20 Puzzling Aspects of Life in the USA

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Little Italy, NYC, Summer 2012

Little Italy, NYC, Summer 2012

The day has come: our American neighbours are about to elect a new president. World leaders are wondering who they will hang out with at summits and the rest of us is looking forward to the end of offensive and useless debates. Even Ottawa is tired of it: last week, residents on Trump Street were considering a street name change.

A lawn sign circulating online sums up my feelings about the two candidates: “nope” and “noper”. I’m glad I’m not American because I would be voting against something I hate rather than for something I love. Seriously, America, considering the number of smart, innovative and open-minded individuals in your beautifully diverse country, couldn’t you have nominated better candidates??

At this stage, I don’t know yet who will get America into more debt, have a finger on the nuclear button and rule the free world. Americans are surprising and polls can be unreliable. Besides, the election process isn’t exactly transparent and Bush Junior was elected twice, so…

One of the side perks of moving to Canada was to discover America and observe our Southern neighbours up close. Like most French, the image I had of the USA was formed based on American culture disseminated through Hollywood, pop music, stars and TV series. I assumed all Americans were living comfortable middle-class lives in suburban cookie-cutter houses, that all waitresses eventually became famous actresses in Los Angeles, that cowboys raised cattle to supply the thousands of McDonalds’ restaurants across the country, that high school students spent their time driving around and chatting standing by their lockers, that dreams came true through hard work and that stories always had a happy end.

I was naïve and ignorant. The first time we drove through New York state, I was shocked to see how run-down and poor small cities seemed to be. I never got used to news relating yet another gun violence incident. I can’t possibly comprehend the cultural gap created by years of segregation and it’s hard to believe how many Americans have been written out of this scripted American Dream.

As Canadians, we are privy to American debates, issues and challenges that the rest of the world turns a blind eye to because it’s just more comforting to believe in a land of milk and honey. After all the USA won the Cold War—if the winner isn’t doing that great, who and what can we possibly believe in?

Today, in honour of the upcoming election, here are 20 aspects of the US I find puzzling—as a French and as a Canadian.

An ability to develop and spread extreme theories: from “birthers” who claim Obama is not an American citizen to “anti-vaxxer” who believe that vaccination causes autism, from “creationists” who make a “scientific case against evolution” to “truthers” who believe that 9/11 was an inside job/no one ever walked on the moon/the earth is flat, there is a conspiracy theory for everyone. The worst part is, they don’t come from your crazy drunk uncle. You see completely normal people explaining on national TV that lizard people run the country.

The lack of workers rights: in “at will” states, an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason and without warning. The USA are virtually the only industrialized nation where employers are no required to pay employees for time not worked, such as vacations or holidays.  It is also one of only two countries in the world that don’t mandate paid maternity leave. And anyone who utters the word “union” is a “commie”…

The huge role played by communities and charities: Americans can be amazingly generous and kind. It’s not uncommon to see a community rallying together for a cause or citizens supporting each other in tough times. The USA often tops the World Giving Index that ranks countries according to how charitable they are.

The constant quest for productivity: Americans like to improve themselves the world around them. A large corner of the Web is dedicated to “lifehacks” to work better, live better, study better, be a better person—you get the picture. Life is short, make the most of it.

Distrust of the government: many people around the world aren’t completely in love with their government, but few think it’s the enemy. I’ve rarely seen a massive level of distrust of the public sector and especially of the federal government anywhere else. I’d say it’s complete paranoia… but then, the US government did some pretty crazy shit over the years.

The culture of debt: The country is in debt and so are individuals. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, outstanding student loan debt in the United States lies between $902 billion and $1 trillion. Everything has a price tag, including education, healthcare needs and the American Dream…

A genuine passion for entertainment: ever heard a French screaming “oh mon dieu!!” with excitement? Nope? Me neither. However, in the US, you’ll see people living events and milestones with a passion few grownups keep into adulthood. Movies, sports events, festivals, concerts—the entertainment industry is huge and powerful.

Playing with food like five-year-old kids left in charge of the kitchen: love croissants, love donuts? Then make a cronut! Combine burgers to make a McGangbang! Enjoy gourmet Mac’n’Cheese in posh restaurants! In a country where bigger is better, people go shamelessly wild with food. Meanwhile, the food industry is purposely creating the most caloric and unhealthy stuff ever, yet most people seem to follow some kind of strict diet or have a food allergy. Go figure.

