12 things I learned in my first year in the USA
1. The food is better than I’d been led to believe.
Before arriving, I’d been warned that American. Food. Is. Bad. Certainly, there is a lot of crap out there. That fake cheese they slather on nachos and fries should not be considered food. An Australian friend had warned me about it after she’d had an allergic reaction to it. If you go into a down-market supermarket, the offerings are not healthy, with poor-quality soda, white bread, and fatty meats in prime position.
But I wouldn’t shop at a down-market supermarket at home, so why would I here? Farmers’ markets and organic food cooperatives are even more accessible than they are back home. The local farmers’ market is right in the heart of my village, not on the outskirts of town as was the one in Canberra. I live just a few doors away from an organic coop, so I probably eat better-quality food now than I did a year ago.
The diversity of American culture shines through in its food. If you want to eat junk food, it’s there in abundance. If you want to eat well, you can do that, too.
2. The healthcare system is even worse than I’d been led to believe.
You know how at the heart of Breaking Bad is the fact that Walter White is a high school teacher but cannot pay his medical bills without resorting to crime? Yup, true story. The American healthcare system is so f****d that even people with ‘good’ health insurance can’t guarantee that they wouldn’t go bankrupt in the case of a health crisis. My partner has a good job and I’m tied in with his insurance. Even so, it says somewhere in the fine print that in a single year we wouldn’t have to pay more than $12,000 out-of-pocket for medical expenses. TWELVE THOUSAND DOLLARS. That’s WITH a comprehensive health insurance plan. The capital letters reflect the fact that I am, actually, shouting at the computer right now. Not sorry.
What about Obamacare, you (non-Americans) ask? Yes, that’s better than nothing. But Obamacare is not actually a state-funded healthcare system as exists in the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, etc. Obamacare makes it mandatory to purchase private health insurance. So, more money is being pumped into the rotten core of the American healthcare system. My American friends are sometimes surprised/shocked/amazed/disbelieving when I say that back home, emergency care is free. FREE. I.e., taxes go towards paying for it, because that’s what taxes are for. That’s not communism, as Americans will often argue; that’s called being a civilised society that values human life.
3. Summer is one big party.
The winter in much of the country is brutal, but that means Americans really know how to celebrate summer. In Buffalo, there are free concerts and other events several times a week. They put on big markets and arts festivals throughout the summer. People get out into the gorgeous state parks and go walking, camping, swimming, fishing… Summer is manic, because we’ve earned it.
4. The banking system is stuck in the 1990s.
You know, that time right before internet banking took off, making cheques redundant and automatic bill payment so much easier. We suggested to our landlady that we could pay our rent by direct deposit, because it’s easier that way. We were met with utter confusion and a little suspicion, like we could break into her account that way or something. So, a cheque in the mailbox on the first of the month it is. I actually had to relearn how to write cheques, as I hadn’t done so in about a decade.
5. How to tip properly.
We don’t tip back home. It’s not a thing. That’s not because we’re stingy; it’s because service industry workers get paid a good wage. When I last worked in New Zealand 10 years ago in cafes, minimum wage was around $12 per hour. In Australia, minimum wage is more like $18 per hour, and service industry workers generally make much more than that, as it’s considered a skilled industry. In New York State there have been campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour. That’s the adult minimum wage. (I was earning that in New Zealand when I was about 16.)
The consequence of the low pay is that it is essential to tip properly and generously, because waitstaff and bartenders are relying on this to make a living. Tipping properly means leaving 15-20% of the bill. I don’t believe it should be this way, but not tipping isn’t the way to protest. If you don’t tip, you’re part of the problem of exploitation.
6. Racial segregation is visible.
Racial segregation is not a thing of the past. I was shocked on arriving in Buffalo that you can actually see the racial dividing line through town: Main Street. To the west of Main Street are the ‘nice’ parts of town, with well-kept houses, attractive shops and businesses and good parks. To the east are the poor, neglected, crime-ridden neighbourhoods. I don’t think I need to spell out what that means in terms of racial demographics. In Buffalo, as well as many other places, cities were deliberately planned to keep the races segregated, and the effects are still felt.
