June 30th 2004 – I was driving from San Francisco to Sacramento after spending nine hours in an aluminium tube at 35,000 feet. Spell check is trying to make me say “aluminum”.
The plan was to spend six months in California and then go home. Didn’t quite pan out like that.
The AC was blasting in part due to the heat, in part to counter jetlag.
Over the radio came the familiar sounds of home ‘The Scientist’ by Cold Play rang out as I came up the hill heading out towards Fairfield on I-80. I became somewhat tearful.
You see for me in many ways I was going back to the start. I had been here before, California. Having lived in the US for a time as a child. The country has had a powerful draw for me ever since.
#1 An ongoing observation of cultural differences
There is something about living, long term in a different country that triggers pause. Even when you think it’s not explicit. It’s there. Pretty much daily.
These observations start with the obvious, like driving on the other side of the road and getting a sore hand from punching the door when trying to change gears. Or the vast open isles of super markets. The apparently unavoidable positivity of anyone who is serving you, be it a coffee or a gourmet meal.
By in large the culture here is founded on the puritanical beliefs held by a migration from some of the most religious Anglo-Saxons out of Great Britain, because they were trying to find a place to worship and not be persecuted for it. This migration was so domineering it managed to put hundreds of years of Spanish and French colonization of the New World in the back seat. Of course not all immigrants were from England, they came from all over Europe at first and eventually the world. However the core cultural drivers in the legal and ruling power base were, and still are, rooted out of old-Blighty. If this kind of history lesson turns you on then Alistair Cooke’s America is a must read, he really is the quintessential Ex-Pat.
In addition to this foundation there was also the pioneering spirit, the adventurous aspects of those early settlers and those who pushed out west across the continent. Maybe it is that which results in what I have observed as things being more of a recommendation than a hard and fast rule. For example when you are driving down the road be warned that "signaling" (indicating) is more of a vague suggestion. If it happens at all you might notice it about the time that two tons of metal, glass, plastic and rubber are hurtling from one lane to another, right in front of you.
#2 Politics and the pursuit of happiness
Most Americans are very passionate and involved in their politics. I have asked myself if my observation here was due to the fact I’m ten years older than when I last lived in Blighty. After careful consideration I feel confident saying it is more common in the US. Even if for many it’s primarily emotional rather than a deep and meaningful understanding of their own political system. As with Britain most parties here are the same. There is also an overzealous "left" / "right" debate raging on in which each side has both liberal and conservative hallmarks, yet most will never admit to that.
When the new country was being birthed the US cherry picked from the fairly well developed British political system. However unlike Britain and the rest of Europe there was no monarchy. No higher earthly power. Nothing above the unalienable right of the individual, as bestowed upon them either by a creator or the universe itself depending on which way you lean on faith. In many ways this belief fueled the growth of capitalism. It’s amazing how apparently brilliant the foresight of the "forefathers" was. Time and time again the system, and how it was constructed has served its purpose. Often this leads to gridlock. One way this manifests is that it is hard to change the rule of law here. There are defined rights which are either in the Constitution (and the freedom it outlines), or as ‘amendments’ to it, the first set known as the Bill of Rights. In other countries where a law may easily be passed to do "FOO", in the US if it is found (even if initially passed into law) to violate one of the aforementioned elements it is then deemed "unconstitutional" and scrapped. This apparent rigidity is reinforced by a checks and balances system of the Executive Branch, of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and Supreme Court. One consequence is that no new leader can simply waltz in and change things to his or her pleasing. In general this means becoming a dictator in the USA is really, really hard.
The concept of the rights of individuals and of property and the pursuit of happiness generally translates into what manifests as a "can do attitude". And the expectation is that the government is intended to get out of the way as much as possible. This latter point is one of the big ongoing debates between "Blue" (Democrat) and "Red" (Republican) elements of the country. Each accuses the other of grievous violations. For example the Democratic uproar at the "Homeland Security" act implemented by the Bush administration juxtaposed to the criticism the Obama administration received for the NSA snooping malarkey. "Get government out of our lives" also spawned the birth of the Tea Party movement which focuses on the reduction of the size and influence of government. Its name a reference to initial efforts to kick England out of the Colonies. Another hot button topic it is also used as an argument against those seeking to implement abortion control because that is the government meddling in the lives of individual citizens. The list goes on.
Consequently the cultural zeitgeist at any given time in this country is diverse and shifting yet its foundation is firm… which from what I gather is just what those clever founding father wanted.
#3 The United States of America is really flipping big
This country is vast and unimaginably large.
It is also removed from much of the world. True you have Canada and Mexico on your door step but getting to South America is a trek, as are Europe and Asia. Plus it’s not cheap to make any of those journeys. Let alone taking your whole family.
If you only know America through Hollywood, movies, television and music you might be forgiven for thinking that the country comprises of LA, Houston (Texas), Orlando (Florida) and NYC. It is, as you can imagine much more than that. For starters all of those places are at least a three hour flight from each other. LA to NYC is five hours at the quickest.
It truly is massive. In a shocking, almost unforgiving kind of way. Stories of pioneers are so much a part of the cultural lexicon here that it’s easy to forget how challenging their journeys across the young country were. At least 10% of them died trying to find better lives. It has a surface area that makes England look like a region around a US city. Size isn’t everything and yes, amazing things have come out of England (including America as I often jest, I’m sure the Spanish would take exception to that). This isn’t an attack on my beloved home country. It’s an observation on how simply HUGE America is. This has for the longest times informed much of the US mindset; "Bigger is better". Even ten years into my American adventure there is much of this place I’ve not yet seen. I can understand why some American’s travel less internationally, simply wanting to make the most of where they are. Less and less I find myself criticizing Americans who don’t have passports.
Whilst there are few actual frontiers left in the USA there are vast swathes of this country where you can feel really isolated and alone (visit Alaska, read Into the Wild). As easily as you can fly over it and as much as it is crisscrossed with interstate highways. The last un-allocated federal land was divvyed out mid last century. That still doesn’t diminish the sense of ‘blank slate’ and of opportunity that the soaring mountain ranges, big skies and vast rolling plains offer.
#4 One thing to do that will help you understand the USA better
Travel around it. Fly over some of the central parts. It just goes on, and on, and on. There are people who live in cabins, or ranches, literally hours from any significant population centers. Doing this will bring some hint of understanding to the American mindset.
I’d imagine many prior transplants have felt the way I have. That this large, opportunity filled country is just too good to pass up. It’s almost too big to ever make the most of. In many ways that’s its appeal. It keeps you feeling like there is more to do, explore, achieve, that its opportunity goes on forever. Personally, at the same time I also contemplate returning back to my motherland, to its rich and diverse history, beautiful landscape (The Lakes, Cornwall, Wales, rolling Downs of the ‘shires), easy access to the literally dozen of cultures and histories of Europe and of course English pubs. I’m lucky to be torn in such a way.
I’m proud of and love where I come from and I’m proud of and love where I live. As I work to instill British culture into my children, both of whom were born here, to have them feel connected to Blighty I’ve come to realize something; why at cocktail parties so many Americans are quick to mention that they are German, Italian or Chinese. You know, because their grandparents were.
Have you relocated from one country to another? What was your experience? What did you learn?