Have and Have Not’s: Reflections on Shushi, Yerevan, and LA
By: Vrej Haroutounian
I woke up at 8 AM to the face of an old lady wearing a blue dress covered with yellow flowers. She told me breakfast was ready. I smiled because she had a smile on her face. She knew I was up late the night before hanging out with my friends in the courtyard, drinking tea and conversing about our lives.
I made my way to the breakfast table where some of my friends were as well. We all sat down to a breakfast table set with butter, yogurt, cheese, hot dog, and jam made from a berry plant that grew all over the city. At that moment I realized that, other than the hot dog, all of the food came from sources that were within 50 feet of where I was sitting. Most of it was from the cow that was outside in the barn.
I was in Sushi, a war torn city that was taken back a few years ago by a people that were determined to choose their own future and had made it happen. While I was buttering my toast, I was thinking, “Wow, everything I am eating here is purely organic” (I didn’t eat the hot dog). These organic products were what people in LA would easily pay top dollar for. I could already imagine it at Trader Moe’s, priced at $4 a jar, labeled “Organic Raspberry Jam” along with the butter and cheese.
A few weeks later I am in Yerevan sitting at a café. If you’ve been to Yerevan in the last 20 years you know it’s not hard to find a café in gendron (Central downtown). Many of the beautifully designed Soviet era parks that were once there have been covered by Cafés since independence. The free market is well in progress. Restaurants with international names and themes, billboards everywhere, and European fashion walking up and down the streets on the fit bodies of the masses. As they stroll up and down Northern Ave, I watch them and they watch me.
The cell phone store has congestion from people waiting for service, the restaurants are full, the high-end boutiques are well-lit and awaiting customers. Yet, above the stores, all the lights are off. The residents there are corporations or Diasporans who have purchased these larger-than-life homes or offices on the city’s main promenade. They seem to be occupied only a few months out of the year.
I walk around the corner into one of the large supermarkets that have recently opened. Inside, I find processed yogurt with fruit, imported cheeses, frozen chicken and beef products. The place shines, it glows. It’s staffed by younger women in tight clothing who sell racks and racks of imported foods and imported lifestyle. It oozes of sex appeal.
A few months pass by and I am back in Los Angeles. I read in a newspaper that a new law has outlawed street vending in Yerevan. I read another article a few weeks later about how the Pag Shooga (indoor farmers’ market) will close for renovations after which some of the vendors will not be returning due to higher rent costs and larger retail spaces. A few weeks later I read about the workday increasing to six days a week. I start asking, “If everyone in Armenia is complaining that there is no work, then why is the workday being increased to six days a week for certain industries?”
A few days later outside my studio I am conversing with a colleague. I ask her why it is that most people in Yerevan could not wait to shop at supermarkets for factory-farm produced chicken, cellophane wrapped tomatoes, and processed dairy, while the biggest food movement in Los Angeles is organic, small farmer and locally grown foods. She replies, “People want what they don’t have.” I ask her why she thinks that is, and she says, “Well, if you get something that you didn’t have it proves to you and others that you worked hard and got it, that you got something that you did not have before.” We exchange smiles because it makes sense.
See, the have-nots in LA can’t get organic food—which is reserved for the haves—and the have-nots in Yerevan can’t get food from the supermarkets because it’s for the haves. At the end, we both agree that organic food is a better choice overall for the health and long-term sustainability of an economy.
In the end, it comes down to education, choice and discipline. Things are worth the value you assign them. What is two cups of water worth to you? Is it a walk to the kitchen, five-minute wait, a search for a water fountain, or one dollar at a gas station or a convenience store? Hopefully you picked all of the options except the last two, because if you picked the last two, you gave someone a dollar for something you could have had for a much lower cost. I use a bottle of water as an example of how wealth is trickled up by the many and placed in the hands of the few. Bottling water and making it available everywhere can exploit a simple human need for hydration. Every day people give their wealth and power over to others. When you pay $30 for a dress that in materials costs pennies, you trade your labor and efforts for something that marketing has convinced you is worth that by branding it. If your $1,000 dollar purse producer named Smoochi or Louis Mutton, made a great purse with materials that cost a few dollars of leather and zipper, then they could literally sell it for a few dollars, and more people would buy it because it would have the highest demand. But why don’t they? Because then the masses would all have it and the separation of perceived wealth would not exist. So they keep the price high and keep you wanting. It’s the same with cars, food, and what is called lifestyles.
So coming back to Armenia, I ask, “What is going on?” Well, it’s simple! The wealthy open supermarkets, which attract the populous like a moth to a flame, trying to be a have because, all of a sudden, they were told they were have-nots. The international media and local media create further want in the local population. All of a sudden, local tomatoes are not good enough and the dimly-lit grocery store at the bottom of the building starts looking ugly compared to the shiny markets seen on TV. They buy the cellophane wrapped tomato at a premium price and feel accomplished. Soon, the local storeowner realizes his customers are buying less, and eventually a law is created that puts street vendors completely out of business. Now, the supermarkets have less competition and the free market has gotten less free.
As the supermarkets increasingly sprout up, foreign banks further fuel the fire by lending money to oligarchs who turn around and happily spend it on their wants of luxurious lifestyles, creating further separation of the haves and have-nots. As small local markets disappear and the supermarkets multiply, the only competition left is between large chains. The prices increase dramatically ever since people decided that the tomatoes at the market were better, that a bottle of water was worth $1, and a Louis Mutton purse was worth $1000. Now since the supermarkets have taken over the neighborhood and the local groceries are closed, the population starts buying cars, which they need to lug the bulk food from the “NEW” discount supermarket located outside of the city.
A few years later, European clothes on thin, petite bodies are replaced by unhealthy Yerevantsis stuck in traffic listening to commercials on how to lose weight. Twenty years later, Trader Moe’s opens in Yerevan and sells them back the raspberry jam that they were tired of, for 300 times more then what it cost before.
All over the world, we are a generation that has been giving away our freedom through laziness, lack of education, and discipline to corporate power which has corrupted many governments worldwide. So I ask Armenians everywhere to start being conscious of their buying choices. It is not easy, due to the prevailing culture in most countries that we are located in, but it is possible. I ask you to think twice when you buy that bottle of water, that Panini, that Smoochi purse. Your sports car payment can buy a tractor for a village. Your Starbucks coffee can feed a family for a week and your new 82” TV is someone’s annual income. Start thinking about how much change your conscious spending can create in our homeland and the countries we are currently in.
This struggle is of one against the exploitation of all people worldwide. It is a struggle against a system that is corrupt and is failing; it is time for us to invest in creating a new system worldwide, while making sure that the failed system of “free markets” does not spread further in Armenia.
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