I’m living in Peru. I’m 31 years old, and I’m an American. More to the point, I’m a Texan. I also happen to be violently ill from a stomach bug as I’m writing this.
As nearly all Americans and some around the world are aware, the US government shut down this week as the House, Senate, and President Obama could not reach a consensus on the federal budget for fiscal 2014. The main contention in this budget is House Republicans’ unwillingness to remove provisions in their budget to defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.
For this traveler, whenever there’s a political issue that seems so juvenile given the consequences — shutting down national parks, fewer visa and passport applications, entire branches of federal employees including my cousin sent home on unpaid leave, to name just a few — I always think to myself: “Why is America great?”
We can spout off buzz words like “diversity,” “freedom,” and “economy” when describing our nation’s “exceptionalism.” And these are correct…for a few people. What I’ve come to realize by escaping many of the bubbles we build around ourselves is that a country is only as good as its most marginalized citizens.
As much as Peru is infamous for its high infant mortality and poverty rates, it’s not difficult to find people wearing thousand-dollar suits and driving BMWs. Those people have desk jobs, and go home to their air-conditioned houses with wifi and pampered puppies. The same is true in the US, but the class divide so much sharper and more visible in a developing country. As in Haiti, the elite are rarely seen in areas frequented by the middle class, just as there’s an almost impenetrable layer separating beggars from those they approach. In the US, this divide is more muddled, with millionaires hanging out in the same coffee shops and shopping in supermarkets as their low-income counterparts.
So, the question I have to pose to our government is: Do you want America to be great again?
Because, right now, it’s not. Whatever you may believe, it’s not. It’s good for many, great for a select few, just ok for the majority, and pretty lousy for those unfortunate enough to not have the resources to become one of the majority. That last is the group we need to consider at all times: when passing new laws, considering where funding goes, promoting charity…they are the unemployed, new families trying to make a start, the disabled, and the all-too-often ignored returning veterans.
The only reason I don’t count myself a member of one of these groups is because I traveled first, and considered career and family later. I made the decision to escape what I saw as a losing system, to avoid a high cost of living, impossible insurance payments, and a poor job market.
And it worked. I’m alive, happy, and healthy (well, temporarily incapacitated).
But what if I didn’t make that choice? What if I hadn’t become a traveler, or cut everything short to try living in the US? What if I didn’t have parents who were able to send me to college? Would my political views have changed, particularly those on the ACA?
Suppose I still went to the University of Texas, but I had to take out student loans and work weekends and evenings to make ends meet. I would graduate in the same fashion, but how could I consider moving to Japan when I’d be tens of thousands of dollars in debt?
Maybe I still chose to move to Japan for two years. But due to my lack of foresight and yolo sentimentality, I spent every yen I earned on traveling the country, knowing I wouldn’t be back. I return two years after graduating and discover most employers hiring engineers aren’t interested in someone who’s been out of practice for that long. I’m still nursing a shattered wrist, but don’t have the means to pay for followup care.
Or, as I often wondered what could have been: I travel for a few years, meet the right girl, and end up getting married in the US. We’re both travelers with university degrees, and decide we need a little stability for the kids. But our jobs aren’t enough to cover the mortgage, school tuition, food, insurance, car payments, phone payments, utilities, and incidentals. Not to mention setting something aside for a rainy day.
These possibilities haunt me when I consider repatriating myself. For as much as I love living in the US, I’m truly scared and disgusted of how it treats its lower classes (and how I would be treated if I were to become one of them), of how those sworn into office to protect the interests of the many only listen to those willing to offer campaign financing and pork. You can chalk this up to the cynicism of a US citizen who hasn’t been willing to “tough it out” or see how things work at home long enough, but, if anything, I believe my experiences abroad give me greater clarity:
- I’ve never seen a more organized and safer country than Japan. Violent crime is practically unheard of, public transportation is among the best in the world, and sanitation is paramount.
- America refuses to budge on issues that have been proven time and time again across the globe — e.g., gun regulation following mass shootings in Australia, universal healthcare in countries like Sweden, education reform in Finland.
I’ve seen how good we have it, and seen plenty of things on which we could improve. But as far as the Affordable Care Act is concerned, let me leave you with one thing to mull over: As much as I fear getting robbed or pickpocketed here in Peru, I feel so much better knowing I’m sick over here rather than in the US. Here, if I need to visit a clinic or hospital and they find something I wasn’t expecting, I’m not going to be in debt for the rest of my life paying for treatment.
If a US citizen finds something more appealing in necessary services in a developing country than in his own, we need to take a long, hard look at what will make our country great for everyone.