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20 Puzzling Aspects of Life in the USA

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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