Saying Goodbye to America, Again: What We Won’t Miss

In our previous piece, we shared – hopefully with a bit of levity – a few features of life in America that we’ll miss.

Now comes the part where we offer some critical observations from our recent visit home, the longest in seven years.

Drive, Baby! Drive!

Throughout our life and travels in Asia and Europe, we generally made our way by public transport. We sincerely tried to do the same in the U.S.

We’re here to report that we failed.

American Signs, Gas Prices - St. Augustine, Florida
As gas prices start to go up…

We realize this is due in part to where we stayed (i.e., suburbs and small towns). Public transportation systems in America – particularly those in its suburbs – often feature limited schedules and routes. We discovered firsthand where the sidewalk ends: at a busy multi-lane road.

Our failure illustrates the dominance of the auto and the demise of the pedestrian in America. Need convincing? Try walking between two destinations – particularly between two shopping malls – in a suburban area like Northern Virginia.

Our own attempt ended in a call for help.

Talking Heads on TV

Is it just us, or do moderators and guests on American “news” programs spend much of their airtime shouting? Republican or Democrat. Left, right, or center. The heads are yelling at fever pitch, all the time. It’s not so much what is said – it’s how it is said.

The current two-step approach: devalue the substance of what is said, then increase the volume and abrasiveness with which it is delivered.

And if political talk show shouting matches aren’t enough to raise your blood pressure, tune into one of the myriad financial market clownfests.

The financial talking heads – pawning themselves off as experts – change songs each week. First it was stocks, then bonds, then cash. And now gold? What next? Cans of beans?

Now that our own rant is over, we point out a few exceptions. Shows like Lehrer News Hour and 60 Minutes feature civil exchanges and guests who speak to each other respectfully and deliver arguments in complete and coherent sentences. Some may not find the results especially titillating. Genuine understanding rarely is.

Fear of the Health Care System

Our concern was not so much with the doctors, but with health insurance and the U.S. health care system as a whole.

For this visit, we purchased a short-term health insurance plan with an enormous deductible specifically for the United States in case anything major were to happen during our visit. But even with basic insurance, there was still a real fear that the fine print wouldn’t cover everything.

During our visit, we were often party to conversations about health insurance that went something like this: “I can’t leave/lose this job because of my pre-existing condition; a new health insurance provider might not cover it. I can’t take the risk.”

The U.S. health care system distorts decision-making processes – at the micro and macro levels and for employers and employees. When it comes to losing a job, of course money is always an issue. But in America, the concern over lost health insurance these days might actually trump it.

Shortage of World News Coverage

We understand that American broadcast media needs to focus on U.S. and local news, but international news coverage seems a bit scant. Geopolitical events show that no country – especially America – is an island. And as it spreads, the global financial crisis further reveals the interconnectedness of economies around the world.

Of course, we consume current international news on the internet because we seek it out. But we have to wonder: for those people existing entirely on television news, what of the rest of the world?

Large Meals in Restaurants

Sushi bars excepted, American restaurants generally serve staggeringly large portions. For example, leftovers from a recent dinner for two fed three people for lunch the next day.

Giant Stromboli - Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania
Generous portions…

We often found ourselves in the following predicament: although one main dish was certain to feed the two of us, we felt awkward, followed protocol, and ordered two main dishes instead. Faced with a mountain of food, we then had a choice: a) eat too much and feel gross, or b) watch a pile of perfectly good food get thrown in the trash.

Certainly there are ways to get around this. But a scan of our environment told us we were not alone.

——————-

For better or for worse, extended travel builds awareness of how different cultures handle similar challenges. As we set off for new destinations, we look forward to returning to America and drawing further contrasts.

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Comments

  1. says

    I fully agree, especially about the international news coverage. I wonder why CNN International is all over the world, however in the US in seems hard to come by… hmmmm… can’t figure that one out at all.

  2. says

    The lack of walkability in the US is so frustrating. Even simply being in a neighborhood where you can jog on a sidewalk is rare in some cities. However, I will admit that I love a good road trip. I used to travel a lot all over KY for my job and I miss that windows down, radio up road trip. :)

    My husband and I have learned that it is always a good idea to share an entree in the States. I’ve argued that many Brazilian meals are just as large, but if you are in any chain in the States decide on something and share for sure. :) We went to Vegas over NY and went to Grande Luxe Cafe. We could have split the lunch portion. It was really ridiculous.

  3. says

    For your information, what I won’t miss.
    1. Shoddy airline service that demands you pay extra for a seat and extra for for your baggage, then makes you change your seat because there is not enough baggage on the plane.
    2. Having to drive everywhere.
    3. Realizing how expensive things REALLY are after having convinced myself that most other places are more expensive.
    4. That obnoxious Simon dude that’s always on TV.
    5. Conversations that revolve around Facebook.

  4. Agne says

    I loved the video and the picture :) Since I’ve never been in USA, I can’t share any extra thoughts with you. But I know that no matter where you go or where you’ve been – there’s no better place than home :)

    Hugs,
    A.

