Twenty years ago, if asked to define the US, I would have said “junk food,” “school shootings” and “bombing for democracy.”
French teen me was reading Mickael Moore and Barbara Ehrenreich; listening to Kurt Cobain’s utter hopelessness and The Offspring’s raw anger. But French teen me was also watching Friends and the X-Files, meeting friends at Mcdonalds’, and buying American brands because I also thought anything coming from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean was pretty damn cool.
I know, seems self-contradictory. Don’t blame me, though. I mean, the US has been executing a very efficient marketing campaign for almost a century now, branding itself as “the land of plenty,” “the world’s police,” “the land of the free” and more.
We all fell for it.
The French love criticizing Americans but like billions of people around the world, they are star-stuck. Case in point, claiming an idea or a solution comes from the US automatically grants it credentials. I remember a French news report about housing in the US. The journalist was showing a trailer park—“Americans are so inventive and flexible that some decided to live year-round in a trailer for more freedom!” Yeah, right… that and poverty, maybe?
Most of the time, the great-American-ideas-Europe-should-totally-implement make me cringe. “Do we really want to look at the US when tweaking labour laws?” “Hello… the US healthcare system should not be a source of inspiration!”
I’m speaking as a Canadian here. We live above this noisy and chaotic household. And when you live in a place long enough, you get to know your neighbours, which is why we have unique insights into Americans’ daily life. We share a common language and the world’s longest international border. We share time zones, media, a few weather patterns, cooperation efforts, some core values, and many issues.
And as Canadians, we know the “leader of the free world” doesn’t exactly have his shit together.
On one hand, everything you’ve heard about the US is true—the rags-to-riches stories, this relentless capacity to innovate, the ability to attract people from all walks of life and corners of the world.
But on the other hand, the US is a complicated place. Even Americans agree. In fact, many Americans use it as a convenient excuse for just about anything that feels uniquely American—and not in a positive way from an outsider’s perspective.
Bankruptcy due to healthcare costs? “A socialized healthcare system would never work in America!” Student debt and the crazy cost of college? “Students should choose useful majors, not like arts and literature!” America’s gun culture? “Well, can’t really count on the government to protect you, can you?”
A few years ago, somewhere on the road, I had a discussion about garbage collection with an American traveller. I can’t remember why we were talking about garbage collection, but he mentioned that garbage trucks were constantly coming and going in his neighbourhood.
“Don’t you have a dedicated garbage pickup day?” I asked.
“Not really, each household signs up with a different company, so different schedules.”
“Wait, isn’t it a public service?”
“Of course not! I’m not going to pay higher taxes just because the neighbours have five kids and more trash!”
And this is probably why I’ve never been tempted to move to the US. This is a deep personal belief, but I’d rather pay taxes for shared services and live in a society with labour laws that protect employees, consumer protection rules that favour consumers, and greater economic equality. I trust governments more than I trust megacorps—the former is usually elected, held accountable, and not entirely dedicated to making profits.
I still like Americans, though, and it’s always fun to cross the border just to see how things are going.
Last weekend, we drove to Massena, NY State, because Mark was jealous Feng and I went to Ogdensburg without him a few weeks earlier.
The clumsy pandemic ArriveCAN app is now optional, so this was our first “normal” crossing in two years.
The city felt like a ghost town. Most businesses were foreclosed on Main Street. The houses nearby were flying a “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump” flag.
“Well, he didn’t help you, did he?” Feng noted walking past yet another bankrupt business.
We looked for the shopping mall—all the stores were gone except JC Penney, it was kind of sad to see.
What happened to Massena? Two years of border closure, without Canadian shoppers?
This is one of these places many don’t suspect exist in the US—a town where the poverty rate is 24%…