Returning to the USA for a visit I realize that the country is different than how I remember it.
Something seems different here. It has been two and a half years since I was last in the USA. This is the longest I’ve every gone without passing through my home country.
I would usually stop in the USA to see my family once per year as I either crossed from one hemisphere to another or made a big jump across Latin America that necessitated the use of a good air travel hub. My family conveniently lives near Rochester, NY, a puddle jump from JFK — a major junction on one of the earth’s main highways.
Transitioning through my childhood home has always been a way for me to conclude one stretch of travel and begin another. It’s a way of abstractly segmenting out my life and keeping all the countries, cities, mountains, deserts, and years from puddling together into one soggy blur. I come home, dump all of the data that I’ve collected on my computers onto a hard drive, think about what I did, and plot out my next moves. Last year I didn’t make this stop, and I now feel myself a little disoriented because of it.
Two and a half years was enough time to begin forgetting how life really is in my home country. Or maybe things really have changed, which wouldn’t be altogether very surprising. No place is ever stagnant, but unless something cataclysmic happens — such as your entire neighborhood being demolished or a Walmart going up next door — noticing it in your hometown is sometimes challenging. You must be away for a relatively long time before the gradual transitions of culture and development are evident. Apparently, two and a half years is enough.
Americans are not as politically stupid and morally rigid as they make themselves seem
I feel as if I’ve been inundated by the US media since the last time I was here. I’m unsure how this happened, and I’ve never really taken any media source very seriously — I know that what we do is entertainment, first and foremost. The American media — including popular independent media and blogs — are cesspools of sharp edged opinions, tribal sentiments, and endless bickering. Everybody likes to argue, we all like listening to whatever windbag we’ve endeared ourselves to and say, “Yup, ain’t that the truth” as we try to remember their arguments to project upon some unsuspecting bystander later in the day. Engaging this crap makes us feel smart, it’s stimulating, it’s mentally active media consumption. Figuring out where ourselves and the people around us stand is also simply fun. So we hunker down into own personal ideological bunkers, firmly insulated against the intrusions of other ideas and opinions — of truth and reason.
Upon returning to the USA I expected to have a petty political/ moralistic pissing matches with everyone I met. Over the years I would glance at my wife’s “friend’s” Facebook posts glorifying this or that political position and find myself irritated. I found myself expecting people to act like they do over social media or like the authors of the blogs they read, and correct each statement I made with phantom-facts culled from some documentary of magazine article.
Though the moral milk baths that I was expecting to receive have not yet come. Instead, I’ve been met with either flexible ambivalence or exploitative responses.
Granted, there are probably more moralizers and self-appointed teetotalers in the USA per capita than anywhere else on the globe, but when out in the streets Americans tend to check their brimstone and hellfire in exchange for demure politeness. You won’t run into trouble unless someone falsely identifies you as one of their own. Opinions seem to be a sport here more than in most other place I’ve been, but if you don’t want to play you’re rarely forced out onto the field.
People laugh a lot here
There are few populations in the world that seem to laugh more than Americans. Laughter in the USA is on par with Chile. You can walk around a city, through a supermarket, or pull up at a gas station and hear people making up funny responses, telling jokes, and cackling with each other. I’ve been moving through the world since 1999, and I know that wholesale public laughter is something this planet has a deficit of.
Humor — or attempts at it — have become so ingrained in American culture that one liners, witty responses, or sardonic remarks are almost a social requirement. When you have a quick social exchange with someone here you just feel this impulse to say something that you can chuckle about. These people seem to feel awkward when not making jokes. Humor is a way for this culture to show that they care about the person they’re talking to.
This is a social attribute that often gets Americans into trouble abroad.
People are friendly, almost too friendly
I found myself a buck short when going through a checkout line in Walmart. The cashier said $29, I had $28. As I thought for a moment about what I wanted to discard from my order the woman in line behind me said, “How much ya need? I’ve got it right here.” My initial reaction was to wave her off and just chuck something, but when I looked at the lady it was clear that she was trying to do something nice. So I took her offer. As soon as I did the woman behind her cackled and called out, “If she didn’t do it I was going to!”