  5. Alex says

    Gah, I hate the huge portions. We also feel too awkward to just order one entree, though. (And besides, my tastes run to tripe while the lovely wife is a vegetarian.) It does seem that the nicer the restaurant is, the more reasonable the portions.

    Lori, come visit Boston! It’s a walking town.

    Tony, join my new group “I am obsessed with Facebook and have therefore started a group to complain about a trivial change in the way the site looks!” It’s already got 600,000 members who do nothing all day but write angry messages!

  6. says

    Biga$$ cars and the lousy walkability rating of so many places indeed top my list of things to dislike about the US. But I confess, after reaptriating myself after what felt like a very long stint in Europe, I found — and still find myself wildly in love with the US. Yes, I want better health insurance, especially since I’m self employed. Yes, I want better social services, pubic transit, yadda yadda yadda. But in spite of those things, I still believe that for diversity and opportunity, you can not beat the US. Or at least my tiny corner of it, here in the Northwest.

    Though, lord, on a stay in Virginia, I was ready to kill myself. The supermarket, we could SEE it, but could we walk there? NO. Really. We had to walk along the shoulder of a four lane highway. What the hell!?

  7. says

    I sympathise, particularly regarding the obstacles to walking, the oversized portions, and the narrow spectrum news. But I’m also puzzled. Every one of these topics is a staple in the pantry of America’s most awkward aspects. In its own way, this story is another one of them. But I am now heading in that same direction with my own commentary, so I’m going to try to set a better example by finding a couple of less overt not-missed things. (Daft of me, I know.) For instance, is there a disconnect between a reverence for the land and actual interaction with it? How does the typical American’s relationship to the land compare to that of a typical Guatemalan or Lao? Similarly, how many people know the history of their own communities? Could you expect to have a friendly conversation about local history with a stranger in a diner? My sense is that there’s a curious absence of both geography and history, a vacancy that makes people seem rootless; living only in the present and racing for the future. Thats not something I miss.

    (First visit, via that NY Times story on cheap telephony.)

  8. says

    @Tony: Certainly, you’ve heard about RyanAir considering the possibility of charging for visits to the toilet? I heard there’s a group on Facebook protesting about it.

    @Alex: Tripe-lover vs. a vegetarian…sounds like you have your work cut out for you.

    @dp: Although the observations we offer here may seem obvious, we found that many people we spoke to didn’t notice them or consider them real problems. Perhaps these issues would have already been addressed had they been taken seriously. Regardless, this list is representative of our recent experience and the items within it indicative of more fundamental issues regarding patterns of consumption, education, and understanding of and allocation of public goods.

    For those aware (in our little echo-chamber here), there is nothing more obvious than them.

    But for those unaware – in the U.S. or outside of it – maybe not. For people who spend hours a day in their car, is “too much driving…and not enough sidewalks” a concern? For those who have health care (or for those around the world who assume that everyone in the U.S. does), is “45 million uninsured in U.S. and counting.” a concern? We once had a conversation with an American overseas who said, “If you play the game in America – get a college degree and a job – health insurance will not be a concern.” Some of our family and friends are proof that that playing this game offers no guarantees.

    Like you, we do feel there is a broad disconnect in America (and elsewhere, to be fair) with the land, our neighbors, and at times humanity. After traveling around the world, our pipe dream is to return to the U.S. and cast the same lens on it that we have on the rest of the world, and to make further comparisons – good and bad. Until we have the time to fully explore this in depth, we share the topics that dominated our discussions during our last visit.

  9. says

    @Study Abroad Woman: Some cable companies in America do offer BBC World, which provides a bit more international coverage. Al Jazeera English is another channel that we’ve watched around the world, but can’t find in the States.

    @Steven: Jon Stewart can be brilliant sometimes!

    @Lori: Yes, there is something wonderful about the great American road trip. I remember my first “real” road trip from Washington, DC to Monterey, CA – it was my first real exploration of my own country and realizing how vast and diverse it is. Good memories.

    @Agne: A nice sentiment. No country is perfect and although there are many things we would change about our own country, we never regret being born American.

    @Pam: Although this post is about things we don’t miss (i.e., don’t like) about America, there’s a whole lot – including its diversity, openness and entrepreneurial spirit – that we love and have come to recognize as unique the more we travel. And although we haven’t chosen not to live in America for a while, we are thankful be able to return whenever we do choose. Perhaps to your little slice of natural beauty and diversity in the Northwest :)

    I laughed out loud at your description of trying to walk to a grocery store in Virginia – that was exactly our experience trying to walk to my mother’s house from Tyson’s Corner. We knew it was just down the road…but there was no way.

  10. says

    I hope you’re not going to miss the prices (esp. food and accommodation) in America! Asia is dirt cheap in that regard especially if you’re spending in dollars.

  11. says

    @Neeraj: While you can find a few bargain meals in America (deli sandwiches and fat burritos, aka urban food logs), we do miss the value (price & quality) of food in Asia. We lived very well there on a low budget.

