The author in South Africa.
After fifteen months of travel, I returned to the United States ready to give American life another try. After a few months at home with my family, I moved back to San Francisco, the city I lived and worked in before traveling. I started looking for a job, looking for apartments, looking for new friends. I felt eager to re-enter American society, and pick up somewhat where I left off.
Within four months, I had changed my mind.
After struggling with so many aspects of United States society and culture, I ended up finding a pretty great life in Cape Town, South Africa (along with a pretty great American boyfriend who had moved here years ago and found the same). I spent much of last year, hopping back and forth between the two countries, allowing me to distinctly see the differences between them. I moved here officially this past July.
A new survey shows I’m not alone: according to a TransferWise national survey of over 2000 adults, around one in three Americans say they’d consider leaving the United States for another country. For us millennials, it’s even worse: 55% of Americans between the ages of 18-34 say they’d consider it.
What scares me most is that I won’t be able to enjoy life as I do here if I were to move back to the United States. Though life in South Africa comes with its own unique set of struggles, my life here in many ways became far easier than what I experienced in the States.
1. I don’t have to worry about getting sick.
In the Transferwise Survey, “more affordable healthcare” was the number one improvement respondents said would make living in the US more appealing.
For years, the US has had the most expensive yet least effective healthcare system in the world. The recent drug price-hike scandal reminded us that unlike Canada, Australia, and many countries in Europe, our country does not regulate drug prices in the same way we regulate other basic needs, like water and electricity. Instead, we are the only developed nation that allows drug makers to set their own prices, regardless of whether average Americans can afford it.
As a freelancer, healthcare became one of my top priorities when deciding where to live. Individual plans in New York city can go up to a grand a month. And in my homestate of Florida, the limited access to affordable women’s health needs like pap smears, yearly gynocologist visits, and affordable birth control became a large part of why I left. Planned Parenthood was few and far between in Florida, and charged comparatively high rates after losing funding from the state government. The St. Petersburg Times reported that in 2001, presidential candidate Jeb Bush cut over $300,000 for family planning services through Planned Parenthood. The result? In 2014, an evaluation of health data found that Florida was tied with Oklahoma and Arkansas for the worst state for women’s health.
2. “Work-life balance” actually seems possible.
In the Transferwise survey, “a better quality of life” was the most popular reason people chose to consider leaving the country. It was top on my list too. I enjoy living in places that prioritize joy instead of only productivity. But in the US, the anxieties of professional life are almost cliche: People work more and get paid less. Corporate profits increase, while incomes stay stagnant. The New York Times has published pieces arguing that our work world is toxic and doesn’t even leave you time to be nice. We are one of only nine countries that don’t offer paid annual leave. And workers skip vacations because they’re afraid of the workload that will stack up while they’re gone, or because they fear taking vacations will make them look lazy. Meanwhile, American presidential candidates claim the problem is Americans aren’t working long and hard enough.
Living outside of the United States, I saw that this didn’t have to be the norm. Other countries are far better at making work-life balance a reality. In South Africa, I saw people both engaging in meaningful work, and enjoying their weekends. I saw workers consider their loved ones and their overall well-being in their work decisions, without feeling guilty or selfish.
And, I’ve seen people with the most opportunity for financial gain simply choose not to capitalize on it. My boyfriend once asked the owner of a coffee shop we often visited why she closed on Saturdays and Sundays, and so early during the week. He explained to her she could make a killing with brunches on Saturday. She shrugged her shoulders and told him she already knew that. But she said she’d rather be with her family on Saturdays than have to worry about work. Similarly, I’ve seen some wine bars close Friday at 10pm, at the time they’d perhaps be most profitable. I prefer this kind of prioritizing.
3. As a person of color, being an “expat” instead of a “minority” is kind of relieving.
In his New York Times article “The Next Great Migration” Thomas Chatterton Williams describes the story of his friend who moved from New York to London: “He confessed, ‘The race situation back home occupies so much space in your mind, even just safety-wise, I actually never fully understood what it meant to be American, and all the advantages that come with it, until now…You immediately remove that affirmative action target from your back. A work visa gives you the validation that you’re good at what you do.”
In South Africa, I’ve had similar experiences. Instead of being the “affirmative action kid” I was often labeled at college, here my achievements are never tied to my racial background. People care far more about my US college degree and work experience than how I racially identify.
And because my racial background doesn’t matter nearly as much, race no longer has to matter as much in my life. My primary identity in South Africa is “American” in a way it never was back in the States. After years of trying to figure out my how my Latino identity fits among my life, it’s kind of relieving for once to live in a place where frankly, no one gives a shit.
4. My values as a global citizen are affirmed.
Life in the United States is generally only about the United States. This is reflected in everything from American travel habits to American media to American curriculum in schools. But life in other countries is about the world. For example, Business Insider ran a story that illustrated the differences between US media and media internationally. They put side-to-side the cover stories for Time magazine’s US edition versus its editions abroad. One month, the cover in the US had the headline “Chore Wars”, while the rest of the world got “Travels Through Islam.” Another month, while the rest of the world had a front page story on rebellion in the Middle East, the US got “Why Anxiety is Good For You.” Statistics back up this apparent lack of interest in the rest of the world: a State of the Media survey found that in 2008, news agencies in the US devoted only 10.3% to foreign coverage.
While watching the news in South Africa, I also noticed that how we present international coverage also makes a difference. When watching coverage of developments in Iraq and Syria, newscasters actually interviewed Iraqis and Syrians. I realized that this was perhaps the first time I had ever seen an Iraqi or Syrian civilian given substantial time on television to tell their story. In the US, though civilians from these areas were covered briefly in video footage, I never saw them personally asked for their opinion.
In some ways you could argue that our media is just catering to what Americans truly want to know– which unfortunately, seems to be only about ourselves. People from the US generally don’t have an interest in what happens internationally. In 2013, The Daily Mail reported that in a survey of over 2,000 Americans, almost half of respondents who had never been abroad said that the only things worth seeing were in our own country. Almost a third answered that even if they had the money, they’d prefer to travel to local areas.
I know I want to live in a place where citizens and institutions care about the world around them and have a natural curiosity for learning about others. Unfortunately, it seems more difficult to find that in the States.
I’m not sure if I’ll live abroad forever, or if these four priorities will be my same priorities in the future. But for now, the US will have to put up a far better show to convince me it’s worth going “home.”