Unpleasant Realities of American Life

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As much as I love living in America, I must admit some aspects of life can be quite annoying. I think prospective immigrants should be given the whole picture and I don’t believe wearing pink-colored glasses really helps on the long run.

This is not about bashing Canada or North America, or saying that other countries on earth are by comparison much better. This is about giving some other facts, for once a bit on the “minus” side.

So here my list of what I consider are “unpleasant realities of American life”.

Political apathy: people are pretty cynical about politics and many don’t bother to vote. In the United States, approximately 55% of the eligible population registers to vote, in Canada, it’s 76%. Pretty low compared to Europe, for example… There aren’t a lot of parties either: in the USA, it’s basically between Democrats and Republicans, and in Canada between the Liberals, the Conservatives and maybe the Bloc. I rarely see or hear people arguing about politics: let’s face it, the rise of Obama and the atmosphere during the last presidential elections in the U.S.A was pretty exceptional!

Religion is everywhere: it’s hard being an atheist or an agnostic in North America. People take faith very seriously: 73% of Americans say that they believed in a God and in Canada, only 16% report having no religious affiliation. If you are just a casual atheist, like I am, you will soon learn to not debate with people and to keep your lack of faith to yourself. Activist atheists will face a much bigger challenge, since religion and beliefs are deeply rooted here. Bigger headaches too, as they will realize that the separation between the church and the state in blurred at best! In smaller communities, going to church may be the only way to “fit in”. Europeans may also be surprised to notice that what are considered as “cult” there are very popular religions on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Driving is a way of life: cities are usually far apart, spread out and most people get around by driving. Only bigger cities have efficient public transportation and the city planning is usually made in favor of drivers. Simply put, taking public transportation is simply not practical a lot of times. Therefor, it is pretty common for a household to have two cars or more… Walking is often seen as an activity that need to be planned, not something you do to get from point A to point B. Similarly, people would drive to the gym, exercise for an hour, and then drive back home…

Buy or die: consuming and buying are seen as something very positive that helps the economy. The more, the better. You can shop pretty much any time since stores open late and don’t usually close on Sunday. And if, exceptionally, stores are closed… don’t worry, there is always the internet! There are always sales going on and any major holidays or event is over-marketed months ahead. To give you an idea, we are in July and I saw the first “back to school” sales at Wal Mart! Halloween sales start as soon as mid-September, Christmas merchandises are sold right after Halloween etc.

Whose debt? A lot of emphasis is put on living beyond your means. Americans carry the most credit cards, with an average of 4 cards per person. You are always encourage to get yourself in debt: from credit cards companies sending you applications with ridiculous credit limit (I’m talking ten of thousands here) to the “buy now pay later” scheme in stores. Being in debt seem to be a fact of life here and most people are quite casual about it. Ironically, you do need to have credit cards to build your credit history, in order to be able to get a mortgage later on.

The power of marketing: there is an insane number of commercials on TV and advertising in general everywhere. Public space is cluttered with billboards and I have to skim through the newspaper to find the genuine articles among all the crap. Movies start 15 minutes late because of the advertising… there are even ads on garbage can and on public bathroom’s doors! I’m tired of retrieving flyers in my mailbox and to walk home just to find more in a small plastic bag hung at the doorknob. I hate adversing.

Eat, eat, eat: all in all, food is pretty unhealthy. Portions, for a start, are huge. Junk food is incredibly cheap and convenient: there is a fast food at every corner! People eat just about anytime and anywhere: watching a movie at the theater, doing a meeting, driving, being in the bus… And I find most North Americans don’t have a healthy relationship with food anyway, from eating the wrong foods too often to banning some food groups altogether as a way to diet, from binge eating and exercising to exorcise heavy meals to eating too much too often.

Have fun!: North Americans value “entertainment”: work hard, play hard. Movies, music, sports, everything is bigger, funnier and better. It does get a bit annoying though, because everything is very short-term and quite superficial. You will hear about a movie for months before its release date for example, only to see it last for two weeks at the theater. Somebody is the biggest star one day and a total loser the next.Consistency, people…

Media Hysteria: medias are very powerful and they take their role seriously. It’s not so much the media biais that drives me crazy, but rather this weird twisted way of exaggerating every single event. Mickael Jackson died? We had 24/7 footage about the news, including the video of Jackson’s Body being flown from the hospital to the coroner’s office (with close-ups). Demonstration in Iran? No deep coverage of historical issues etc. but the same footage of blurry demonstrations all over again. Less pictures, more talk, people!

How about you? What drives you crazy?

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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.

27 Comments

  1. I so agree with you on just about every point…

    What drives me crazy – Political apathy and lack of knowledge because you only “agree or want” to hear the 1 sided story.

    For us out on the west coast, I don’t think religion is everywhere. I only know of one person who attends church. Maybe it’s because I am an athlete? I’ve known very few people who go to church actually.

