Not So Fresh Off the Boat

I had been brainwashed into believing that Americans – capitalist pigs – would sell their brothers to supersize their happy meals. Now, these cold-hearted capitalists had taken their time and money to care for people they had never met.

Not So Fresh Off the Boat

Capital Thinking · Issue #1005 · View online

On December 4th, 1991, my family “got off the boat” from Russia – we landed at JFK, our stop on the way to Denver.

I was 18. This was a new world to us. My first surprise was Denver’s shocking flatness.

I learned about the United States mostly from American movies which, with the exception of Westerns, heavily biased coasts and skyscrapers. Denver was flat, sunny, and unusually warm.

Just a few days before we were freezing our bones in Moscow in negative 30 degree weather. It was 65 degrees in Denver. People wore T-shirts in the middle of winter.

That was not the only surprise for us.

-Vitaliy Katsenelson

30 Years in America

Vitaliy Katsenelson | The Contrarian Edge:

In Russia, every time we left the house, we paid close attention to how we dressed. Here nobody cared about their looks.

This was liberating. I embraced this newfound freedom with all my heart. To this day I am the worst-dressed person in our 12-story office building, sporting mostly T-shirts and jeans.

We were picked up at the airport by half a dozen strangers, members of my aunt’s synagogue.

There were six of us: my father, stepmother, brother Alex, stepbrother Igor, my 84-year-old grandma, and yours truly. We had brought all our life possessions with us – thirty duffle bags.

These strangers, who were to our big surprise always smiling (I will address the topic of smiling in a second), picked us up and drove us to our fully furnished apartment. They had furnished an apartment for people they didn’t know!

That was shocking to me.

I had been brainwashed into believing that Americans – capitalist pigs – would sell their brothers to supersize their happy meals. (I’ll touch on this topic in a few pages, too). Now, these cold-hearted capitalists had taken their time and money to care for people they had never met.

Capitalism was supposed to make people selfish and greedy, but these people were anything but.

Now, on the subject of smiling – Americans do it a lot.

Let’s be honest; these smiles are manufactured. There is no way you are happy to see every stranger you meet on the street.

Russians are stingy on smiles. They don’t give you frivolous smiles. When they smile they mean it.

My thinking on this topic has changed a lot over the years. The pivotal moment was when I went back to Russia with my brother Alex in 2008. I realized that smiling faces had become a necessary and welcome part of the décor of my daily life.

Today I walk in the park daily. I may be listening to an audio book or a podcast, but I try to give every person I meet a big smile. I do this intentionally for a selfish reason – you do this a dozen times in an hour and your facial muscles lighten and relax and your mood improves.

Try it. It works.

Language was another surprise. George Bernard Shaw said, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Shaw was so right.I had studied (more like memorized) English in school. I had enough vocabulary to maybe buy milk. But that was British English.

American English was a completely different animal.Americans garbled entire sentences into a single sound. I honestly could not tell when one word ended and another began.

The only person I understood was James, a wonderful man who had recently moved to Denver from Dallas. James was one of those cold-blooded capitalists who volunteered his time to help us acclimate in our first few months in the US.

Unlike non-Texan Americans, James spoke with a slow Texan drawl. I could understand every word he said!

I think it took me six months to be able to understand spoken American English. I remember that day – my father was driving me to school and we were listening to classical music on the radio. A commercial came on, and I could understand it! That was a big day for me.

It is going to be very difficult for me to say what I am about to say without sounding like a complete idiot. But I must preface it by explaining that in Soviet Russia everyone (for the most part) was equally poor.

My family, despite my father’s high salary (he had a PhD, which boosted his pay), lived from paycheck to paycheck. Going to a restaurant was a big event for us.

Our understanding of money, especially mine, was very limited – we never had any.

My father’s younger sister Anna had moved to the United States in 1979. She got divorced and remarried, to a rabbi, Nathan, who headed a small congregation in Denver.

I remember one day Nathan pointed out to me one of his congregants and said, “He is a millionaire.” I still remember the thought that ran through my head – there must be something special about that person.

After a few weeks of intense observation of this fellow, I came to the conclusion that having millions of dollars in the bank did not make him extra special.

He drove a fancier car. He probably had a bigger house. But he dressed worse than me (which is hard to do) and he ate the same hamburgers and ice cream as everyone else.

Over the years I have learned that money and power reveal. They often unmask a person. Sometimes you like what is revealed; many times you don’t.

In fact, thirty years on, as an occupational hazard (I run an investment firm), I’ve spent some time around quite a few very wealthy people. I haven’t observed any extra dose of happiness in them.

Money solves money problems. It doesn’t make people love you; your actions do. Money, just like education, is supposed to buy you choices. It should provide security.

The first few years in the US, my parents worried how we were going to pay for groceries and rent. We don’t have that worry today – and that is liberating. (I wrote an in-depth essay on this subject. You can read it here.)

As I was reflecting on the last thirty years, I realized that the US has kept its promise.

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30 Years in America - Vitaliy Katsenelson Contrarian Edge
On the 30th Anniversary of my family’s arrival in the United States from Soviet Russia, I reflect on my time here. After recounting the hard early days in a new country when I was “fresh off the boat”, I offer perspective on how America has changed since I arrived. What I see now is, in some ways, m…