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STRANGERS IN OUR STRANGE LAND : Newcomers From Abroad Speak Candidly About the Los Angeles They Expected, and the One They Found

January 11, 1987|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciotti is a staff writer for Los Angeles Times Magazine

When you've spent all your life in the same country, you don't notice things that to foreigners seem both strange and remarkable. Few Americans, for instance, walk around saying, "Hey, we live in a classless society." But, to people who come to California from more stratified and traditional countries, the marvel of that achievement is exceeded only by the fact that our telephone system works.

In fact, a newcomer's view of us is at times so different from our own that we might have trouble recognizing ourselves. What we see as a healthy emphasis on fitness, foreigners sometimes regard as narcissism. What to us is forthright self-assertion can be seen by foreigners as self-aggrandizement and bluster. Although we Americans often berate ourselves for having lost both our Yankee ingenuity and our dedication to the work ethic, many newcomers see us as a hard-working people. And while our crime rates sometimes make us fear that our society is falling apart, to some foreigners we seem remarkably open and trusting.

The Times recently spoke with a group of newcomers from around the world who came to Los Angeles to live and work.


Tony Porter came here seven years ago from Yorkshire, England, with the hope of directing feature films. Instead, he ended up as a videotape editor for television. His wife, Ruzica, a former radio reporter from Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, runs a skin-care business for women. They live in a woodsy, airy house in the Hollywood Hills.

The night Tony Porter arrived in Los Angeles he stayed with the family of an American girlfriend he knew from London. They lived in Beverly Hills and served steak and salad for dinner. "I thought to myself, 'Oh, the typical American diet.' They were much larger steaks than we would eat in England. And the salads they give you here would serve four in London--if they knew what a salad was."

Later that evening, the girlfriend's brother invited Porter to sit in the Jacuzzi with him and his fiancee. "I had no idea what a Jacuzzi was. Then we went outside to the patio, and they took off all their clothes. That was a real eye-opener. I just arrived and already I'm in a Jacuzzi with naked ladies? I thought to myself, 'I'm going to like it here.' "

Porter knew that Los Angeles "was vast and that there were palm trees and freeways. But I couldn't get my bearings. I thought the film industry would be confined to a single street, not stretching all the way from Malibu to Universal City." Furthermore, far from the "political hotbed" that he had expected, California felt "more like a vacuum. In England, people talk politics." Here, Porter believes, nobody much seems to care. Instead, "they say, 'So-and-so just moved to Universal, and I've just switched agents.' "

To Ruzica Porter, it's strange that people here regard the Mercedes-Benz as a status automobile. In Europe, she says, if you want to impress someone with your car, you drive a Porsche or Ferrari. There, Mercedes is known for manufacturing buses and taxis.

To Ruzica, it also seems as if Los Angeles natives are very poor drivers, which is not surprising, she says, since the California state driving test seems so easy. "In Yugoslavia, you have to study six months to take a driving test. Here, if you fail, you come back the next day. Also, the larger the car, the less likely its driver is to signal. The driver thinks he is in his living room."

Ruzica says she doesn't much care for California men. "They do a lot more sports. They do a lot of body building. They are strong physically but weak otherwise. A man takes you out to dinner and expects you to split the cost--'We are all friends'--and nothing happens. In Yugoslavia, women want a strong man who knows what he wants and will earn money. Here, I get the impression that men are too busy to share their lives.

"I meet a lot of lonely women in my job, and they all complain about men. Of course, it isn't all the men's fault. The women here have lost their softness. A couple of months ago, I made a mistake on the road and pulled out in front of another car. The driver was a young woman with blond hair; she was beautifully dressed and was driving a yellow Mercedes. I opened the window to say I'm sorry, and when she went by she made the sign with the upraised middle finger. The women between 25 and 35 are very pushy."


Before moving to Long Beach a year ago, Andrew Z. Mason lived in Chalfont St. Giles, a 500-year-old village 35 miles north of London where the English poet John Milton once lived. As a result, Mason says, he found it more than a little intimidating when, upon his arrival in Los Angeles, he looked out his airplane window and all he could see was a vast grid-work. "In the U. K. I was used to narrow lanes, wide enough for two carriages to pass. It's a bit overwhelming to see six freeway lanes in either direction."

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