An American journey - things that surprised me

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I am sitting here in my apartment at the University of St. Thomas wondering where time went. It feels like only yesterday that I got to campus, and somehow we are nearly at the end. Nine cities, and eight and a half weeks later, the one question the fellows repeatedly get asked is – What has surprised you about America so far? Our usual response is to stand there with blank faces, scratching our heads for a decent answer – a response that will do justice to the experience. We usually mumble something about the Minnesota state fair, or Ely, or San Francisco and quickly change the subject. With each other, of course, we are more honest – fact is, we have seen and done a whole lot in the last two months, and not given ourselves nearly enough time to process all of it.

The big answers, the “what I really learnt on this trip” kind of epiphanies, I imagine, will probably take months, if not years to appear. In the meanwhile, I thought I’ll dig into the memory bank, to see what I can come up with. Following is my hastily put together, entirely incomplete, list of things that have surprised me about America. Remember, its just things that surprise me, given my own conditioning and past experience, some of this may not surprise any one else.

1. Only 36% (2013 statistics) Americans have passports!

I can’t remember where we first heard this, but it has come up again and again during the last few weeks – told to us by apologetic editors, or think tank executives, usually when trying to explain why there’s so little international news in the newspapers, and on television. That’s a low number for sure, but particularly low for an affluent country, specially when compared to the United Kingdom (75% in 2011) and Canada (60% in 2011). There were 61.5 million trips outside of the United States in 2009, and over 50% of them were to Mexico and Canada. One of the reasons cited for this lack of international travel is the geographical and cultural diversity of the United States, but still walking through Chinatown in San Francisco is not the same as walking in Beijing! Having said that, most of the Americans I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking to have not been well travelled, but also exceptionally well informed about the world they live in.

2. Farmers are rich! (or at least well off! or at least not poor!)

I come from a largely agrarian society, as of 2013, 50% of the entire Indian work force was involved in agriculture of some sort. Average land holdings are small, say less than 2 hectares, and the Indian farmer generally receives 10-23% of the price that a consumer pays for the same produce. Compare that to America, where the farmer gets to keep an average of 81%. Since 1991, anywhere between 2,000-15,000 (depending on who you speak to) Indian farmers have committed suicide, largely due to the stress of unpaid debts. There are of course, a few Indian farmers who have large holdings and are affluent, but they are not the norm. Popular culture too has perpetuated the image of a farmer as not just poor, but oppressed by an unjust system – watch any Bollywood film between the 1950’s – 1990. Imagine my surprise then, when we travelled to Tracy, Minnesota to meet Sandy – an all American farmer who harvests 3200 acres of corn and soy fields! The only help he has is his brother, and army of giant John Deere tractors and harvesters. Two people with machines, and if I recall clearly, he is a millionaire many times over! Good gig, to say the least.

3. The baffling American Tipping Culture

I don’t even know where to start, and how to articulate my feelings on this subject without sounding like an elitist jackass. But bear with me. I understand that, except in seven odd states, minimum wage for tipped employees is something like $2.15 per hour. So, they rely on being tipped well to make a living. Essentially, restaurant owners (they have a lobby) have found a way to pass on the cost of their employees to the customers. It also puts service staff in a position where they have to essentially rely on forced charity. It all just feels so wrong. Anywhere else in the world, service in a restaurant does not equal servitude, and a tip is usually the result of exceptional service. Anyway, this did lead to some cultural confusion for us fellows, specifically one instance in Washington where we walked out having left only 8% tip only to have the waiter follow us out of the restaurant and demand to be tipped adequately. We did, of course, but the fact that his job requires him to do that is troubling, to say the least.

4. American philanthropy

One of the first official visits on our schedule was to MinnPost – a media organization that’s funded almost entirely through member donations and other philanthropic grants. Later visits to Texas Tribune, ProPublica, and Centre for Investigative Journalism proved that this is a viable business model in America, where people are happy to give money to causes they believe in – and often that cause may as well be good journalism. Every time we discussed this, us fellows agreed that this is a uniquely American model, and would be impossible to recreate in any other country. The numbers speak for themselves – In 2013, Americans gave away $335 billion – 72 percent of that came from individuals. Nearly 1/3rd of that went to religious causes, but a tiny percentage went to journalism, and its hard not to admire that.

5. Everyone is Polite!

No, really. Everyone smiles, even in the morning! That’s scowling time – I cannot physically smile in the morning but in America, every one does. It’s so great to hear someone tell you “Have a good day” or hold the door open for you, or thank you for not littering when you pick up a stray plastic bottle to throw in the dustbin. It’s to America’s credit that it is home to some wonderful people – specially in Minnesota. All our host families have been so incredibly generous with their time, and resources, it was much, much more than I expected.

6. In no particular order, here’s some other things I found surprising – All you can drink Soda, 24 hour convenience stores, aisles and aisles of frozen food with 100 different kinds of frozen pizza, Almost every one is polite and smiles at you, even early in the morning – that’s scowling time! The non-metric system, the Fahrenheit system, anti abortion billboards on highways, prescription drug commercials on television, that you can buy a gun at 18 but not a drink, that I always get asked for an ID even though I look like I am 40. American public toilets – those little cubicles are strange for a country that seems to value privacy. I could go on, but may as well stop. Like I said, this is an incomplete list.