 205 not 256. sorry about that.
(1-256): Good luck with your revenge in Birmingham.

You can tell this is from the South because all the aggression comes within an Extra Value Meal of politeness and chivalry.

Furthermore, you can tell I'm getting old by the fact that I had to look up 'shot the fuck out' on Urban Dictionary.

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If you say, ‘I felt badly’, you are officially dumber than Ben Stiller



My favorite new blog, 'Celebrity English' demonstrates grammar through celebrity interviews. This entry, on Ben Stiller, illustrates one of my only remaining grammar pet peeves:

“I love Owen, and I felt bad that he had to deal with all the outside bulls––.” – Ben Stiller, about friend Owen Wilson’s attempted suicide, in Playboy

Ben has correctly used the adjective “bad” after the linking verb “felt.” A common error is the use of the adverb “badly” with a form of the linking verb “feel.” A linking verb connects a subject with either an adjective (the predicate adjective) or a noun (the predicate noun). Adverbs describe action verbs, so using the adverb “badly” with “feel” changes the meaning of the verb: “I feel badly” means that I am having a hard time touching things.

Well done, Ben!


Most of my good friends aren't native English speakers, and giggle-sniping their inconsequential mistakes in my mother tongue became tedious years ago. Speaking another language is hard, and if you say 'breaked' instead of 'broke', you deserve the people around you to just accept your meaning and let it slide.

'I feel badly', however, still makes me cringe whenever I hear it ('I felt badly about being late to his party' or whatever). I think the reason is that you never hear non-native English speakers do it. It's not like it's something like 'who' vs 'whom', where a lot of people don't know the rule and getting it right doesn't add any meaning or nuance to a sentence. 'I felt badly' is a know-it-all affectation, the kind you pick up your freshman year of college, somewhere between Ayn Rand and V.S. Naipaul. It's not a real mistake, it's just you trying to be a word-snob and fucking it up.

Know-It-All Fail is the same reason we laugh at Americans who come to Copenhagen and pronounce it 'Co-pen-haw-gen'. It's not like they're genuinely mispronouncing the word because they haven't heard it before. They're giving it the long-a treatment because that's how they, like, talk in Europe. And everything! 

None of this quite rises to the irritation-threshold of English speakers using translated place-names ('I went to Munchen this weekend. Shit was off the schön, bro!'), but at least it defines the spectrum.

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Manufacturing outrage


You just knew the whole 'Michael Phelps smokes pot oh my god what ever shall we do' story was going to lead somewhere irritating eventually. And … yep, there it is: He's losing his Kellogg's endorsement. Say goodbye to that dream of being the seventh Lucky Charm marshmallow shape, Mike.

One thing that always strikes me about these little outrage-flocks is that it seems like everyone, from the media to the politicians to the Pop-Tart-makers, is acting to appease the imaginary 1950s housewife rotating in a snowglobe in our brains. There is a difference, it seems to me, between 'someone might be offended' and 'someone got offended'.

Maybe I'm sheltered here in the onani-tundra, but is there anyone in America who sees a story about a 23-year-old engaged in a nominally illegal activity and is genuinely bothered? Like, pit of their stomach, 'please make it go away' bothered? I feel like pretty much everyone, from my grandma to those 'God Hates Fags' sign-holders, were prepared to give this one a pass.

Seriously, can we, as a society, define a threshold of tangible outrage to which we will react? I'm talking, like letters to Congress and tearful 911 calls. Five hundred? A thousand? A million? Otherwise, we're just holding ourselves to the moral standards of the 'your water fountain is over there, darky' generation.

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is what I've decided to make for the awesomest neighbors ever.

It's easy to make, pig-free and the closest thing to ethnic food Americans can offer to foreigners. Ramadan just started two nights ago (good call, Drude), so I'm gonna bring it over there like two hours before sundown, since I don't want to interrupt them if they have a bunch of friends over.

Generosity is something Americans are terrible at. We organize the world in tit-for-tat relationships, and are generally incapable of accepting gifts (or, even worse, effort) without feeling guilty and undeserving. That knock on the door last night has made me notice all the kindness-shaped holes in my existence all day. 

I gotta do something spontaneously 'thropic to make up the deficit, goddammit. Right now I'm gonna go write a letter to my grandma. Then donate to Gustav relief. Then impregnate the daughter of a loser-state governor, just to rescue 2012 from the week we've had. 

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Why are Americans such assholes to each other abroad?

Me: [cocktail party greeting]

Drunk Californian acquaintance: Hey, I saw you chatting with my ex-boyfriend over there.

Me: Oh, did you guys date?

Drunk Californian acquaintance: He usually goes for older guys, around our age.

Me: Oh, I thought I was younger than you.

Drunk Californian acquaintance: Well I look younger than you.

Me: [chug, chug] Drat, time for another drink. Drive safe now.

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Limp ‘rists

Tourist #1: [On the train. American, judging by the volume.] Danes sure dress different, huh?
Tourist #2: Specially the women. I feel like I want to squeeze everybody's tits together.
Tourist #1: The dudes be wearing some weird shit, man. Look at that dude's shirt.
Tourist #2: The fuck does it say on it?
Tourist #1: Probably something in Dutch, dumbass
Tourist #2: You never see people here in, like, normal clothes.
Tourist #1: [Gesturing toward me, hockey-stick distance away] This dude's got a hat on. Some Danes dress OK.
Me: Um, bescuse me? I'm actually American. And everyone on this train can understand everything you're saying.