The immoderate love for freedom: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to carry a gun… Americans like to be free. I mean, we all do, but Americans will go far to defend these freedoms. Meanwhile, the incarceration rate is the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population…

The race issue: not that it’s a valid excuse, but at some level, I can understand a certain distrust toward new immigrants. It has always existed—newcomers “steal jobs”, “are dangerous”, “different”, etc. What I cannot comprehend is the race issue dividing citizens of the same country, people who share the same language, the same culture, etc. but have a different skin colour. I can’t believe state-supported segregation lasted so long and that social and economic segregation is still a major issue.

The legal drinking age: it’s 21-years old and no, it’s not merely a suggestion—it’s actually taken seriously. By those over 21, that is. Meanwhile, the fake ID market is thriving and I have no doubt most teens find a way around the law, because seriously, 21?

The apparent inability to separate nudity from sex: not all nudity is sexual and you can perform sexual acts partially dressed. Oh, and also, sex is a normal part of life, people. Stop going crazy when boobs are shown. Consequently, sex-related topics are very polarizing in the US—and side note, America has pioneered the harsh punishment of sex offenders but unfortunately, public urination and having sex on the beach can land you on the sex offenders registry.

The healthcare system: what surprises the most is that Americans somehow tend to think their system is the rule worldwide rather than the exception. With slight regional differences, most developed countries around the world rely on single-payer healthcare. I can’t imagine having to deal with private insurance companies or getting in debt because of medical issues.

The imperial system:  yards, miles, pounds, Fahrenheit… Can you translate it for the rest of the world? We don’t understand this “oz” thing on our drinks and we have no idea if you’re hot or cold when it’s “50F”!

Nationwide marketing strategies: Halloween, Boxing Day, Black Friday, Cyber Monday… They hardly have any equivalent in any other country. Every year it’s the same thing and every year these “events” are successful. I don’t get it.

The importance of religion: Religious expressions such as “praying for someone”, “God bless”, etc. are commonplace and seen as completely normal. State and religion are not strictly separated and religious beliefs do influence political decisions on topics such as abortion and reproductive rights, school curriculum, etc.

College sports: Apparently, there is an entire category of students who attend university just to play with a ball. And they are respected. The French student in me is baffled. Who takes college sports seriously? Right, Americans.

Gun-related stuff, like gun violence, the gun lobby and the second amendment: Trump claimed that if French had been armed, the Bataclan terrorist attack would have taken a different turn. Meanwhile, American news networks often inform us of the latest tragedy—police shooting, sniper, school shootings, etc.

The presidential election process: The popular vote does not determine the winner. Instead, Presidential elections use the Electoral College… and the rest of us hope the votes won’t need to be recounted (Bush 2000, anyone?)

Despite so many challenges, the ability to make the world believe in the American Dream: every year, millions of people participate in the official Green Card Lottery, hoping to get their golden ticket to the US. The USA is a dream for many immigrants who want to be part of it and who want to believe.

America, once again the spotlight is on you.

Big Brother… we, the people, are watching! Vote wisely. Please.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

38 Comments

  1. I had a fake ID at 15! Yeah – there is a lot of madness in America. I am so glad that I am not giving birth over there – the lack of maternity pay just astounds me! I think you have summed up a lot of my feelings in this post actually.

    • I had a fake ID too, well, let’s just say I, ahem, altered my student ID to see 16+ movies when I was about 13. But really, IDing isn’t a French thing, it was rarely enforced.

  2. Once again we share the exact same feelings and interrogations about the US. To be honest it scares me more than a little to know they are only an hour away from where I live…
    I have recently read an amazing book about race in America: Americanah by Chimamende N’Gozu Adiche (Should google her name lol). It’s written from the perspective of a Nigerian woman who comes to America. Best book I have read in a while. I want to write about it on the blog as well, but need to sort out my thoughts first

    • Thank you for the book recommendation! I’m looking for it right now 🙂

      Do you ever cross the border to the US? Is it a popular thing to do in your area? Around here (also an hour drive from Ottawa), it was a national pastime to shop in the US when the dollar was at par.

      • Some people do go down to Montana yes, when the $ is on par a lot of things are much cheaper.
        I have to say though I am not a big fan of the culture in the border town here. They are very much into protecting the right to bear arms and there were several anti-Obama posters around last time I went.
        The idea that people walking around me could be packing really makes me uncomfortable.

        • Eek, yep, I see your point. Mind you, it’s the same in NY state, across the border from Ottawa. Many smalls towns, most of them quite conservative I think. I don’t mind a conservative point of view even if it’s not mine. Life would be boring if we were all the same. That said, there is a line you can’t cross in my book, for me that would be so-called “pro life” people and blatantly racist groups.

          • I agree I can absolutely respect a conservative point of view. But I draw the line at discrimination / “pro-life” and just plain nuttiness! Some of those conservatives are just that, nuts! 😉

          • Oh, I agree. And it’s funny how people cross the line from “okay, this is what I believe” to crazy talk. I see that on the left-leaning side too. Like, I completely respect vegetarians or vegans but chatting with PETA people makes me want to hit my head against the wall.

