Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year!

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Are you European?

Okay, the story about Latvia. On the second morning my wife was in town, I took her to the T-Mobile store to get a phone. I already had an account through T-Mobile, it only made sense we get rolled over into a family plan. But when we got to the store, my wife didn't like any of the phones. She looked all around, looking suspiciously at each model, finding one too clunky, the other without style, a third without the right features. "God," she said. "This is all they have? In Russia, we may not be rich, but at least we have lots more phones to choose from."

About this time, one of the two clerks who worked at the store had finished with a customer and come over to us. She sort of leaned forward, to see more than my wife's profile, to get a look at her face, and asked if we needed any help. My wife said no, briefly explained the situation, still looking at the phones. Then the clerk, an ice-blonde with a sharply drawn face, asked another question. "Are you from Europe?" I'd spotted her the moment we walked in. She's from Finland, I'd thought. Gotta be. That hair, the face. But after my wife smiled, said no, she was from Russia, the T-mobile clerk said hello in perfect Russian, "Zdrastvuy," and went on to conduct the rest of their dialogue in what she said was a shared native language. She was from Latvia, had come here a little over a year ago, and was in her mid-twenties, like my wife. They quickly fell into laughing and smiling, walking around the store together. Occasionally, they broke off from their Russian to include me in the conversation. The clerk did this at one point to say, "Since we are neighbors, I will give you a deal. You can take a phone for free, and that way you can have one until you find another, in Russia perhaps, where they care more for fashion and style."

I didn't argue. The phone they'd settled on was supposed to be free only with a two-year contract, and we were signing up for only one and supposed to pay more than $100. So: my wife and I followed the clerk over to the counter, where we called up my account and my wife began to supply the information needed to put her onto it. The clerk and my wife got to talking in Russian again. I sat there, just biding my time. Then I heard something. The clerk had said something, making a motion with one hand that seemed to suggest a bouncer looking at a fake ID, turning it this way and that to check the holographic seal. She walked away to retrieve a print-out of our contract, and as she did, I asked my wife, "Did she just ask if you married for love or the card?" My wife said something like, "Gosh, you're getting good," and thank god she didn't have a reason to worry about any further translations, because I'd heard her answer -- "po lubvi" -- and it was the right one.

As for the clerk, her motives seemed more dubious. She'd come here on a fiancee visa, a little over a year ago, but already she was in the process of getting a divorce. "Won't you have to leave?" my wife had asked. But this clerk seemed well-versed in the many nuances of immigration law. "No, there are ways," she said. "We'll have to get coffee, I'll tell you everything."

It was kind of funny. I'd once defended Latvia to my wife, who would, perhaps jokingly, suggest she didn't want to visit the Baltic states, like I, because "they hate us there, especially in Latvia," a country which is anything but an openly multi-cultural state, requiring ethnic Russians to speak Latvian just as Russians once insisted Latvians speak the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, Russian. And then what happens when we finally meet a Latvian together? She's everything I should fear, like the filing a false abuse claim, a new option for the desperate or impatient (and the truly abused) which eliminates the two-year waiting period for a Green Card, and a quick friend to my wife.

One thing's for certain. There are lots of Russian-speakers in Los Angeles. I see magazins everywhere, then shops selling books and videos and gifts too. I can move out in any direction of the compass and find kefir within a mile or two. For tvorog and canadckaya smetana, I needn't go such a great distance.

So it seems like there will be plenty of Russian-speakers for my wife to befriend. I can only hope that if one is a Latvian, she provides me with a case study and nothing more.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Rise of Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

Turkmenistan's President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov is dead, leaving the repressive, energy-rich country in the hands of his deputy prime minister, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. See the NY Times for more. View the labels sidebar for more on Turkmenistan.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Home Delivery

In Malaysia at least, some men find the concept of looking for a "mail-order bride" too labor-intensive and time-consuming. As a result, the International Herald Tribune reports:

Women's rights activists voiced outrage Tuesday over claims that Vietnamese girls were brought to small towns in Malaysia to be paraded before prospective husbands.

The "bridal parades" were held in roadside restaurants for lonely men and divorcees who prefer to choose Vietnamese wives on the spot instead of resorting to mail-order brides, Michael Chong, head of the Malaysian Chinese Association's public complaints bureau, told The Star newspaper.

