WARRINGTON, PA -- The last thing you want to hear from a 21-year-old from Mariupol is that, really, there's not much of a difference between Ukraine and the States. Mariupol is one of those featureless Ukrainian rustbelt cities that came of age under the Soviets; its only distinction is that its port is reputedly one of the main conduits through which Central Asian smack makes its way to Western Europe. That Mariupol has the highest per capita number of junkies in Ukraine lends credibility to that rumor.
But worldly Max, having tasted life in cosmopolitan capitals Mariupol and Warrington, Pennsylvania, decided that the two countries were quite alike. My initial, kneejerk reaction was, of course, that Max is totally insane. How could he -- a kid with a pinched face who didn't speak English and whose American experience was limited to a month working at a suburban Burger King -- delude himself like that? What was this ignorant punk thinking?
Minimum wage is cool. Nishtyak!
But after spending a couple of days with Max and a crew of temporary workers in America on J-1 visas, observing their imprisoned life in this far-flung Philly suburb, I concluded that Max's understanding of America was much deeper than I originally gave him credit for.
Everyone's got strategies for avoiding the most hateful aspects of American life. Since I moved back six months ago I've walled myself off from white America, living in a Dominican ghetto and chilling with a group of Nigerian hustlers. Compared to me, Max was a regular Margaret Mead; he'd gone native, studying Americans in their natural habitat. And what he saw from his vantage point washing dishes in the back of Burger King was the true face of modern America -- provincial, obese, and entirely joyless.
"I came here because I wanted to make a lot of money," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I still want it. But now I just think it makes you fat."
The nearly 20 kids from the CIS that were working in three Warrington area BKs would have made a great cast of characters for the next round of Poslednii Geroi, Channel 1's Survivor imitation. It was obvious that none of them would ever have hung out together back home, but being without a car in suburban hell is like being stranded on a desert island. Even the few who spoke English with relative ease spent most of their time hanging out with the other CISers. But for the girls' frequent telephone calls home, they almost exclusively lived in a hermetically sealed Russian-language enclave penetrated only by the American BK workers.
There were two Maxes, the Mariupol cynic and an Asiatic Max from Altai who spent his entire first paycheck, over $300, on an X-Box, TV and the latest Mortal Kombat game. Altai Max had clearly figured out how to make living in the States bearable before the others did. Then there was Vadim, a tall, dorky guy from Minsk with a spindly goatee and the look of a borderline Tolkienist or gamer. Dasha was a cute, bookish girl from Uman who is now studying at the Baptist-financed International Christian Academy in Kiev. There was Viktoria, a total babe from some eastern Ukrainian town who dressed in a sort of cowgirlish style and was screwing a half black guy who worked as a bouncer at a dive the next town over. Yulia didn't know any English despite the fact that she was enrolled at the English department at Vladikavkaz's university. Lili was from western Ukraine and didn't even try to subdue her strong Ukrainian accent. And, of course, Seryozha, the cool kid from Moscow. All they really needed was a representative from Siberia and some hidden cameras, and it could have been a hit series. As it was, without the cameras to prod them into making fools of themselves, it was a pretty boring group.
The modern incarnation of the J-1 visa was created in response to a funny thing that happened about ten years ago, right around the time me and all my contemporaries were supposed to grab the keys to dad's station wagon, drive to the nearest strip mall and pick up an application at Mickey D's to land our first jobs. Working a fast food gig seemed, for a while, as essential to the suburban high school identity as the prom, 50 required hours of community service and Turkey Day games against a football team fielded by the neighboring 'burb. Everybody from jocks to the trenchcoat mafia kids was expected to serve time flipping burgers in order to have disposable income to spend on Oxy wipes and 24 packs of Natty Lite. It was part of what made America great, initiating kids into a life of unfulfilling jobs while ensuring that hordes of office workers would be supplied with cheap, grease soaked calories available at convenient drive-thru windows on the commute home.