7. American cities are designed differently.
I’ve never owned a car because I’ve never needed one. I’ve always lived within walking distance from my places of work/study, or within easy reach via public transport. A standard city design in the parts of the world that I come from has ‘downtown’, or the CBD, at the centre. Transportation links begin there, the most expensive housing is there, the main shops and offices and entertainment is there. Think Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, London, even Wellington. That’s not to say that suburbs or outer neighbourhoods don’t have their own centres of attraction, but downtown is usually the hub.
Not necessarily so in the USA, and certainly not in Buffalo. The downtown area here, while undergoing rejuvenation and increasing development, was all but abandoned for many years. Because ‘everyone’ owns a car here, people far more commonly choose to live in the suburbs and never travel downtown. This different design means it’s a whole lot harder surviving here without a car, even if you have the best of intentions to live a ‘green’ lifestyle.
8. Things are cheap because wages are low.
At least in Buffalo, or other second and third-tier cities. When I first arrived, I couldn’t believe how cheap everything was: food, rent, transportation, etc. Once the income started coming in, I quickly had to alter my perspective. Things are generally cheaper because wages and salaries are much, much lower than in Australia. At least much of it is relative.
9. The roads are worse than in Russia (and some third-world countries).
Recently, I was looking through my photos of my trip to Russia in 2005, and came across this photo of a Russian highway. I had labelled it ‘terrible Russian road.’ I remember thinking that the potholes and cracks in the road were awful and worthy of photographing. Funnily enough, it doesn’t look bad to me now. It looks better than the state of most of the roads in Buffalo, which are sometimes painfully bumpy, pot-holed and cracked. I was also remembering the impressive highways through the Indian state of Gujarat, and thinking America could learn a thing or two from India about road maintenance and construction. The roads in the parts of Vietnam where I travelled were good, too. Ironic?
10. According to many Americans, the non-American Anglophone world is one, big monarchy-enslaved monolith.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a monarchist. I believe that the British monarchy is an anachronistic, money-sucking embarrassment, for the UK itself and even more so for the Commonwealth. But realistically, the Queen has no effect upon our lives. We are not oppressed by her, and do not wish we were just like the USA.
And it bugs me no end that Americans generally can’t distinguish between British, Australian and New Zealand accents. And sometimes South African, too. I get that most people can’t distinguish an Australian and NZ accent and don’t blame them for that, but British? Seriously? I guess it’s like confusing someone with a thick New York accent with a hardcore Texan. We’re all speaking the same language, but to a different tune. Open your ears, people.
11. Some really do believe that the USA is the only free country in the world.
I didn’t realise until I lived here that the line in the national anthem about American being the land of the brave and the free is taken seriously and literally. I know we’re all fed nationalist myths, but Americans seem to have wholeheartedly swallowed this one. Despite the centuries of slavery. Despite the developed world’s highest incarceration rate. Despite the lack of affordable, quality healthcare and education.
I have my reasons for living in the USA, and it has afforded me certain career freedoms at this stage in my life. But if I had simply been looking for a country that I could be ‘free’ in, the USA would be pretty far down my list. Where I come from, it’s not generally considered a desirable place to live (see above: guns, healthcare, low wages). There is freedom from and freedom to. If you’re white and have money, America has ‘freedom to’ in abundance. There’s not much ‘freedom from’ for everybody else.
12. Sometimes, it really is just like the movies.
The first time I saw a yellow school bus, I jumped up and down and squealed. Almost all of my overseas visitors, when first arriving on our street, have commented that it looks like a ‘typical’ American street, like in the movies. I went to Allegany State Park one weekend and couldn’t stop commenting on how much it looked like summer camps from the movies. The view from Brooklyn over to Manhattan evokes memories of all sorts of films and TV shows. When walking the residential streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn, I can’t stop thinking about Sesame Street. The frat/sorority shops at universities. The silly organ ditties and tight white pants at a baseball game.
Sometimes, it really does feel like I’m walking around in a movie from my childhood, and that’s pretty exciting.
A version of this article first appeared on wildernessmetropolis.com and is republished here with permission.