Each bride is sold for up to 30,000 ringgit (US$8,500; €6,500), Chong was quoted as saying.

Maria Chin Abdullah, head of the private Women's Development Collective, calls it akin to sexual slavery and wants it to stop. It's a pretty sad spectacle, that's for sure.

Reminds me of something I heard while interviewing a marriage agency owner in Eastern Ukraine. The guy spoke of visiting The Philippines, the main source country for "mail-order brides," even though there's a law against the business there. He said the women were so desperate to leave, to improve their lives, "it's like clubbing seals." He couldn't meet my eye when he said this. We were in a restaurant, and maybe only our shared background -- raised in northern California -- prompted the easy confession. Either way, with a sly smile, a glance down at the table-cloth, he said it. "Like clubbing seals."

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Blue Cross of California

Doesn't suck.


On the advice of my insurance agent, my wife enrolled in a short-term insurance plan -- one with fewer benefits than any of the plans I would have liked -- in order to generate some "medical records," which she can then use, at the conclusion of her plan, to enroll in long-term, individual coverage.

We hope she'll have other coverage by that time, supplied by her employer. In fact, she goes on her first job interview of sorts tomorrow -- a meet and greet set up by my sister -- an event which was preceded by at least one unpleasant surprise: the United States government guarantees its citizens no paid vacation.

In France, you can expect no less than five weeks vacation a year. In Russia, my wife got four weeks off per year. "It's the law," she said. The same for every other worker, no matter the position. And when I told her there were no such laws here, that the U.S. was the only advanced country to offer no such assurances, that it was at the very bottom of the list, she said, "It's like slavery." To which I had to agree. With most U.S. companies, she'd have to work 15 or 20 years before she could enjoy four weeks of paid vacation each year.

Enough to make us both wish we'd kept at our French lessons, and think of other places: Montreal, the Swiss Alps, St. Petersburg, Belgorod.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Blue Shield of California


No better way to put that. Short. Succinct. True. Blue Shield of California sucks, as I'm sure every other American provider of medical insurance does.

The reason? Simple, really. I go to an online site that sells health insurance, describe to my wife how health care works in this country ("So only after you pay $2,000 do you start to get benefits?" "It's called a deductible." "And we pay $100 a month for that?" "It's really just hit-by-a-bus insurance, with ten dollar generic drugs." "I don't know.") and after selecting a plan, my wife fills in an extensive questionnaire, detailing her medical history, back to the first cough lozenge she swallowed at the age of three.

Then today we get this in the mail:

Unfortunately, we are unable to request medical information outside of the United States. As this information is necessary for our evaluation of your application, we must defer your request for coverage at this time.

If you can provide us with copies of your medical records, we will be pleased to re-evaluate your application.

-- Sincerely, Senior Underwriter

And what, Dear Sir, Mr. Senior Underwriter, constitutes medical records? Can't say, can I? Isn't defined. Would it be every form filled out by every doctor she's ever seen? Would you like that translated and in triplicate? Where would you like me to leave the file cabinet?

If there were an American gulag, would the insurers be the first ones on the trains? Or the politicians who allowed them to protect their bottom line rather than the bottoms of so many uninsured expendables?

It's a simple theory: You insure everyone, and spread the cost around. I know that may be too simple for Washington, but it's really all we should say on the subject. Insure everyone, spread the cost around. Because why, in the so-called greatest country in the world, must there remain large groups of people who do not qualify for insurance, who are left out of the safety net? We all end up paying anyway, either through higher insurance rates or costs absorbed by the state. Just insure anyone.

Till then, if anyone knows where to get insurance for someone new to the United States ... well, drop a comment here.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Buy This Region-Free DVD Player; It Works

I bought a bunch of DVDs in Ukraine, even got a couple in Russia, including one that had six movies on one disc, the best of which was Capote. While watching it, dubbed into Russia, I saw an intermittent caption appear on the screen -- For Your Consideration -- that proved it had originally been given to a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that decides the Oscars. Then it got pirated and sold for two or three dollars.

