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On Being Home, in the U.S.A.
Journal Post #15: March 20th 2023, Park City Utah
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Ah, home! Usually anywhere in the world I am with Alan. It could be a tent in a snowy mountain, an Airbnb in a capital city, a cabin in the woods of a far away country. Truthfully, we can feel “at home” almost anywhere. We just need to like the place and feel comfortable in it, whether it’s a tent or a big house.
But, there is no denying that home is home. For me, it’s mostly the place where my kitchen is. For Alan, it’s mostly the place where his bed and pillow are. We are fortunate enough to have two places that fit into that description - that hold “our” kitchen and “our” bed - one in the United States and one in Mexico. We rent these places when we are not in them - which is how all of it works out - so in reality they are not only ours.
Coming home, either in Mexico or in the US, is always an experience. The place never looks as we left it since it’s being used when we are not in it. Precious ornaments will be broken, new stains will welcome us, dead plants will upset us. Settling in takes a bit of time since we have all our stuff in locked off closets, so we need to hang clothes, clean pots, and replace kitchen equipment. For us, all of this is more than worth it. But, this time around coming home was a lot more than just those little annoyances.
We had been nine months abroad, the longest we have both spent outside of the United States after immigrating here (Alan when he was 25 years old, me at 20). We have always had a love/hate relationship with the place, and coming back after such a long time gave us an interesting perspective on it.
So, here are some of the things we were happy to come back to and think are quite unique to this country. Further below you can find what surprised us in a negative way.
It’s the land of immigrants
The Unites State doesn’t really have a strong monolithic cultural identity. Different groups of course have their own identities and there are cultural general norms and values that shape American society, but as a whole the country has for a long time been a mix and match of different groups. I think this is why there isn’t intense pressure for immigrants to conform and “become American”, like there is in many other countries with a defined and singular cultural identity.
Of course there are extremist everywhere, and the “why don’t you go back to your country” crowd. But, mostly, in the US it’s accepted and even celebrated that the country has such a diverse population, and that these immigrants more or less maintain their way of life inside the country. They have their own community centers and restaurants and even schools. They follow their traditions and celebrate their holidays, and have a strong identity that enriches the country.
In this country you are always surrounded by people from all over the world, and most are not going out of their way to prove their American-ess. I know we never did. This feels genuine and interesting and different than most other countries we have been to, both those that don’t get a lot of immigrants (and hence have a pretty culturally homogenous population) and those that get immigration but are quite intense about them integrating and adapting into their own culture.
There are drawbacks to the way the US is, of course. The lack of pressure to conform can lead to social fragmentation and isolation. But, I think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
You can find anything from anywhere
After nine months out of the country this was such a nice thing to come back to. You can literally find anything from anywhere here! (well, almost, no non-pasteurize cheeses sadly). There are all kinds of specialty stores selling everything from Mexican chiles, to Asian veggies, to Indian species, to Middle Eastern sweets, to Italian cheeses, and the list goes on and on. Even regular supermarkets carry Venezuelan arepa flour and Mexican chipotle chiles! Of course this is highly related to the above point.
There are so many immigrant communities - from everywhere in the world - that there is a demand for all kinds of things. And if American is good at anything is about finding a market and selling stuff to them.
As someone who is passionate about cooking, being able to easily find almost any ingredient is a true pleasure. And to be honest, in most other countries around the world there is a very limited selection of what you can buy. Of course there are things that are better in other parts of the world (local veggies and fruits for instance), and even things that you simply can’t find here (some cheeses and wine). But, as a whole, the diversity and variety of what you can buy in any United States city surpasses what you can find even in the capital cities of most other countries.
In summary, I like this country because it’s packed with people that are not from here…. JK! 😂 (but the diversity is a huge part of the appeal for us).
It’s the most convenient country on earth
There is not denying that the US is convenient. So.freaking.convenient. I remember living in Munich for 6 months and being shocked at how hard it was to buy certain things online, return things, or the fact that almost all stores were closed on Sundays. We can certainly have a debate about whether it makes sense for the US to be so convenient; this is clearly possible - in part - because of the country’s work-obsession, workers exploitation, and heavy consumerism. But, the fact that it’s a convenient country to live in remains an undeniable fact. There are 24-hr supermarkets and pharmacies, you can get absolutely everything delivered at your door step within days (sometimes hours), it’s extremely easy to return stuff you don’t like or no longer want, and many things (particularly clothes and electronics) are cheaper here than anywhere else. It’s a buyers economy.
Of course, not everything is rosy. So, here are a couple of things that surprised us negatively when coming back to the United States:
It’s extremely individualist
This is pretty obvious, and it hits you even more when you have spent months in community-oriented countries. In the US everyone is doing their own thing and this can feel very isolating. If you are not extremely purposeful about making community you could spend a decade living in a place and never meet your neighbors. This would never be the case in most other countries around the world. You feel this even when you are just a tourist in these countries; people around you are friendly, open, and curious. There are plenty of opportunities to connect, it’s easy to spark a conversation, and everything just feels lighter. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and be part of.
It’s insanely expensive
Phew, going to the supermarket is always a shocking experience in the United States. You leave with a bag in each hand and $100 poorer. Don’t even talk to me about going out to eat or paying for rent or even parking at the airport. Life in general is so costly in comparison to anywhere else (except Switzerland probably). We traveled for nine months and never spent as much as we do in this country. It’s without a doubt one of the main reasons why we keep leaving it.
Everyone is afraid (and work-obsessed)
In my opinion, fear is a defining characteristic of this country. Everyone is afraid; of each other, of foreign countries, of chemicals in their food, of communism, of the stock market, of traveling, of getting fired, of their kids getting shot in schools, of taking risks, etc etc. It’s so intense, it’s palpable. American society lives in a constant state of vigilance, and it’s freaking exhausting! Also, work defines Americans, it’s *who they are*. This is the reverse in most of the world. Heck, the French are literally burning Paris to the ground right now because the government wants to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 years old! In most other countries work is seen as just a necessary part of life, and I am very much in that camp. But, even when you don’t want to be hyper-vigilant, even when you don’t want to take work too seriously, it’s just so easy to be sucked into it all and to be part of the herd and feel the same feels. And then we leave the country for a while, the veil lifts, and we are calmer and more at peace.
But, we keep coming back to this place that we have called home for more than a decade. And I can’t deny I love this country, even with its quirks and its absolutely enraging and absurd reality sometimes. One thing is for certain, the United States is absolutely unique.
See you next week :)