My wife and daughter found themselves waiting in a long line to use the toilets at JFK. Needing a quicker option they made for the family restroom. When the woman who was in there exited she informed them that there wasn’t any toilet paper. My wife cringed, my daughter had just crapped herself. Seeing her reaction the lady reached into her purse and pulled out a packet of wipes.
I was in JFK’s terminal 1 — which could easily be called the worst in America — and I had to exit the boarding gate area because the food was far too expensive. I went to McDonald’s on the outside. I at first ordered two sausage egg McMuffins, then, after a couple of minutes, decided to change it to steak and cheese bagels. Of course, they were already making the first order, I had already paid, and I was just given back my change. My request would require a complete revamping of the order, a redo on my change, and potentially the chucking of the sausage and egg McMuffins. “You know, you’re really making things difficult for us,” the black girl behind the counter spoke. Though there was something in the way she looked at me as she batted her long fake eyelashes and coolly cocked her head to the side that meant that she wasn’t really pissed off. But she still didn’t feel like canceling the order and refunding my money just so we could do it all again. So she called to the girl in the back preparing the food to make the change. She didn’t even seem to care that my second order was supposed to cost more.
She didn’t have to do that.
I could keep going on here, but I think the point has been made: random acts of kindness are incredibly prevalent in the USA. I’ve never been in a country where people are so bent on doing simple nice things for complete strangers. I can’t say that it’s a particularly pernicious trend.
People are friendly
I travel, I write. To do these two things I need to talk to people. I have “on mode,” when I’m working, and “off mode,” when I just act like myself and I’m not story seeking. When in “on mode” I have to be a social predator. That means starting conversations with random strangers. The American people — as in the accumulated experiences that lead to a general impression of a society — are overtly friendly. You can sit down near someone and just start talking. Oftentimes, they will look at you like a spotlighted raccoon and get a little jittery and nervous that a stranger selected them to talk to. But they don’t seem to know what else to do, so they talk back.
It’s not like this everywhere.
People have gotten super fat
It sounds cliche to say, but the people of the USA seem fatter — way fatter. I don’t know if I’ve simply been away too long and don’t remember how wide the average person is here, the fact that people that I know personally are expanding, or if the country truly is statistically packing on more girth, but I was immediately enthralled by the size of people as soon as I stepped off the plane. I suppose even Americans are not except from the standard observation of new arrivals in the USA.
Everybody seems overweight here, which, as this is in nature a relative term, kind of alters the definition: if everyone is fat then you must have to be really fat to be overweight. I walk around the Walmart and the supermarkets watching people. How did they get so big?
I know from traveling through 50+ countries that pretty much the entire world eats diets that are packed with sugar, fat, and carbs. The largest section in any Chinese grocery store is for candy, Latin America is blanketed in friend chicken restaurants, soda is drank more readily than water almost everywhere. Everybody is now spending their free time sitting idle on computers and tablets and smart phones. So why do Americans seem so much larger?
The only possibility that I can come up with is that the people in a large portion of the USA live in car-centric locations. We need to drive to get anywhere. When I tell people in most other countries that public transportation doesn’t exist where I come from they look at me like I’m twisted. They can’t comprehend that there are no buses, no trains, no form of public transport at all that services anywhere within 30 miles of where I grew up. We have to drive everywhere, there is no other option. This means we walk less, we move less, we don’t inherently get the exercise that comes from simply living that most of the world is generally allotted.
People are obsessed with health
The USA has a society that is very prone to extremes, and while the country gets fatter there is also a major movement towards health cultivation. Apparently, the critical mass of the country has realized that maybe eating foods packed with chemicals and sprayed with neurotoxins may not be the healthiest thing to do. The organic food movement is no longer something for societal fringe elements, it’s gone mainstream. The “run of the mill” of America is now looking down their noses at processed food — the stuff we grew up eating.
My mother is now militant about the GAPS diet, ferments everything, and introduced me to some strange fungus thing in a jar that looked like a cow’s tongue. She is serving me foods that not even I — a world traveler for 15 years — have ever eaten before. She raised me on a diet of hot dogs, mac and cheese, meatloaf, and spaghetti.
