Tuesday, April 27, 2010

disillusioned and dumbfounded in America

I was very young when I left America and became an expat. I was 23 or 24, and I had been living the single life in New Mexico in a small apartment and working at a Natural Foods Coop. I left on a whim and I stayed away many years, and my vision of returning was surely distorted by the youthful eyes I left with so many years ago.
I returned to the US regularly during my years as an expat, first with my husband, and then also with my children. I would revel in the things I missed being away... my favorite cereal, movies in English, central air conditioning, the dryer. And the more important things... the wide open sky and magnificent natural world, the animals and birds and majesty. I also sorely missed the diversity I had left in America, the many different faces and skin tones, the melting pot that was America. And of course my family, most of all.
I have been back in America for nearly three years. The first year was spent in a state similar to a tornado. There was just so much to do and so much to figure out, so many practical pieces of life to attend to. I had been away so long that I did not quite know how to swipe my own debit card or use the self checkout stands at the grocery store. My second year was spent with a certain amount of settling in, and a modicum of worry. I began to realize that America was not so kind to people like myself and my husband, self employed people who still have the bizarre need for health care. The insurance policies I had found when we first arrived the year before had already steeply increased our monthly premiums, and when we tried to shop around for something better, my husband's so-called "pre-existing condition", a misnomer for being alive, had gone on the record, making it virtually impossible for us to find another policy. I had also been introduced to the great divide in America during the presidential election, a taste of what was to come. I had no qualms about political discussion and debate. I had been living in a country of wildly debated politics for the past fifteen years. But I can frankly say now that I was still clueless.
My third year, a year that will conclude this summer, has been a year of doubt. Did I do the right thing? Was returning to America the right decision? For my children's sake, I think so. They are fluently bilingual. They enjoy some of the perks of American adolescence as opposed to Italian. They can get part time jobs, they have a much more flexible, modern school experience. They are expert skiers and live in an almost obnoxiously beautiful environment, without a drop of pollution or noise, bursting with wildlife and sunsets and snowy peaks. I do not know where they will go as they approach adulthood. I have the feeling that the closer they get to being men, the closer they get to the reasons why I feel like I am a foreigner in America. I hope for their sakes that their youth, open minds and life experiences will propel them both forward in a world of optimism and hope. They are luckier than they can yet imagine, and their dual citizenship will open a myriad of doors for them.
I, on the other hand, am disillusioned. Dumbfounded. Dumbstruck. Speechless. For me, the debate which ensued over health care reform was the harbinger for a tidal wave of sludge that I had somehow been innocently unaware of while I lived so far away. I cannot quite convey how impossible it was for me to explain to my husband what that debate was about. It was exquisitely hard for him to comprehend that a nation like the United States could exist without providing health care to all of its people, and he was totally incapable of understanding how anyone could actually be opposed to the idea of doing so. This because the rest of the nations in the industrialized world provide health care their people. From Australia to Japan to Italy to Israel to Canada. This incredible backlash against this most basic notion of civility was frankly impossible for him to understand. As it was for me.
What has followed has been an undesired, unsavory opening of the door into the great divide in America. The lack of civility in our political debate is astounding, and I can only deduce this is rooted in fear and ignorance. As I read newspapers, surf the Internet and watch television, I realize that the election of Obama as our president has not thus far resulted in any kind of hope for the future, but has only invigorated the radicalism that frankly scares me. The same minds which are able to blatantly declare that upon the passing of the health reform bill into law by the "commie socialist pigs", who are "denying God" and "sowing the seeds of Armageddon" (all quotes I have read in print), which by default must also apply to every other industrialized nation in the world, are also the same minds that believe they are inherently, morally right. America has it right, the rest of the world is mistaken and misguided. These people have God on their side, and have usurped religion to back up their own bombastic ignorance. In the words of their flag bearer, Sarah Palin, "Nah, we'll keep clinging to our Constitution and our guns and religion -- and you can keep the change."
I had no idea where I was going, what I was doing, when I returned to America. While some who read this may retort with the sad, overused "why don't you just leave, then?", I wonder why it is always those like me who are asked that question? Is incessant flag waving and Bible banging all that is needed for some to believe themselves righteous? Is it as easy as that?
Disillusioned and dumbfounded in America. That's me.


G in Berlin said...

Sometimes, I feel just like you. But yet, with all that, America is the place where I don't need to have police guards outside my children's schools. That's something I think about every day, as I wave hello to them. Yet, although our taxes here are much higher, in so many other ways our quality of life here is still higher than it was in the US, with both of us working. It's strange, to have this dichotomy.

AzĂșcar said...

It is astounding. Astounding.

Jennifer said...

G in Berlin, actually, there are guards at schools in the US.

