Friday, August 22, 2008

The return: What I missed (and didn't) about the US of A

Photobucket...Whew, I just flew 10,000 kilometers and man are my arms tired. The boy and I had an excellent 2 1/2 weeks in sunny California, visiting family and friends and enjoying the blast furnace of 38C/100F heat after a very wet and chilly New Zealand winter so far. It was strange coming back to my homeland after nearly two years away, and seeing what had changed and what hadn't. It's not like I was gone long enough for huge differences, but I did have certain things hit me with more force than others.

Things I missed about the US (besides the obvious family/friends/hometown stuff, that is):
Huge sprawling consumer society, the cheap goods. New Zealand is a little more expensive place to live. Certain things are more pricey than others – books, as I've said many a time before, come to mind. But geez, just about everything seems dirt-cheap in the US after a few years away – I picked up a bevy of new shirts/shorts/jeans for the wardrobe for less than $100. Admittedly I'm not a flashy fashionista and Target stores are high-end to me, but still, not bad!

Friendly faces. Now, New Zealanders aren't rude by any means, but they are a bit more reserved than Americans as a rule, I find. Sure, it's a cliche, but if I'm walking by myself on a big empty sidewalk and pass someone, I find it's nice to at least say "Hello" or smile a bit, acknowledge the other person's existence for a millisecond. But when I do that in New Zealand, it usually is ignored. In the US, unless you're a really surly teenager, it's just kind of expected (unless you're in New York City I guess). Ditto with the behind-the-counter retail drones, who in America get the idea of "customer service" hammered into their heads and usually greet you with a bit of warmth, which sometimes is nowhere to be found in NZ retail. Is it sincere? Probably not, but heck, I still don't mind it.

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Sure, terrible for you, but come on -- peanut butter + chocolate. Yumm.

* New Zealand is beautiful, true, but so is California. The dry parched yellow hills of the Sacramento valley aren't much to look at, I admit, but the lovely foothills where I grew up, the infinite blue of Lake Tahoe, the granite epic scale of the Sierra Nevada and Donner Summit, the twisty, crowded charm of San Francisco – well, I love these places and always will.

• Breakfast cereal. They have it here, of course, but it's rather absurdly expensive to buy a box of American-style cereal so we gave it up in favor of oatmeal and Weet-Bix. But I do love a fine bowl of Crispix or Special K now and again.

• The San Francisco Chronicle. I always liked that paper. Jon Carroll rules!

The Yuba River, quite possibly the best place on earth to while away August days with your boy, basking in ice-cold mountain water with big old granite boulders everywhere. And at one awesome pool a friend and I hiked to, we had foot-long trout zipping around utterly fearless mere inches from our swimming selves. Ahhh.

Jason's Restaurant right on the shore at Lake Tahoe. Man do they do a good burger and fries.

American microbrew beers, mostly impossible to find down here. NZ/Aussie ones are good too, but ahh, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale!

Things I didn't miss:

• Huge sprawling consumer society, the down side – too much of everything, really. Yeah, when I first got to New Zealand the smaller scale of shopping took getting used to, but now I generally don't mind it (except for the costs of certain items). But the sheer sprawling over-abundance in America of the shopping culture is just amazing. While it has its plusses, it also frequently surges into just "too much" of everything. The area around Sacramento has exploded in the last 20 years or so, particularly around Roseville, with city-sized shopping plazas and malls that are just kind of staggering in their scale, chewing away the landscape. Is it all really necessary, I kept wondering. I went into a Rite-Aid drug store and looked for some Tylenol to stock up on and stared in awe at the endless display of a good 100 varieties and brands of painkillers (compared to 20 or so in NZ). An entire aisle was taken up for Tylenol/Advil/Aspirin and all their varieties. Including flavored ones. Vanilla Tylenol they have now. Not chewable pills, mind you, but ones you just swallow. Repeat: Vanilla. Flavored. Tylenol. Really, do you wonder why other countries sometimes make fun of the US?

Hot is nice when you've been cold, but 100-degree F days in the Sacramento valley, really, are a bit much. I do have to admit New Zealand, where it rarely gets above about 85F, is a little more my speed in summertime.

America's health care "system." After two years of NZ's relatively smooth "socialist medicine," the utterly broken nature of American health care seems even more backward. Peter had a nasty runny nose for the first week of the visit, the kind of thing I wouldn't have thought twice about taking him to a doctor in New Zealand about. But in the US, uninsured (although we had travel insurance), a quick clinic visit would've run at least $150-$200 (vs. about $20 total in NZ). Fortunately Peter's nose cleared and we didn't have to think about it again, but man, what a reminder of how insane it is to have to constantly consider cost vs. medical needs in America. And I doubt it'll be fixed anytime soon.

Gigantic gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks. Ye gods, they're huge. (And note to Americans: Complaining a lot about gas prices of $4/gallon when other countries, er, like New Zealand, pay about $8 a gallon just comes off as whiny.)

American money. Man, it's just so boring looking. And get rid of the pennies already!

Drivers who have no idea what a turn signal is. Funny thing I noted about New Zealand (which has about the same proportion of bad/good drivers as most places), even the really awful drivers use turn signals to indicate they're cutting you off. Seeing someone NOT use one is rather a shock, but it happens all the time in the U.S.

Fat people. I know it's a cliche, but yep, an awful lot of Americans are quite grossly obese, and I kept seeing their bouncy flesh at county fairs, swimming holes, etc. There are overweight people in NZ too, but pound for pound (har har) they seem to be much more common back home still.

• American TV . New Zealanders generally only have 7-8 TV channels (unless they get costly satellite TV) which is just shockingly deprived to most Americans when they hear about it. There's no "cable" here. But after browsing Mom and Dad's 200-channels setup I remembered quickly how little there actually is worth watching on television. Sure, I liked that the kid-cartoon channels allowed me to get a Peter break at any time of day, and I loved watching "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" again, but really, it's still 200 channels and just not much on to me. ("The Daily Show" does air here but past my bedtime usually.) All I really need my TV for is "Doctor Who," "30 Rock" and "Lost," anyway.

More on the trek soon, and regular content to recommence as well!

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