    Driving everywhere -I hate that! It’s rather a must here. Can’t you just jump on the train and get home???

    Buy or Die – be it a big car, expensive house or the next tv. It’s everywhere here, but a little less in Canada.

    Who’s debt? Yup – a big one. I’ve lost the practice since moving to Europe and have been happy not being part of the “American” way of credit cards..

    Eat, eat, eat. Here in Victoria, it’s quite different. I only know of 2 McDonald’s, 1 Tim Horton’s, 1 A&W and I’m not sure of anything more. They are not in walking distance and I go there like 1 time a year if I’m in a bind!

    Food – There’s no taste in food here compared to Europe. Portions are too big, and everything is always rushed! Slow down people!

    As well – people don’t enjoy time with family, enjoy doing things together and having family as a big part of every day life. Here in Canada, it’s a bit different, but still nothing like that of Europe.

  2. silverneurotic on

    The two biggest for me are the driving and the debt things. Its so wasteful to have to get in your car to do anything-yet, that’s reality where I live. Everything is so far away and spread out that you literally couldn’t walk, plus there’s really no safe place to walk along a lot of the roads.

    The only things I can justify going into debt are things like education, transportation (like a car loan-because of number one), buying property, etc. I have credit cards. I do use them, but never excessively-I need to be able to pay them off in full at the end of the month.

  3. It is always interesting to see someone else’s perspective on things like these. The thing is, I’ve never spent a lot of time in Europe, so I cannot compare things well the way you do. However, I totally agree on all the points you mention here, from the transportation thing (I am currently job-hunting, and one of the things I consider is whether I would be able to move around comfortably with public transportation or whether I should get a car if I need to move to another city), the religion thing (which I find totally bizarre, being a strong atheist myself), and the eating thing (portions here are way bigger than in Manila, nor in the European cities that I have been to).

  4. Perhaps I rant, but I have increasing respect for Quebec in its fight to protect its culture. I am an American living in Toronto and I am amazed at how lax Canadians are at allowing American culture to be broadcast into their homes as if it is the same as that in Canada. American culture is taught to Canadian children (and adults) on Television every minute of the day. U.S. attitudes and values have equal if not more air time than Canadian ones. How many years or decades of that will it take to teach Canada to behave like Americans-that they are no different? I see it right now. Smartest move Canada could make is to regulate its broadcasting better. Canada should mirror its own culture back to its people. There is too much pressure on Canadians from the States to adopt U.S. business practices, values and attitudes. The U.S. is a very “me” based society. Canada has yet to follow its neighbor so far down that path. But it ain’t that far behind. I love living here. The cultural differences between the two countries can still be felt. I prefer it here, but Anglophile Canada could take a lesson from its Francophone brothers and take concrete steps to *truly* support it’s unique culture. As an American I would encourage Canada to culturally say “no” to the U.S. a bit more often and to strategically decide to be a bit more than just another market for U.S. businesses. Quebec made a big stink of it a couple of decades ago and continues to remind the world that it is unique *and wishes to stay that way.* Smart move. Time for the rest of Canada to make a stand and ruffle some feathers or be virtually identical to the U.S. in not only look but in soul.

  5. Well, every time we try to be different from U.S. we get bashed. We tried to get Canadian TV going on…but no one watches it. We DO want to be different from Americans but are they allowing us to be different? I once wrote a post ‘Blame Canada, eh?’ and one crazy blogger bashed me for dissing her country…So where is my freedom of speech?!

    As for Quebec, they have no freakin’ culture! I’ve been living here for 17 years and all they want is money from Ottawa. They don’t want to separate, they want sovereignty. Meaning they want to be recognized as a nation but they still want to remain in Canada. I don’t think so…if they want to separate they better start building fences around the province.

    So Zhu, everything you wrote here is very true…it reflects how Canadians really are…bunch of lazy bums stuffing themselves with junk food. :p But I think people are starting to realize that they’re getting fatter and fatter…

    Thank for the great post.

  6. I think there’s definitely a skewed view of it. Sure those things aren’t necessarily not true, but to put a blanket statement on all? Seems a bit much. However, a good article none the less.

  7. I’m with you on the “atheist” part – mentioning that you are an atheist in the USA is a lot like telling someone you hate freedom itself. You’ll get a mixture of pity, contempt, and half-formed illogical burstings that quickly teach you to zip your lips. Do you get the FOX News channel in Ottawa? If so, you have a taste of the idiotic yelling.

  8. hello Zhu!

    great post! It’s sure is not really that helpful to look at things through pink glasses. For us, average latin americans unfamiliar with cars… Getting your first driver’s licence it’s crazy! We’re tired of walking long distances and that’s possible in summer let’s not think about winter… But getting your first driver’s licence it’s a whole adventure!!! At least here in Québec it’s hard let me tell you.

