Americans Overweight And Ignorant? Not Always

Photo by Hallie Golden

Self-centered, antisocial and willfully ignorant about world affairs?

That is how many Russians, interviewed over the past week, described ordinary Americans. They also said they thought Americans were superficial and overweight. But the Russians added that they thought Americans were independent, friendly and even patriotic.

“I’d heard about mechanical American smiles,” said Russian professor Anna Arustamova, referring to a stereotype she used to believe, “but their smiles were sincere.”

Like much of the world, Russian graduate students Ivan Fomin and Ruzanna Markaryan base their perceptions of America on two things: American movies and television and Russian media reports on the U.S. These leave many Russians confused and filled with misconceptions, some of which are downright funny. For example, Russians think fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s cater to the wealthy. The reason might be that American fast food is expensive for Russians.

Yet those who had never visited America were hesitant to comment on its social issues or domestic policy. As is the case in most countries, Russian coverage of the U.S. is focused on entertainment and foreign policy.

Two Russian professors, Oksana Kozhevnikova and Arustamova, who toured America for nine months during a period that included the 2008 election, had a deeper understanding and a much different take on the country. In fact, they refused to define an average American, saying they met so many different types of people. Kozhevnikova, for example, stayed with a Mormon family, whom she described as kind, generous and persistent in their attempts to convert her.

These Russian professors were, however, willing to say that the Americans they met were friendlier and politer than Russians and more curious about the world than they had previously thought.

Arustamova became an Obama supporter because of the health care plan he advocated for during the election. “I got very emotionally involved,” she said.

But while their time spent in the U.S. might have improved Kozhevnikova and Arustamova’s opinions of Americans, the two still disapprove of the country’s foreign policy.

“I believe America is trying to exaggerate her power,” said Kozhevnikova, referring to the country’s presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. “It’s the never-ending story of military growth.”

Not one of the four Russians supported America’s military policies in the Middle East, or even thought that they made sense. Like many people around the world, their opinion of America became more unfavorable as a result of the military actions.

Markaryan described Americans as trying to “impose their policy all over the world.”

“I think that’s ignorant, in a sense,” she said.

All four agreed that after meeting Americans, whether in St. Petersburg or in the U.S., they found the differences between their two cultures were a gap easily bridged. “Talking to some of the political science majors from America is simpler than talking to people outside of academia in Russia,” said Fomin of his experience at NYI.

Arustamova also pointed out that ordinary Russians and Americans faced the same economic problems, and said she had sympathy for both groups. “If you’re not a very rich person, you have to be healthy and work a lot,” she said.