An Armenian vignette

If there are places we call third world countries today, then I would call Armenia a fourth world country

As our jet black GMC Yukon sped through an interchange to get on to the I-405 in Los Angeles yesterday, those were the words my Uber driver said with all the passion he could muster in response to my question about how his home country had turned out almost two decades after he left.

Armen Nazaryan* was born and grew up in the city of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. He worked as a tailor, a plumber, and then a jeweler before he moved to Los Angeles in the early 90s, starting life afresh in the jewelery business. Educated throughout his life in Russian, the lingua franca of the then USSR, he has barely managed to dislodge his pleasant but thick Russian accent in all his years in the US. As he says of the Armenian community in LA, which also happens to be the second largest anywhere in the world after Armenia itself,

“It’s entirely possible to live in Glendale and never speak any other language but Armenian all your life”

He has been very happy in his adopted country, and when I asked him if he’d ever go back, he talked at length about why not.

“Ever since the USSR collapsed in 1991, all the power and money in the country has been concentrated in the hands of maybe a dozen families. The entire economy is corrupt, with kickbacks and bribes ruling the roost. I feel sorry for my country – it used to be very nice when I was growing up – but today, I would never want to live there. My life is here. I can speak my language, Jons [the grocery store] has traditional Armenian foods, and I earn good money here. Why would I go back into that mess?”

As we started talking about his experiences driving for Uber, he described to me his favored algorithm to optimize for rides in the city.

“In the evenings close to dinner time, I park near high end restaurants. Once that crowd finishes, I head to clubs that I know are open late – not all of them, just the few that have clientele leaving them all night. And once that is done, I go to the top hotels which generally have people heading to airports early in the morning. I make good money doing this”.

The obvious question in my head was of course – why, as a trained jeweler, was he driving full time for Uber? As curiosity got the better of me, I decided to ask why before the ride ended.

“Ah”, he said, after a pause that had warning bells going off in my head about whether I’d asked too personal a question.

As I started to offer an apology, he started to talk and so I shut up.

“I was doing well in the jewelry business, with clients around LA and New York. My main client though, who had 90% of my business, was in New York on 9/11 and was lost when the WTC fell. I lost everything then, and couldn’t recover”

Not knowing what to say, I stayed silent.

“But it’s okay you know? Life throws all kinds of punches at you. We must all absorb them and continue forward – otherwise, where would we be?”

*name changed