A first experience of America
Two weeks ago, I was in America. I have been experiencing (part of) the "mid west" and Chicago.
- there are flags of the USA everywhere. On shops, next to roads, on buildings, at street crossings, on private houses -- there is not a single mile without an american flag.
- people are generally ignorant. This is further supported by an education system which favors the emotional and social development of students over their intellectual development. People don't ask "what do you think about that?" -- they ask "how do you feel about that?" instead. Intellectual conversations are very difficult, because people don't generally have the ability to speak about abstract concepts. When they do, it is perceived with awe and admiration by their social surroundings. Any piece of "general knowledge" is considered like art: for most people everything else in life is more important, and they contemplate it like pieces of foreign culture. When I was describing to a young couple that Holland is a province of the Netherlands, like the other 6 provinces, they were repeating the fact multiple times, toying with the concept, and seemingly very honored to be the recipient of such a valuable idea.
- there are TV screens everywhere. Combined with the fact that most people are quite ignorant, the TV screens are reminiscent of 1984 from Orwell. They show:
- news reports with next to no content. The news are made of sentences with plenty of words but little meaning. They describe only events and facts that have no relevance outside the place where they occurred -- even for so-called "world news": for instance, I learned that a minister in Norway had an affair with an employee in his office, but heard nothing about the upcoming European-African summit and the involvement of China in the economy of Africa.
- ads. Next to 40% of the broadcast time is spent in ads. And then 60% of these ads describe how to spend money, and 40% how to get credit (credit cards & lines of credit).
- ads are not only on TV. They are on big posters everywhere. Actually, people are surrounded with incentives to spend money they don't have. It is apparently common practice for any American citizen to have several thousands dollars of debt. You cannot get a loan without a "credit history" which describes how well you are able to spend money and pay interest on the money you don't have. In other words, for example you cannot buy a house if you have enough money to pay for other goods: you need to borrow money regularly for years before you can ask for what is needed for a house. This was an actual first-hand experience of America as the land of the national debt.
- it is common practice to get credit with a "special offer" (no interests to pay for a specific amount of time) to reimburse another credit.
- there are big cars everywhere. The government pushes people to be "energy efficient" -- not by pushing people to use public transportation, but rather by buying new cars with "hybrid" motors that support multiple energy sources (gasoline and natural gas, gasoline and electricity, or gasoline and ethylene). Owners of hybrid motors can get tax deductions. As a result, people buy big cars with hybrid motors, and put only gasoline in it. The tax deductions make for the current price increases of gasoline.
- actually, people have little to no social status in America if they do not own a car. I was perceived as sub-human when I told that I didn't have a driving license. I met a woman with a lot of money issues in her life, who had very little opportunities to climb the social ladder, but who was still very energetic and for whom the dearest wish was to provide a good life for her youngest son (this is very honorable). Still, her way to provide this good life to her son is to get him a scholarship in a good university and a good car.
- the American dream is to have a big house in the suburbs and two cars in front (needed to get to the city, tens of kilometers away). People are ready to get in debt for life to achieve this dream. Sharing living space in the city and using public transportation is considered as the fate of the unlucky, and only poor people with little opportunities actually do that.
- in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the city was experiencing a lot of traffic issues a few years ago: roads were not large enough to support the amount of working people coming by car into the city every day. Instead of building a mass transit system, they decided to build a multi-level highway able to deliver cars right into the heart of the city center.
- food is cheap and people are fat. More accurately, unhealthy food is cheap and people are eating a lot of bad food. Obesity is the norm, and XXXXL clothes are standard in many shops. Healthy food is more expensive. People have no incentive to buy healthy food: the marketing drive is "more is better", not "better is better" -- people are ready to spend more money for more goods in quantity (including food), not better quality.
- speaking of which, in eating places food is delivered in quantities that are fit for obese people. In each occurrence where I was buying food "on the go" for immediate consumption, the quantity was so large that I could not finish my dish. In a donut shop I asked for a "small size" quantity of normal (hot) tea, and I was delivered half a liter of tea in an insulated cup, ready to carry out.
- food has no taste. Or very little. Meat, vegetables, cereals, bread, cheese and several sauces have similar tastes, and their combination also has the same taste. This is probably due to the "improvement" of food through breed selection (so that food gets bigger, at the expense of being filled with more water) or the addition of chemicals (to remove germs, as specified by the FDA).
- in Chicago, sewage and garbage (including waste from the meat processing industry which was once very active in the area) used to be thrown directly into the Chicago River which itself emptied into lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for the city. This proved to be unhealthy to the people, and a solution was created in the 19th century: instead of, say, stopping the pollution, they simply reversed the course of the river to have it empty into a canal heading for the Mississippi river instead. This way, the pollution could go to the (poor, black-populated) states of the south, while lake Michigan would stay clean. This achievement is considered an "engineering feast".
- a national celebration is celebrated on a Thursday in November. This is called "Thanksgiving" and a massacre of turkeys is performed throughout the country for the occasion. People start eating the turkeys on that day, then eat some more during the following days, but most of the food becomes bad and is thrown away. The celebration occurs on a Thursday so that people can ask for an extra vacation day on Friday (70% of workers don't work that Friday, according to a BNA report) and go shopping. This special Friday, so-called "Black Friday", is a nearly religious opportunity to go shopping and start spending a lot of money throughout the end of November and the start of December, for the purpose of getting material goods to offer to other people for Christmas.
- cashiers in retail shops are standing. They do not have a chair where they can sit. They actually have to take pauses every now and then and retire in the back of the shop to rest and sit to ease the pain in their back and their feet. When I proposed to a worker the idea of sitting, I was told that "sometimes during the day it is pleasant to be able to stand". When I suggested they could have a chair, and still have the choice between sitting and standing as they wish, I met awe and amazement at the concept. When I explained that in France and the Netherlands, cashiers were considered to have a tiresome activity, and that there were regulations to ensure their comfort, and that special chairs were designed for them, the reaction was "well, your country must be run by socialists."
- when you go to see a "general practitioner" (a doctor) to diagnose a sickness, the doctor performs all possible kinds of tests, even tests unrelated to your symptoms. This is to guarantee them protection against legal actions -- it is customary to sue doctors when they make wrong diagnostics. The side effect is elevated costs of health, causing insurance plans to be very expensive. Good health is unaffordable for the common people.
- mobile phone technology is very backwards. People have to pay to receive calls: when you buy "minutes", they are consumed by incoming calls as well as outgoing calls. "Prepaid" cards do not exist: in order to pay only the calls that are made, people have to pay upfront a basic monthly subscription (at least $30 per month), and then they spend money for the calls they make and the calls they receive. Digital internet on the mobile phone is very expensive and barely available outside of large cities.
- large buildings are the norm. It is customary to "build large" even if the space will never be actually needed, as a display of power, wealth and engineering ability. The buildings made me think about the abandoned big large concrete structures in Warsaw that were left after the communist era. I was thinking that this would be happening in America if there was a sudden reduction of wealth in the country. Then I realized that the only difference between capitalistic America and soviet Russia is that it is actually socially acceptable in America to have plenty of poor people and very few very rich people, and that the media are successfully entertaining the American dream of "more is better" and that spending money you don't have is acceptable. Besides, apparently the American culture is far more efficient at hiding the vast differences between social classes (by denying the concept of a class system altogether) than soviet Russia was.