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Soviet visitor tries to reconcile conflicting images of America

The author works for the Soviet weekly Moscow News and is one of two reporters in the United States on a journalistic exchange arranged by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors.

What are Americans like?

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I'll have to answer that question a hundred times when I go home to the Soviet Union.

In my first days of life in America, I didn't think it would be too tough to find an answer. But after two months, I've hit a dead end. The Bible says: ``He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.'' It's true - the more I find out about America, the less I understand it.

My mind was jam-packed with stereotypes when I came to this country, and not all of them have turned out to be untrue. For example, the United States is a very wealthy nation full of hard-working, fun, hospitable, good people. The industriousness of my colleagues at The Christian Science Monitor has shown this to be true. They usually come to work a half hour early and leave after the office closes.

I like your motto ``keep smiling,'' especially if sales people really stick to it. True, the smile often disappears as soon as I turn away, but official smiles are better than the open indifference of Moscow sales clerks.

Interestingly, your national trait of efficiency shows up even in your hospitality. People from various states have invited me to visit them, sending round-trip plane tickets right with the invitation. I have also been impressed by the attention your country pays to the handicapped, such as entrances to hotels and buses and the special restrooms in trains.

But I have gotten to know another America where it is hard to find these great qualities. In Oakland, Calif., I visited some homeless people living in a crumbling building in the center of the city that didn't have light, water, heat, or plumbing. The horrible smell made me dizzy. It seemed colder inside than out. The inhabitants, being good hosts, offered to show me around their home, but I declined because it was so dark.

Women, old men, young people, children - all huddled together on torn mattresses to keep warm. Through the broken window, one could hear music and laughter as passers-by on the street below hurried home. The lights of a skyscraper burned brightly. It was Christmas Eve, and no one had much to do with the homeless, except for the local television crew that showed up around midnight and filmed the facade of the building for three minutes.

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The homeless people told me that the press remembers them around holidays. But that is hardly a consolation. I was thinking about that as I watched a report on television about homeless people, frozen to death on the streets of Boston. Everybody knows about these outcasts. Who is to blame that they haven't found their place in life? One can argue for a long time about this. But the children among them surely aren't guilty of anything. Why don't they get to experience the hospitality, caring, and goodness of their fellow citizens? Where is the generosity of the richest nation on earth]

Back in Boston, I saw for two straight days an old man lying near the entrance to the subway stop near work. When I asked passers-by about him, I would get joking answers like, ``Don't get involved. People can lie wherever they want. It's a free country.''

Americans often repeat this wonderful word ``freedom.'' But here it often means unlimited individualism, with little feeling of responsibility for other people. This has made an impression on me, because in the Soviet Union we are taught from the very beginning about responsibility for society. Among Soviet people, this feeling of mutual caring and collective spirit was developed and reinforced during the difficult years of World War II. People who have a hard time finding their place in life feel more support from society.

I have found differences in other values. I am often asked, both jokingly and seriously, why don't you defect? People ask this question, which I find tactless, because the standard of living in the Soviet Union is lower than here; there are fewer cars, etc. Despite the fact that Americans travel all over the world, they still look at many things one sidedly. They evaluate life in other countries on the basis of material well-being.

It's not that I'm not interested in the material side of life! I must admit, I envy American women, whose lives are made easier by all their time-saving devices. But I don't think that's the most important thing. There's also family, home, close friends....

Most of all I'm interested in how my peers live. It seems to me that young Americans grow up earlier than Soviet youth. Most young people here leave home at 18 and either go to college or rent an apartment, if they can afford it, and look for work.

In the Soviet Union, young people rarely leave home before they're ready to start a family. One reason is the housing shortage. But there's another reason: our strong tradition of family unity.

I like how American teen-agers find jobs in stores, at McDonald's, at gas stations. Our able-bodied 16-year-olds could also spend their time after school not hanging out on street corners but washing cars or selling ice cream or cleaning the streets (of course not at the expense of their schoolwork). Then they could take their girlfriends dancing or to the theater - not on their parents' money, but on their own. And the main thing is that they would learn an appreciation for work.

Westerners love to talk about the mysterious Slavic soul. But for me, the soul of young Americans is a puzzle. They watch their figures very carefully. In snow and rain they run around outside. They very carefully count their calories and eat very little. But then they go and eat ice cream or dessert and cancel out the dieting of an entire week.

So what are Americans all about? I probably can't answer just yet. A three-month visit isn't enough to draw conclusions. And maybe it's altogether impossible. In any case, I'd like to come back.

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