Anyways, I wanted to watch these movies here, because many of them are dubbed in Russian and include English subtitles -- a great learning tool. Only they're region 5 discs, not region 1. So, while globalization is a boon to the corporations that want to move DVD players across the world, leaping borders in a single bound, it's just another pain in the ass for the lowly consumer.

Until I went to Amazon and searched for a region-free DVD player, and found this:

I paid my money, $60 or so, including shipping, and received my brand new DVD player in a couple of days. Put in a Russian disc, didn't work. Tried another, started cursing now. Then, just when I was about to send an angry email to the company that sold me the DVD player -- the company that had advertised it as a region-free player -- I did a little search on the internet and came across this, the steps to make the player region-free:

How to convert your Philips DVP642 into a Region Free DVD Player

1. Power Up the unit with NO Disc in the tray.
2. Open the tray
3. Press the 7 button on your remote control
4. Press the 8 button on your remote control
5. Press the 9 button on your remote control
6. Press the OK button on your remote control
7. Press the 0 (zero) button on your remote control
8. The number 0 will appear on the lower left hand side of the screen. Your player is now Region Free.
9. Close the tray
10. NOTE - The 0 (zero) in the above sequence represents the Region Code 0 - Region Free. If you want to set to a specific region, just replace the 0 with the region number that you want.

And you know what? It worked. Now I can play Russian DVDs in America. Even those from Western Europe or China or South America or Africa, if I had any.

I thought it might be something a number of my readers would like as well, so there you have it, my Christmas recommendation for the foreign-DVD lover in your life.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Walk on the Wild Side

Two weeks in and already we've received her important cards (social security, green), found a place to buy gretchniya kasha, and gone to the beach. The essentials, you know. Have I forgotten anything? Yes, to write about it. And I wish I had, if not for the handful of people who might be interested in it out there, then for my own future writing. Seems so rich, this first two weeks. Three trips to Ikea, a car ride longer than any she'd ever been on in Russia, and an apartment so clean you'd think I was hoping to wake up tomorrow to collect a full refund on my apartment's deposit.

I should jot down at least one anecdote, one for now. Okay, so we went to LA's Russian neighborhood the other day, a three-block long stretch of magaziny near the area of Fairfax Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. It's just east of West Hollywood, not far from where Hugh Grant picked up the prostitute Divine Brown. We parked, got out, walked the sidewalks. Then: "That was a man," my wife said, and yes, those were my thoughts too: the transvestite passed us on the sidewalk, dressed in low heels and a matching green mini-skirt. What else could it be? "Very possibly a drug addict as well," I said. "What's a drug addict?" "In this case, a man who wears a short skirt." "And what do you call them?" "The drug addicts?" "The men who wear women's clothing." "Transvestite," I said. We walked some. She repeated the word some. I nodded when she had it right. By that time, we were back in the car and leaving the neighborhood with our purchases, which included some Kharkivsky Tort, made by my very own beloved Kharkivsky Bisqvit, chocolate company of my dreams. As we drove off, my wife saw the transvestite once more. He/she stopped in front of one of the Russian stores--"Oh, don't stop there"--and stepped into the street, eyeing the approaching motorists. My wife craned her neck to get one final look before I turned us toward The Valley. "That was very exciting," she said. "It was?" "That was my first one," she said. And hey, who'm I to say what shouldn't excite a new arrival? If they're going to keep the Statue of Liberty closed due to a permanent and elevated terrorist threat, maybe we should be looking more closely at the little things like this.

Anyways. It's late, I haven't posted in ages, and I'm in the midst of writing a paper for a class in feminism and cultural studies centered around colonialism and The Male Gaze and a reading of the film Heading South, which I posted about once before, somewhere down there, and which is all about women going to Haiti to drum up a little sex tourism. But I thought I'd write a little here, because it's so much easier than writing a little there, and so now at least I can say I'll be back, soon, very likely, maybe in days, not more than a week, to give you the story about How You Can Tell Who's Russian at LAX, or go on about that damn Latvian Girl at the Atwater Village T-mobile store who thought I didn't understand a word of Russian when she started talking to my wife in their shared native tongue. Until then, just a periscope popping up above the water to signal hello to those kind readers who keep reading, and pose, perhaps, more metaphysical rejoinders, such as: "Where the hell am I?"

Something exciting to come, I think. More later.

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