"You know where is Kazakhstan?" Rustem Syzdykov asks me.
Er, sure, I say. Somewhere near Russia, right? Over near all those other -stans?
Rustem is, I believe, the first person from Kazakhstan I have ever met, and I've met him in an unlikely place: in a funnel cake stand on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
Rustem, a 19-year-old economics student from that former Soviet republic, works at Kingie's Funnel Cakes, where he serves up shaved ices. He stands behind 12 bottles of luridly colored flavoring that hang from the ceiling, plastic tubes stretching from them like sugary intravenous lines.
Anyone who wonders whether the Cold War is over need only visit O.C. Romanians, Poles, Bulgarians, Russians -- these former communists quite literally run the place.
Russians such as Arthur Alexeev, 20, who operates the Tilt-A-Whirl over at Trimper's Rides. And Alexander Volodin, an 18-year-old from Siberia, who runs an arcade game called Can Alley, where players attempt to knock over "Sesame Street" characters. (And where Alexander must endure the Muppetsong that blasts endlessly from the loudspeakers. One thing is certain, when he goes back to Siberia, Alexander will know that C is for "cookie.")
Foreign workers are the backbone of Ocean City's economy, says Susan Jones of the city's hotel, motel and restaurant association. Armed with a J-1 visa and a sponsorship from a group such as the Council on International Educational Exchange, they take jobs Americans won't, she says.
"The great thing is they can stay through October," says Susan. "Right now, a lot of the American kids are going back to college. We're lucky to have the foreign students, who can stay through our busy fall season."
They come to improve their English, to see a bit of the world, to earn some money.
They really want to earn some money.
"All these guys work two jobs," says Daniel King, the man who hired Rustem and six other foreigners to work at Kingie's. Dan says the influx started about 15 years ago.
"First it was these guys from Malaysia and Singapore. They were all over the place over here. They'd want to work open to close. If you couldn't give them those kind of hours, they'd work two jobs. . . . Then they kind of quit coming. I don't know what happened."
They were followed by English and Irish students. Now it's the post-Soviet invasion, along with a smattering of workers from Nepal. Kingie's employs three Russians, three Nepalese and a Romanian.
"The Americans work the least," Dan says. "They only want one shift. They want their time off. These other guys, they don't want to take off."
Most of the Eastern Europeans are visiting this country for the first time. What must they think of America, given that their only exposure is, um, Ocean City?
Do they think all Americans keep pet hermit crabs at home, the way other people have dogs and cats? Or that we don't feel completely dressed unless we have at least one item of clothing that says "Corona" on it?
On Friday morning, I watch as Olga Chikhirkina and Yulia Pereverzeva, two 20-year-olds from Kaliningrad in western Russia, open Kohr Bros. Frozen Custard on the boardwalk.
"It's different," Olga says of life in the United States. "You just have to work and you will have everything. If you want to make career, you have to have highest education in Russia. . . . Here I know a guy who was dishwasher for 11 years and now he is a manager in a store."
What do you think of Americans, I ask.
"It's very friendly people," says Olga.
"Very, very friendly," says Yulia.
"America people smile all the time," says Olga.
Perhaps this is true, I say to them, but for some reason the ones who seem to smile the least are the Americans doing the sort of jobs that you Russians are doing -- smilingly -- here in Ocean City.
"We like to smile," says Yulia.
"That's what my boss pays us for," says Olga.
I think I'm in love.
What they have trouble getting used to is the openness of Americans, the way a total stranger might say, "Wasssssssup?"
"We say hello only if we know people," says Olga. "If I don't know him, I can't say to him hello."
For Rustem, the Kazakh, America has another attraction: "I know about ocean only when I study geography book. Now I can swim in it."
Another Kingie's employee, Alexander Belyaev, 20, from Novokuibyshevsk, says, "In Russia it's very dangerous to walk at night. But in the U.S.A. it's not."
A couple blocks off the boardwalk, at Ocean City International Student Services, a dozen young people crowd computers, checking their e-mail. The clocks on the wall show the current time in Minsk, Yerevan, Bangkok, Bratislava, Moscow, Riga and other exotic locales.
Cristina Samsudan from Cluj, a city in Romania's Transylvanian region, has two jobs -- helping out at the student services center and working at the front desk of a Holiday Inn. Soon she will be starting a third, entertaining children at Harpoon Hannah's Restaurant & Tiki Bar.
"I will be a pirate," Cristina says.
A Transylvanian pirate. She appears somewhat amused by the prospect.
Crazy idea: Next summer, let's have all the beach workers be from Iraq. It might do us both some good.
My e-mail: email@example.com.