  9. Ugh, the driving thing kills me. I don’t own a car and some people in my life can’t understand why. I wish I could convince them that life sans voiture is a very peaceful, carefree life! But, cars and America pretty much go hand in hand.

  10. @expatraveler – I mus admit I don’t know the West coast but I can see it has a different spirit. Maybe less fast food, less religion, I don’t know! It’s supposed to be more hippy-ish anyway from our East coast point of view.

    @kyh – That’s true, I forgot to add this point! We just don’t have the same definition of what’s old in Canada 😆

    @silverneurotic – I agree with you, mortages, education and cars are not really debts in my opinion, more an investment. Credit cards become dangerous when you use them for holidays, consumer’s products etc.

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – I think I wasn’t even trying to compare North America with Europe, just with the rest of the world in general. Asia and Latin America has good transportation for example, and don’t rely on cars as much. Food is different too, for sure.

    @Adam – Very interesting! I don’t actually know the US that well. Being a there a bit but I know the country much less than China, or Latin America. But I do realize that we, in Canada, absorb a lot of American culture and I can see you feel that too, as an American.

    I’m not sure what to think about American culture anymore… I grew up pretty anti-American, being French. You know that French really value their culture and resent the USA for “dominating” the world. I got to know the USA a bit more after I moved to Canada and realized that there was another America, more liberal, inventive and fun that I hadn’t seen before. Moral of the story, the culture the US exports and the culture within the USA are not necessarily the same…

    Now Canadians are proud of their country, but it’s true that there is a strong US influence. It’s hard living nearby such a strong country…

    As for Quebec, I used to admire yet (my French side!). I disagree with a lot of its politics though because I feel the province is just shutting itself from the world. It’s great to have a strong Quebec culture, it’s not so great when you start blaming immigrants for your troubles. Anyway, Quebec is a complicated matter…!

    @Bluefish – 😆 I wouldn’t be so harsh. I think Canadians and Americans are still different and anyway, I don’t mind Americans! Both countries are so huge, they mix several cultures, each state/ province has its own way of doing thing I guess.

    The trends I highlighted are common to both the USA and Canada though, I think.

    Quebec is… complicated. I like it, I like the culture, but the politics… not so much.

    @sir jorge – I just wanted to highlight a few points but you are right, there are many exception… and I still like this place!

    @Jonathan – “You’ll get a mixture of pity, contempt, and half-formed illogical burstings that quickly teach you to zip your lips.” I just love the way you put it! It’s basically that. Telling an American you are an atheist is like telling a Chinese you are vegetarian. Most of the time, both have issues with the core concept! 😆

    @bumanguesa – It’s hard in Ontario too. In fact, I haven’t completed my G’s yet! 😆

  11. Hi Zhu,

    No, I don’t think that you’re bashing anyone. You are a citizen now and can & should look at things objectively.

    As things are, I have not lived in North America since such a long time.So I would rather read everyone’s comments.It could be a good question for us long time expats whereever we are now to ask ” Do I really know my country now ?”.

    Bises xx

  12. I agree with all of that, but would also add lack of healthcare for the US! I’m so amazed at how bad it is here, especially compared to France. I worry about my family and friends and how they would be ruined if they ever got into an accident or got cancer or something because the government wouldn’t take care of them. And I would also add the focus on state level government instead of federal government. Sometimes centralization is a good thing if it means providing healthcare to your citizens! I’ve never understood the point of having 50 different states with their own laws. Why not just be 50 different countries then?

  13. @barbara – I feel the same about France now. The country has changed the last few years and I didn’t cat

    @Jennie – I thought of it but the system is pretty good in Canada, so this is more a US specific issue. A major one though, I agree! I never truly understood why it’s so hard to change it… Free or at least affordable health care should be mandatory!

  14. Unfortunately I think you hit the nail right on the head. I was blind to it before I moved outside the country and found out thats now how life is everywhere.

  15. I have to agree with you on most of these. National elections should be a national holiday, so people who work all day aren’t too tired to vote and what not.

    And I love Phoenix, but I’m really hoping the light rail gets things moving in the right direction in terms of public transportation and building up higher density areas. This city is basically one huge spread out suburb. All built around the road, like LA.

    Debt is another freaky situation. Both at the federal gov level, corporate level, and personal level.

    As for food, corn is hugely subsidized here, which helps keep bad foods like sodas and awful snack foods very cheap, while vegetables and fruit get no subsidies. It should be the other way around… although I’m not a huge of farm subsidies, since most of them go to huge corporate farms and not little farms, and these subsidies have been very detrimental for African farmers. Europe also has terrible farm subsidies.

    Sorry, went off on a tangent there!