  3. Excellent thought provoking post.. 🙂
    I also cannot understand why the Americans have this electoral thing when it comes to voting but yeah it’s going to be interesting to see what happens tomorrow, I’m just glad I am not voting because both candidates are really bad as far as I’m concerned

    • I should look into it… the origin of this complicated voting process. I think we will all be looking forward to seeing the results tomorrow!

    • I think it might be because there’s such a gap between states, for example between Kansas and California: one is way more populated than the other. Voting directly would mean that the most populated states would actually elect directly the president and the least populated states would have absolutely no weight in the process. So the current electoral system adjusts the electoral weights in a very heterogeneous federal country.
      Just a simple guess.

      • Uh, interesting. Didn’t think of it this way. But isn’t it the same for all countries? I mean, it’s not exactly la Creuse who elects le président…

        • Hmmm, not really. The US are quite a populated country (318 millions of people VS 65 millions). It’s more like the EU, size wise. And as the EU, it’s such a heterogeneous country that it makes sense, in my mind. Otherwise, North Dakota people or Rhode Island people wouldn’t go to the polls, and they’d be be right, because, their vote wouldn’t matter.

          • Plus, the US are a federal country, and the federal government don’t have as much power as the federal government in Canada, for example.
            I think there must be something to do with the senate and the chamber but I’m not a specialist in US politics (though I’ve watched The West Wing many times!!! 😉 )

          • Another puzzling aspect of life in the US… many people complained Obama didn’t solve issues. HE COULD NOT! He was legally stuck!!

  4. You pretty much covered it, for me. I was in the NY/NJ/PA area for two weeks recently, and after an absence of three years from the USA (the longest of almost my whole life), it felt like landing on another planet. My friends are up in arms about this election, too, many of who would leave the country if there weren’t so much at stake, eg., families, property, businesses.

    “What’s it like being back?” they asked me.

    “Like I’m in an alternative universe!”

    “That’s how we feel every day.”

    There are people who I know pay more for their HEALTH INSURANCE than their mortgage! Can you believe that?

    Before the ACA (ObamaCare), my friends with pre-existing conditions couldn’t get insurance at all. It may be expensive for them now, but at least they have an option and can’t be denied. Now the public is complaining that insurance premiums are higher than before, but that’s not the government’s fault — why aren’t they blaming the companies who set the rates too high in the first place??

    That’s the part that boggles my mind, and you’ve mentioned it here: Americans don’t trust the government to manage anything, but THEY elect the government, the books have to be open, and the public can boot out an elected leader if they’re dissatisfied. But instead they’d rather trust corporations with a profit motive, whose books are closed, and who they can’t send packing if they do a crappy job???

    • I’m glad to see I’m not the only puzzled (and slightly concerned) neighbours! Especially coming from you, who lived in the US and know the country well. I can’t help thinking there are solutions to the many issues the USA face, but that mindset has to change first. I found it hard to believe that people would be against Obamacare, even though I understand implementation was tricky and there were hiccups. Why wouldn’t you want something that helps you??

      • The solutions are there (plenty of other countries have them already), but you’re right about the resistance to adopting those solutions: They’re somehow, fundamentally “un-American.” Nevermind that these options make all kinds of sense.

        Regulations? Forget it! (Hello, Global Financial Crisis, Subprime Mortgage Crisis?)

        Restrictions on weapons? Forget it! (Hello, why are you building memorials to children mowed down by military assault rifles and hoping this problem just takes care of itself?)

        It is so bizarre how one friend in Philadelphia had to use her vacation to try and get some maternity leave (and she works for a university!), and in New York, another friend told me that the Linkedin office has a speakeasy as their standout corporate “benefit”. I was treated for lunch at the NYC office of Yahoo, where they have chefs on site to make this enormous spread every day. It’s a buffet and all the leftovers get chucked… every day. Nobody is allowed to take leftovers, and I’m told in other tech companies this is even cause for dismissal!

        I know someone else who has been working for a bank for years and years and has never been able to get more than two weeks of vacation, while her MANAGER has been working there for well over 30 years and maxes out vacation at 3 weeks. I *started* with 3 weeks of vacation at my part-time job on Bay Street in Toronto, which is arguably the most workaholic place in Canada.

        Those situations say a lot about the working culture in America. But nobody wants to protest, because that would look too much like a union! It’s un-American!

        • Oh, thank you for the link! Going to read this.

          Indeed, writing this article I realized (again) how different Canada is from the US. We may have the same brands, the same mass media, but society is fundamentally different.