Your post reminded me of what Keynes wrote in 1930 about economic growth and wealthy nations. He wrote that when the world became wealthier:

"...The love of money as a possession - as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life - will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity [...] All kinds of social customs and economic practices affecting the distribution of wealth and economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard."

Unfortunately, in the US, this didn't happen. It only got worse. Italy is far from perfect but the values are a little less skewed. I may very well never go back to live in the United States because it is a country that values money more than anything else.

G in Berlin said...

Jennifer, there are 8-10 foot walls around all Jewish religious institutions and schools, with police protecting them. Can you name a similar need in the US?
Whatever issues the polarization in the US is bringing up, it's because there are deep and divisive issues that need to see the light of day: rather like maggots. One way such deep divisiveness is prevented in Germany, is the illegality of home-schooling, so all children must be exposed to differences and the truth. perhaps the US should look at the value of public education in maintaining a unified society. The internet has allowed fringe elements to speak to each other and to egg each other on in a way that really wasn't possible before that. Perhaps there should be a truth requirement to free speech in the US. Perhaps Corporations should not be people and have the ability to buy the airwaves. I actually have a lot of hope for the USA. In the last year, positive changes have been occurring. As President Obama said last week, in a time of change fear is to be expected. One hopes that as the change becomes the reality, the fear of change will subside.
Perhaps you were more insulate from some of these issues in Italy,because you were less connected, viscerally, to them? Because the US is your country, perhaps you feel its flaws more deeply? Every day I read what happens in the US and although in some cases it appears to be a step back (Republicans blocking finance reform), in others it seems to be two forward (protection of breastfeeding women, protection of partners of the ill).

jennifer said...

Thank you all so much for your comments.
The school issue is an important one that I did not touch on much in my post. There is also an onging discussion about this post on Facebook, with some of my colleagues (who either have returned to the US with children in tow or not). I wish I could somehow link those comments here.
I definitely believe that this move has reaped huge benefits for my children. I was happy enough with the elementary education in Italy, but the high school years are much better served here. This obviously also depends on the school district we live in. I have a nephew in Italy the same age as my older son, and I have watched him positively wither in his Italian high school. He spends his entire day in one classroom with teachers teaching in monotone on a black board. And this is in a very esteemed scientific high school in a wealthy Italian city. My kids here attend a high tech school with an insane number of sports and activities, clubs, etc. They do most of their work by computer and can plug in to their assignments from home on the Internet. My nephew must write his paper by hand and is still graded on his penmanship...
I also much prefer the lifestyle here for older kids. They have part time jobs, can start to drive, their levels of independence grow, they plan for their futures with NO ideas of staying at home with mom and dad. Another important aspect is the drugs circulating here (pot- lots of pot) pale in comparison to what is circulating in our home town in Italy (a small affluent mountain town about 30 minutes outside of a medium sized city), which consist of cocaine, amphetamines, heroine...). Not to mention kids here don't smoke cigarettes, and nearly all of the kids back in Italy have started. All of this horrific info comes straight from my kids when we return to Italy. Young kids in Italy just do not have the same life experiences that kids do here. Their futures are not quite so open with possibilities. I had a minimum of 20 different jobs from the time I was 14 before I became a translator. That rarely happens in Italy. These are all things a parent finds out about, or thinks about, along the way as their kids grow up... and of course depend on where we live. I also found it hard to maintain my children's English fluency in Italy, which is no longer an issue.
In short, this move was the best thing for my kids. Definitely.
For me, on the other hand,I often have no idea what I want to do next. Next will come soon, since my children are growing, and in 4 years my youngest will be through high school.
I love this discussion. Thanks for all of your insights.

Jennifer said...

You make really good points about the high school years. Luckily, that is still far away for us. But my husband already talks about he'd like for our kids to at least study abroad if we can't take them to the US.

Julie @ jublie's blog said...

Excellent, well written and well thought out post, Jennifer. Thank you.

You covered a lot of ground. I can easily see how the two countries compare in terms of health care, philosophy, education and possibility for your children.

Thanks for this.


Kataroma said...

Being bicultural myself (Australian and American), married to someone from another country (the Netherlands) and living in Italy I realise that there is no perfect place to live or grow up. To be honest, despite the fact that I was born in the US I don't think I'd go back there to live. Just doesn't suit my personality - I guess I enjoy my vacation days too much to go back to just 10 days a year and since being very sick last year I realise how important a decent health care system and safety net is.

I agree completely about high school, university and lack of prospects for young people here. Our daughter is only just starting asilo nido (daycare) but we're planning to leave before she gets too far along in school for the reasons you mention. And also, when it comes down to it, not being able to get a job or being paid peanuts and having to stay with mum and dad until you're 40 just isn't a decent quality of life so matter how you slice it.