Recently, my family and I traveled to the United States for our annual trip back to see family and friends. We’ve done this every (northern) summer since moving to Singapore. After we returned, a friend asked me what I thought of the US, since we’ve lived outside of the country for a while now. So, here’s my answer.
I’d start by saying that we’re from the Midwestern US (Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois), and we’ve mostly lived in small cities and small towns in suburban and rural areas – not urban or coastal areas – so there are bound to be differences from the strictly urban, island environment we live in in Singapore.
So, that said, the first thing that strikes me every time is now intensely car-based US culture is. You have to get in the car to do ANYTHING. Here in Singapore, we’re accustomed to walking most places or taking the train, which we vastly prefer.
Also, everything is single-family homes pretty much in the US, which is not at all like here. We live on the 25th floor of an apartment high rise. Frankly, I don’t miss having to tend to a yard at all. I do maybe miss having a garage to tinker in, but nowadays that’s really mostly for my boys to enjoy, not me.
Put together – cars and housing – I know these are supposed to represent the American Dream. They’re supposed to represent freedom. To me, anymore, they just represent restraint. A house needs to be endlessly maintained. Something is always breaking. And as I mentioned, I get no joy from mowing a lawn, anymore (especially when you throw in the environmental consequences of making it conform to the usual expectations). Also, we often talk about home “ownership” in the US. Of course, if you have a mortgage – which the vast majority of people do, of course – the lender actually has more of a claim on the house than you do. As for a car, they, too, need endless care and feeding – expensive care and feeding. And the notion of going back to being stuck in a traffic jam at rush hour is a nightmare. Yes, compared to public transportation, you do get your own personalized pod for your commute. But there’s a steep price to pay. Oh, and US cars are HUGE compared to here. Most US cars would be utterly impractical here, but that would be true of most cities, I think. (Maybe not Texan cities, where they are likely designed around dually pickup trucks.)
My friend also asked about how many people are outside in Singapore, compared to the US. On this, the comparison is a bit unfair because, being on the Equator, Singapore feels like summer all year round – hot and humid. (Although, oddly, the northern and southern summers are often far hotter than here because they get even more concentrated sunshine for a longer day. Here, the day is the same length all year long.) Because it’s always like summer here, people can very easily be out all year long, but the air con (air conditioning) is often more attractive than the sweltering heat. So, in that regard, perhaps every day feels a bit like a winter day, where you might go out for a bit, but you can’t wait to get back inside.
A last observation – and this is a bit rude, I guess – is people are a lot heavier. But this is well known from national comparisons. I can think of many reasons – and I’m not expert – but I’d have to point to the seemingly obvious reasons of the prevalence of US-style fast food, combined with the car-based culture. I know I packed on about 10 pounds in just three weeks. Man, it’s hard to resist the siren call of that deep-fried junk food. Now, yes, people can choose better food most of the time, but for sure, as an individual, you can’t choose a walking culture. That’s a public policy choice. We continue to invest our transportation dollars in roads and a car-based lifestyle, when other options are certainly available. Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, we are from the Midwest, and I think, in general, people are thinner outside the Midwest – California and Florida, for example – but that’s well known from state-by-state comparisons, too. (Thank the South for beating us out on this specific measure.)
I would imagine many people are curious about how the politics comes across. Actually, it’s not that hard to stay up on the politics from here, so I don’t feel as disconnected as I might have in past decades. However, I will say this: Trump supporters seem to have no problem getting in your face. One boat we saw in Michigan was flying an enormous Trump flag. There was no corresponding show from others, but we were in a pretty conservative area. Either way, I’m not a fan of Trump, so there you go.
Otherwise, it felt a lot like home always did – which is comforting.