Do you like it? It’s the most banal and often-asked question about America, that I got asked by many of my friends, and colleagues, during this fellowship. It’s tough to answer objectively. It’s the same as asking if I like Europe after trip to Italy and Germany. I don’t want to generalize my impressions based on one nine-week experience. But one thing has changed for sure during this particular trip – the myths about living in this country have been bust, often rather sharply.
1. Life in America is easy and well established
Yes, it’ s true that the material standard of living in the United States is high, and this has nothing in common with the leisurely pace of life. Most Americans work hard for many hours per day combined with short vacations per year. Even spare time is often devoted to activities such as sports or other hobbies that involve intense effort. Moreover, there’s a bizarre and contradictory correlation between ambition and money. The vast majority of people here equate the two, and measure success through their income at the end of the year, the location of their home and attending a college that can assure a better future for their children. Materialism becomes more and more of a Focus in their lives. Inevitably, when you can’t afford good health insurance or college tuition, you begin to rely on credit, which in turn makes you dependent on someone else’s goodwill.
On the other hand, I’ve learnt that American philanthropy is filling the gap when it comes to a proper government-controlled social system. Partially, donations are like an engine for the US economy. Many mediahouses and non-profit organizations exist and thrive, subsidized by donors, and dependant on a person’s will to give and invest.
2. America – the Land of the Free
Individual freedom is an important value in the US, but newcomers like me may find themselves overwhelmed by bureaucratic restrictions. Often the view of a majority for freedom of something wins, such as anti-smoking laws, where the right of nonsmokers to be free overrides the right of smokers to smoke. The rules of social behaviour in the United States can be equally confusing. There is a strong wave of Puritanism mixed with an easy going American attitude, which make situations and people difficult to predict. It’s confusing, especially in different states where everything depends on the culture, city and mentality that surround you. So you can be suspected of a crime because of the cigarette you lit up in front of a hotel in a city like Austin – and yet at the same time that particular event can happen on the way to the most glorious gay pride parade, sanctioned by the same authorities.
3. Americans are tolerant
By default Americans are tolerant because their life has always been a mix of nationalities, cultures and different mentalities. And if you want to live well in this society, you have no other option but to be open minded. That does not always happen. What surprised me was that the colourof your skin still plays a huge role in how well you do in this society. Many of the minorities who call this country home live in separated, or segregated, neighbourhoods with their own schools. In areas where there are many immigrants, an outsider may not attract that much attention.
Many Americans still live isolation, even geographically, which evokes the sense of national superiority. Unfortunately, this often leads to a lack of interest on curiousity towards the world beyond their oceans.
4. The United States is a classless society
Almost 90% of this society belongs to the middle class. The rest are those who either live below poverty line, and can’t afford health insurance, or those who live way beyond the means of the middle class – the uber wealthy. Although the majority of Americans can be considered as part of the middle class, there is a small, wealthy upper class and a growing underclass.
Still, the American ideal of equal educational opportunity and,the belief that hard work and ability should be rewarded exists, you can have your American dream, if you work for it. But still US is far from this. According to data from the Gates foundation, only 70% of American students graduate high school. And that’s not a matter of financial lack but only knowledge. It was three years ago when government ran a new education standard for each state in terms of approach better equal start for every student. It seems that now it’s realized the consequences of not paying deep attention on that part of the social system and now fruits of this harvest are bitter. Although every effort has been made by the government, states and teachers, results will take a long time to appear.
Which brings us to the question – are we doing enough?