Everybody I talk to seems to be telling each other what foods are the healthiest. What foods will kill you and what foods will make you live forever is a common topic of conversation — and a prime basis for argument and status seeking — as food morality has nearly become akin to a religion.
“Convention” is universally rejected
Everyone from every political or subcultural niche seems to have this idea of what a “typical” American is — and everybody thinks it’s not them.
“We’re not typical Americans,” I’ve heard American tourists say over and over again.
“That is the most typical American thing that you could possibly say,” I respond.
I’ve returned to the USA and it has become clear that this is no longer merely a sentiment of the young American middle class liberal, but an all out pandemic. Conservatives, liberals, urbanites, country folk — nobody seems to want to be typical.
“Americans” are the rabble, we are special . . .
This is in stark contrast in countries like China, where just about everyone you meet will try to convince you — often incorrectly — of how typical they are.
Everybody is a somebody (in their own micro-society)
Likewise, US society seems to have divided itself up into endless layers of mirco-societies. Little cultural niches where people bond over political ideas, lifestyle choices, hobbies, medical conditions, music, or even certain types of pets have sprung up everywhere. Whereas communication and broadcast technologies brought the people of this country into a collected mass in the 1950s they have now divided the people into niches and sub-niches. The micro-society rules in 21st century America.
The extent of this became apparent as I walked through JFK’s Jet Blue terminal. I could easily identify almost everyone by the social niche they fit — or were trying to fit — into. What is interesting is that the way we interact needs to be adjusted for each group, there are no standard protocols for communicating. You can really piss someone off here simply by calling him a he or her a she.
We also need to realize that everyone now has reason to think they’re top shit — and they very well may be in their little cultural subset. That dude you’re looking at who appears to be a complete loser may actually be the number 1 ranked player in the world in some video game. He thinks he’s top shit. That socially inept women you just awkwardly conversed with may in fact breed the top dogs in the world. She thinks she’s top shit. And that unemployable looking, tattooed guy with a beard and shaved head may in fact produce one of the longest running, highest traffic travel blogs in the world. He thinks he’s top shit.
Mass society doesn’t exist anymore in overly-developed countries, and the status scales that once went along with it are no longer applicable. We are now all big fish, and we need to widen our social parameters to fit our newfound egos.
The food is good, real good
People often ask me where the best food in the world is. “The USA, by far, the USA,” is how I respond. You can’t beat the food of a country of immigrants who have not yet lost their culinary knowledge. You can’t beat a culture where eating good food is perhaps its greatest collective joy.
The people of China seem to have palates that can only detect sweet, spicy, and oily, and they load their foods up with all three without regard to trifles like flavor. It’s like all the chefs or anyone who knew anything about cooking were expelled from the country long ago in exchange for cabbage hoers bearing woks. That sort of happened.
The USA, by contrast, is the food geek’s paradise. All food, from the highest to the lowest echelons of class is made with a singular intent: to taste good. I can remember my first trip to South America in 2000 when I realized that the people seemed to care very little for how food tasted: there was food and there was no food, those seemed to be the choices. It was a new concept for me. In the USA, there is Mexican, Italian, Greek, Malaysian, Thai, Chinese . . . everything from everywhere food, and it all is made to taste good.
I’d forgotten how delicious the food in my home country is.
But everybody from everywhere says this.
The longer I spent away from the USA the more I found myself despising my own culture — or what I thought it had become from viewing it remotely. The only remedy was to return and realize that Americans are really not like that.
You can’t understand any country from afar. You can’t even hope to have any idea of what the people are like there. You need to go there, get under its skin, talk to people, and challenge your assumptions. Though it’s impossible not to formulate opinions and constructs based upon media garnered information. I’ve found that this is even true of our home countries. I remained outside of the USA for two and a half years, and I forgot what things were like there.
Before departing, a Chinese friend asked me what things where like in the USA, and what I told her was pretty much the exact opposite of what I’d just written here. I stood to be corrected, and I was.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
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