Over the years, much has been touted about the great American dream. The country has been positioned so aggressively as the only place on the planet where people can live their dreams. It has rightfully been coined the land of opportunities. And so on.
Having visited this country over the last decade on short trips, and having lived here for a little over 6 months, I have some observations.
There is no doubt that the U.S. has enabled and created life-changing experiences for people and generated opportunities for people to realise their dreams. Technology-driven innovation, futuristic thinking, incredible success of a capitalist model, an economy grounded on people's willingness and ability to take risks have all contributed to this country becoming the world's number 1 economy.
The university system here of applying thought to various disciplines, rather than learn by rote, has been a singular differential from the rest of the world (that is more prone to churn out degrees, than invoke learning - perhaps arguable, but let's take that to be the case for the moment).
What is even more interesting is the phrase, 'when Wall Street sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold'. As much of an exaggeration as that may be, the fact that global markets look at the US indices for direction, in addition to the global standard of the U.S. dollar and its direction, have been other major influences of this country on the world. The largest companies in the world want to come here, invest and grow. The most ambitious of entrepreneurs do not believe that they have made it, unless they crack the code on the U.S. market.
Think about other things too. A casual statement such as, 'I am in the States', is assumed to refer to the United States, when it never is specified to be that way. That is the kind of universal domination of this country on the planet. They have managed to brand, market themselves very well, and those factors, along with the American ability to import talent and use it to their advantage has been nothing short of revolutionary.
But in all my travels here, there is the other element of life in America that has caught my attention too. The fact that not knowing your neighbour well, even if you live here all your life, is common. Assuming that the American way is the way in the rest of the world is a given, for most locals (unless they have travelled the earth). The general knowledge of the average Joe is incredibly poor - most people do not tend to do well in math and science here.
There are a few zillion opposites here that I have never ceased to make me wonder, why it is so unique here. Take these cases of how the way of life in the U.S. is assumed to be the case in the rest of the world:
- There is the stupid assumption that the minute people from another country walk through the turnstiles of the immigration counter and reach a car, they should know how to drive here. What the locals conveniently forget is there are other driving rules in other countries, and that every country in the world does not have a GPS to follow. Plus, people in other countries do tend to drive on the other side of the road.
- Electric switch - In most of Asia at least (that's what I am familiar with), the electric switch is pushed down to put on the light, and pushed up to switch off. Here in the U.S., it is the opposite - and that is assumed to be known!
- If you look at financial statements here, the assets are on the left of the page and the liabilities are on the right. The income is on the left, and the expenses are on the right. That is the exact opposite of how financial statements are done in most countries that follow the British system of accounting
- Drinking water - it is so common for people to bend and drink water from a tap here. How very inconvenient that is! In most other countries, one normally has a glass right next to drinking water - at least in the standardised places such as an office or an airport. Not in the U.S. though.
- Water fountain vs fountain - I will never forget this one! When I went to Central Park in New York City last month, I asked a local for directions to the place where the large fountain (that was shown in the YouTube videos) was. The person pointed me in one direction and I followed that path. I never found any fountain there, but only tap water. That's when I learnt, that I am supposed to say water fountain, so that I get to see the actual scenic fountain that I was looking for. Merely saying fountain is interpreted here as the fountain that emits drinking water!
- The expression 'schedule' is pronounced as "shed-dule", in at least 7 countries that I know (U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore etc). Why is this word pronounced as "sked-dule" in the U.S.?
- The electric socket here is 2-pin. In most of the other countries, it is 3-pin. I have always wondered why. The power is 110-watts. In Asia and Europe, its 220-watts. I wonder why, even more.
- The driving experience in America is certainly wonderful, with fantastic roads and freeways, all under the watchful eyes of the law enforcement agencies. But, one does tend to feel sleepy while driving here (have checked with many people), as there are no traffic jams or people honking. Now, the way to save yourself from feeling sleepy while driving here, is to drink coffee. How unique is that? Isn't feeling sleepy more dangerous that navigating insane traffic?
- Levels in a building - this has to rank as one of the most amusing differences here. When you enter a building, the ground floor is called first level, and the first floor is called the second level, and the second floor is the third level. How can anyone coming from any other part of the world ever know that? My first day in this office, about 6 months back, made me realise this the hard way, when I went to the wrong floor (er, level!).
There are other things in the U.S. that I have also found uniquely different. Why is it that anything that happens here is considered global? For instance, how can any ranking here be considered global? The Fortune 500 ranks U.S. companies that are headquartered in the U.S., and who operate in the U.S. and have their financial statements filed in the U.S. Yet, this ranking is considered as a global ranking. While I understand the global impact of these companies, it's quite illogical to assume that these are the only top 500 companies on the planet (to me, at least).
Or, for that matter, as an old friend in Asia told me, 'if you study in the U.S., do it in the best universities. Don't do in the 'most-famous' place in a neighbourhood, as it is not known elsewhere. The Americans have a way of thinking that their 'local' world, is equal to the world!'
For all the advancement and technology in the U.S. I continue to be staggered by the number of Americans who have not seen most parts of their own country. Ok, I just got here in my life and am subject to the immigration laws. So, it makes sense to see different places whilst I am here. But, many Americans that I have spoken to, have not seen the Niagara Falls, or the Grand Canyon etc. It is even more common for people in one coast of the country, not to have seen the other coast. Going to New York City, even for the locals here, is that great big dream in life and trying to make it big. The other option is the Silicon Valley. And between these two extremes, there is only Chicago, or the mid-west, which even the Americans refer to as 'fly-past' zone (fly from the east to the west coast and back).
Retiring in Florida is the most common trend in the U.S. Clearly, the tax breaks and lower cost of living are the star attractions. Which only lends itself to the theory that this country, for all its advancements, is a very, very, very expensive place to live in. Especially, in the big cities, where most of the jobs are and where most of the people congregate. Yet, for all the time that people work in these big cities, many of them are not able to travel around and see their own country. I suppose that could be true in other countries too, but, it is something of a surprise for locals here not to have seen many places in their life (in the context of the supreme purchasing power in this part of the world).
Perhaps, all this is best epitomised in what two people who are born and raised here, told me. One said, 'Americans don't care' and the second person told me, 'this is a very selfish bunch of people'.
I guess it's best to take the best out of everything in life, wherever we may be.