I wanted to continue: 'And that guy's shirt? It's in German. And it says that the only thing more culturally tactful than a George Bush karaoke party is two Americans thinking out loud on public transport. Have a nice dag, knuckleheads'.

What's the old saying? 'Rudeness is a weak man's imitation of power'? I know I could have been nicer, and probably should have, but man, it felt fucking bacon to be on the giving rather than receiving end of tourist-shame for once.

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Deft American bilingualism: Madrid music festival edition

The lead singer of the American band The Breeders between songs:

We're going to play a Beatles cover. We think this song is really one of the classics … What's the Mexican word for 'classic'?

  1. You're not in Mexico right now.
  2. Mexico is not the same as Spain. You flew nine hours to get here, not three.
  3. You're lucky no one understood what you said. Because they only speak Mexican.
  4. In general, it is more embarrassing to attempt cultural literacy and fail (see: 1 through 3) than to just accept that you don't know very much about the culture you're experiencing and take it from there. None of the Swedish or German or British or French bands tried to speak Spanish. They just played music, spoke the esperanto-English that Europeans deploy when they run into each other, and tacked some graciases onto the end.
  5. The word is classico. I know this is difficult to know, since it does not appear in any Taco Bell menu items, but you could have asked a roadie or something.

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Actual advice from the U.S. State Department to Americans traveling abroad

You, and the 55-60 million other Americans who travel abroad each year, have a unique opportunity to change at least some impressions of us from negative to positive. By following the few simple suggestions in this guide, you can have a better travel experience while showing America’s best face to those you visit.

I came across this, the World Citizens Guide, the other day while Russia-ing at work. It's a State Department-funded project to improve the reputation of Americans abroad through 'personal diplomacy', meaning more or less don't be a dick. Some of its wisdom-nuggets:

In many countries, boasting is considered very rude. It’s easy to resent big, powerful people. Assume resentment as a default and play down your wealth, power and status.

Subtext: You are big and powerful. Europeans are jealous of your 6-wheel-drive Dodge Dakota, your 12-speaker home entertainment center, and your bumper sticker that says "No fat chicks. Car will scrape."

Try to speak some of the language even if the only thing you can say is “Hello.” And “Thank you.” It’s okay to sound like a child.

Subtext: You will suck at this. 'Moshi moshi', 'guten tag', and even fucking 'hola' will render you a drooling infant. Better to just speak English very loudly and very slowly. When confronted with someone who doesn't speak English, the correct expression is: "You don't speak English?! Come on, bro."

Refrain from lecturing. Whether on pollution, energy usage or the environment, it’s not a polite stance. Nobody likes a know-it-all, and nobody likes a whole nation of them.


Dialogue instead of monologue. When you’re talking about the U.S. and your life there, ask people you’re visiting how what you’ve said compares to what they do and how they live in their country.

Subtext: You are not a fully-formed human being. Things like 'conversation' and 'listening' confuse and frighten you. Better to refrain from discussing sensitive topics altogether. Stick to universals, such as "So, who do you guys think is gonna win 'American Idol' this year?"

Be proud, not arrogant. People around the world are fascinated by the U.S. and the lives we Americans live. They admire our openness, our optimism, our creativity and our “can-do” spirit. But that doesn’t mean they feel less proud of their country and culture.

Subtext: You are open, optimistic and fascinating. Respect other cultures as far as common courtesy allows, but don't let that take time away from discussing all the things you Can Fucking Do. Make sure to point out when other countries embody a "Can't-Don't" spirit. I'm looking at you, Liechtenstein.

The guide also includes fun facts about countries you might be visiting with your revolutionary new 'interacting with others' skills.

In Norway, 40% of the Parliament and almost half of the cabinet positions are filled by women.

In Japan, it is considered rude to look at a person directly in the eye for more than a few seconds.

Subtext: Every Norwegian is 40 percent sissy. And never look at Japanese people directly. They are shifty and inhumanly agile, and not to be trusted. Also, what's a 'cabinet'?

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Things not to talk about when you’re ‘in-Continent’

In the course of living here and in London, there are some topics that I just don't bring up anymore. No matter how similar our Western cultures are, there is just some shit that Americans and Europeans will never agree on. The largest one being, of course, the 'Lord of The Rings' movies.

In the highly significant and representative sample of the Brits, Danes, and Mediterraneans I've met, I don't think I've come across anyone who actually likes these films. Danes have told me that they're boring ('It's just the same thing over and over'), Brits have some sort of class-based objection ('The whole thing is rather common, innit?'), and the Meds don't understand why Frodo and Saruman couldn't just make-a Paella together and move in with someone's parents.

Yet Americans love them. They're the only non-Pixar movies I can watch with my parents without fighting afterwards. We blue-staters love the allusions to the corrupting influence of power, while the red-staters love the whole 'git-r-done' ethos of the series.

I consumed eight hours of 'Lord of the Rings'-ness this weekend (comprising roughly one-quarter of the 'extended edition' of the first film), and was re-amazed at how good it is. How can people not like these movies? We may just have to file this under Shit We Don't Understand About Each Other. Where it can join the company of peanut butter, Will Ferrell, smelly cheese, Cypress Hill and social welfare.

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