  16. I just typed a really long response and forgot to enter my email so when i hit the back button none of it saved. 🙁 Now i’m too tired to reiterate what you said and go into my soapbox speach about oversized vehicles..lol

    ps my blog moved, muse is now at Xanadana (long story)

  17. The debt thing goes for the U.K. and, to a lesser extent, for France.
    The man in my life has not had a loan for over forty years and does not have a credit card…..his choice.
    He wanted to open a new bank account and found that he had an ‘unacceptable’ credit history!
    We are hoping to visit friends who have moved to Missouri and they are already sending us warnings…

  18. Nice, I feel quite the same. Driving and debt are things that bother me the most, esp since my bike got stolen yesterday and I have to pay tons of debt to university (don’t know how)….!!

    Coming from India, I also felt a strong reaction to the individualism here – not always an unpleasant thing, but it often seems selfish, you know.

  19. @DianeCA – It’s funny how you really need to get out of a place to see its good and bad sides!

    @Seb – No worries! The lack of transportation drives me crazy too, especially given that I hate driving everywhere. I miss the subway/ tramway.

    @Muse – Sorry about that! You shouldn’t get me started on oversized vehicles anyway 😆

    @the fly in the web – Yes, it’s ironic that you NEED to have a credit card and that everybody, from the gov’ to companies, encourage you to spend so much.

    @Final_Transit – Yes, even I feel the individualism, but it’s hard to pinpoint… I imagine the feeling is more extreme when you come from India or Asia.

  20. Two things- the death of personal responsibility, where everybody is suing someone else because they couldn’t figure out that coffee is HOT, and the absolutely appalling educational system. Most kids (and adults) in the US couldn’t, for example, point to spain on a map.

  21. Hello again,

    Political apathy: Europeans are always talking about politics, even if/when they do not understand a thing about it. But we are all registered to vote, even if we don’t.

    Religion is everywhere: that is shocking. Politics and religion should not walk hand in hand, and I have noticed that in North America they do. It is unthinkable, in Europe, to have a political candidate having to defend its Christianity to the electorate…we simply do not care (as long as you serve the people properly). We do not care if the candidate is married or not either (again, as long as it does its job successfully). And soon we will follow Iceland’s example and we will not care whether a candidate is gay or not, as long it is a good politician and does good to the nation.
    I would prefer if people would yield to spirituality instead of religion…but oh well, the world is not perfect.

    Driving is a way of life: I know. If I lived there I would have to take a driver’s licence (thank God I don’t LOL).

    Buy or die: I like that in North Americans.

    Whose debt?: awful! Thank God Europeans are more cautious.

    The power of marketing: detestable!

    Eat, eat, eat: Urrrghhhh….

    Have fun!: I agree with you “Consistency, people…”

    Media Hysteria: again, I agree with you “Less pictures, more talk, people!”….the media fatigues me! I am a fan of MJ but have O.Ded on him recently *nodding*.

    Great post, girl! 😀

    Cheers
    .-= Max Coutinho´s last blog ..A comment on two issues… =-.

  22. Good descriptions of the way things are in the U.S.ofA. At times you seemed to be lumping Canada in with the U.S., other times not. I’m also fed up with the emphasis on religion and belief in God here in America, and I’ve lived here all my life. Those are telling statistics you gave about belief in God here in America (73%) versus Canada (16%). I’d seriously consider moving to Nova Scotia if they’d take me but I’m too old and would never get Canadian citizenship. All in all very good comments you made.
    .-= Mardé´s last blog ..Updike’s Rabbit =-.

  23. The voter registration is a false comparison. Most European countries have compulsory registration, even if not compulsory voting, and some countries have the latter. The US and Canada do not – it’s a right, not an obligation. Give people the option in Europe and you probably wouldn’t see statistics all that different. Apathy is international.

    • I agree that apathy is a worldwide issue. That said, in France where I’m from, there are no compulsory registration or voting system and participation is still much much higher than in North America.

  24. Late comment. I’m a little confused that you said you live in America and not so great things about American life since you live in Canada.
    I know the US and Canada are similar, but we are still very different and some of the drawbacks of each are distinctive.

    Also the political parties in Canada are much more than in the US-There’s Cons, Liberals, NDP, Green Party, Bloc Party, Marijuana Party and Communist Party. It’s just Canadians tend to vote more for the major three-Cons, Libs and NDP. And here in Ottawa, people talk about two things: Politics and Hockey. 😉

    Anyways, my main beefs with living here are the lack of doctors and medical specialists, the deplorable state of the education system and the weather. (I’m still not used to the winter and I’ve been here my entire life! ;))

    • Don’t worry, I’m well aware that Canada and the U.S have different cultures. But sometimes, to my French mind, it’s “America”, as in “North America”. I guess I should precise.

      I love living in the new world but there are stuff I don’t like, same as with every places. But you are right, when you look closely the drawbacks of the two countries are very different. I assume I was in full “old world” mood when I wrote the article!

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