  12. marylouise sillman says

    I am American living in Paris for 21 years. Your article on “What I don’t Miss in the USA” is exactly what I say when questioned if I miss living in the USA. The major one is the Health Care issue because as a self employed designer of costume jewelery I could not hope to afford any health insurance plan. Here, I have complete coverage with gratitude to the French Health Plan. The French public transportation system is superb with affordable tickets in cities as well on trains within France that connect to all of Europe. I return to visit family on the West Coast of Florida where there are many retirement villages. Too often, I see on 4 lane highways, very old Seniors with vision or hearing or physical impairment trying to navigate these roads to the local Mall or to the Supermarket. There are NO public buses available in these small towns. The Tap water in Europe is fine to drink although as a traveller in Asia, Africa and often to India, I understand the joy of turning on a faucet for clean water!

  13. says

    @marylouise: Thanks for your comment. I suppose it all boils down to priorities and what the vision is for a society.

    Your point regarding the need to drive — and often drive very long distances — in and around retirement villages in the U.S. is a good one. Danger is an issue, but so is quality of life. A life without sidewalks sounds like a difficult one to me. And a life without any public transportation system options sounds limiting, if not a bit prison-like.

  14. says

    The U.S.A. is my home, and I love it. I agree with your assessments of things you will not miss about the U.S.A. but still take great pride in our nation. In fact, your point about American T.V. is long recognized by my family, so we chose to disconnect the T.V. 17 years ago.

    This leads me to the point of my favorite aspect to American Life: We generally have more freedoms than any other people on the globe. And so, we may often choose to avoid those points to American life that are distasteful (the T.V.) Other than taxes and other legislated “Must Do” points to American life, we can make our own path. For me, that is an extremely rural life, off the grid power production, home-taught children, self sustaining infrastructure, and self reliance at the extreme. I do not know of many places in the world that will allow such a social disconnect, while still providing close proximity to cultural edification, national security, good medical care, and freedom to be me. In fact, I make my living by sharing my lifestyle with the world as guests travel the globe to visit us. In sum: your dissatisfaction with some points of the American life are shared by me, but the shining points to the American life are what allow me to BE me.

    Best, Doug Cole
    Marble Mountain Ranch

  15. Jen says

    Am I missing some social norm or etiquette? With the exception of the upper realm of restaurants, when did sharing become awkward? Even if it is, that’s why Americans have to-go bags. Two meals for the price of one, or if we are comparing to Europe, half the price of one European meal.

    That said, I love Europe and plan to move back to the U.K. in a few years if given the opportunity. haha ;)

  16. says

    @Jen: Doggie bags are essential for American restaurant meals! Our experience on our last visit was that even at a lot of ordinary restaurants, servers would look at us strange if we only ordered one main dish to share between the two of us. I imagine that part of this is that they thought they would receive less of a tip because the total bill would be lower.

    Even in Europe, we find ourselves sharing meals at restaurants. We’d rather eat small meals throughout the day.

  17. says

    I agree with you completely! Since I don’t watch TV and I get my news fix from the internet, I can’t complain about the lack of world news coverage. And the food in restaurants – it’s stunning how much you are expected to eat! I’d rather order take out and then put the leftovers in the fridge, and this way I won’t have to feel embarrassed when asking for a doggie bag at the restaurant.

  18. says

    @US Wanderer: We’re in the States now on another visit and we are also trying to avoid the TV as much as we can. Just last night we ordered Chinese food take out and there was enough for 2-3 meals, not just one!

  19. says

    I have lived both inside and outside the U.S. I do love my country ( the US) but I am unable to drive. I have had job discrimination in the past over that fact.
    I lived a year in Sarajevo, Bosnia and really it was about the best place for me to live in many ways.
    Sidewalks can be an issue there, but the city’s older sections are not user friendly for cars. They have decent public transit, and I found news outlet in Englush to be pretty good. They had PRI at certain times on the radio. I speak Bosnian decently, so local news was not impossible. I watched Al Jazeera, and Euronews for content in English.
    Here are two things I did not miss.
    1. Street hassle. I am over 50, and a grandmother of two. Guys hassle me on the street all the time and I am very modestly attired. I guess they must like how I look…?
    In Sarajevo, guys did not hassle me that way.
    If they had something to say they did so in a polite way.

    2. The lack of physical modesty of many Americans, both male and female.
    What is it that makes people wear unbecoming and immodest clothes?
    Butt-cheeks, visible underwear, and really tight clothes or damn ugly old sweats, with ugly shoes.
    It is possible to dress modestly, attractively and comfortably on a budget. I manage it. I have a neighbor who even manages to do the sweatpants thing and look nice.
    A lot of people look like they left the house in their pajamas.

  20. says

    @Katja: The walkability of big cities (in both America and Europe) is something we really value.

    Sorry to hear that you were hassled on the street (this was in U.S.? ). Although I’m surprised to hear you were actually hassled, I agree that the American obsession with the physical appearance of the human body (with the great help of popular media) is over the top.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I suppose the best thing we can do is to live our modesty and hope that it will serve as an example to others.

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