  5. Good analysis. You have covered my main concerns.

    I think that the story of Mouseland by Tommy Douglas, introduced by his grandson Kiefer Sutherland, is applicable to the U.S. as well as Canada. It doesn’t matter if it is the Black Cats or the White Cats that get elected, they still only make laws that are good for cats not mice. Too bad, I think that Bernie Sanders would have helped the mice. What we have in this election is just a change of managers representing the 1 percent cats.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqgOvzUeiAA

  6. I think most of the puzzling aspects of the US life could be summed up in: “the lack of regulations, whatever the topic, because, you know, FREEDOM”

    • That’s true! Yet, the legal aspect of things is very important in a country where suing is kind of a national sport. Puzzling, indeed.

      • FREEDOM!!!!!!

        Freedom of suing. Freedom of dying.
        Actually, the legal system in the US and the suing process is that intense because, for example, if you burn your tongue while drinking a McDonald’s coffee (true story), as there’s no social security, you wouldn’t have any other choice than suing to pay for your medical fees.
        As education is so expensive, you don’t have any other choice than suing somebody to earn a little bit of money for it. And so on, and so on…
        Suing is an “easy” way to get money and pay for expenses…
        In my mind, really, anything is related to Freedom. The distrust in the government, the distrust in the system, the “freedom” of corporation, the “freedom” of money.

        And yet, they don’t see that they’ve the freedom of dying because of an infection or HIV because no social security. The freedom of dying by gun because freedom means no gun control. And so on… It’s complex yet so simple!

        • The “suing” par of life became more logic to me when I realize that most of the time, it wasn’t so much for justice than to recoup some health expenses. Which is super fucked up in another kind of way but still, it makes sense to get one party’s insurance to pay for the other party’s medical care.

          However, the McDonalds’ burning cup story was actually not frivolous apparently. The old lady suffered third-degree burns because the coffee was three times the normal, recommended temperature. This is one of the “wait, let me explain” stories that circulates online 😉

  7. I’m currently living in Southern California, one the least “American” places if we are going by your list. Frankly you hit the nail on the head and I don’t know why we have those things either. I’ve more or less lost faith in the American electorate after this election, and our president-elect is salting the earth by continuing to foster distrust in the media. I can’t imagine the nutjobs we’re gonna elect once people can believe whatever they want. Getting away from those 20 things is not “culture shock”, it’s freaken sanity bliss. I’m sure you guys have your share of crazy, but at the risk of sounding like an arrogant American… we’re definitely the BEST! …in crazy

    • Thank you for understanding that this list 1) wasn’t anti-American 2) was a global view of the country and didn’t necessarily reflect practices and culture in all states. I understand that state A is different from state B, etc.

      There are scary folks in the US… but there are also amazing people, so hopefully you (as in “good people”) can win the battle 😉 We kind of count on you!

      • One of the problems of our political process here is that nobody seems willing to consider what the outside view of their party looks like. Usually its those perspectives that highlight our weaknesses and areas where we need to improve. I read a fair amount of news from both left and right (some hard right) sites, and there are a lot of things that Liberals can learn from these opinions – and vice versa. But you’d never know that around here because the internet algorithms are designed to feed you the things you like, not necessarily need. What your article did was take an outside view of the country, and reveal how many things that we Americans take as our “normal” is really quite twisted and unnecessary. America still has a lot of things going for it, but #1 and #4 can probably destroy it in the long run. Right now half the country doesn’t trust the other, and I feel that way too.

        • The bipartisan party seems strange, viewed from outside the US. It leads to a very binary view of the world and domestic issues, kind of like “you are either with us or against us”. It’s too bad, really.

          I also agree with you: I’m always surprised to hear Americans who have no idea that X, Y or Z is NOT the norm around the world, but a purely American thing. The healthcare system, for instance, or the lack of paid holidays.

          • Unfortunately our election system inevitably leads to two parties. You can look up videos by CGP grey on elections as he explains it way better than I can. But basically the winner-take-all electoral votes in each states makes it so that only two parties can have a shot at winning. Throw in some gerrymandering for extra seasoning of crazy. I’m deeply disappointed by both the way the right won the election and the way the left is reacting to it. My much older friends tell me that the countries lived through worse, but they also said that we’d never elect someone like Drumpf. Expect more crazy stories in the upcoming years. Who knows, it might just be you guys building that wall to keep people like me out. lol

          • Well, if we ever build a wall, I’ll let you in. You sound like a sane specimen, an interesting one to chat with too!

            So where did you get your political views? How did you build your own political outlook? I’m asking because you sound very aware of America’s strengths and weaknesses and way past the “Muricah, fuck yeah!” stage some of your countrymen are stuck into 😉

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