Impressions of the United States

When we came back to the United States after eight months of traveling around Southeast Asia, some things looked really strange to us:

  • In any given crowd of people (in a restaurant, on the street, in the airport), there are more old people and fewer young people than we’re used to seeing. I guess that’s to be expected: In many parts of Southeast Asia, as much as one-half of the population is under age 20, compared with one-quarter in the United States. Likewise, only about 6 percent of the Southeast Asian population is over age 65, versus 19 percent in the United States.
  • There is noticeably more space than people here. Not only are homes and vehicles much larger, but waiting rooms have fewer seats and more open space for a given number of occupants. Even in cities, everything feels much less crowded here. 
  • We see more people traveling alone or in pairs—sitting and doing their own thing rather than interacting with others. The places where we were in Southeast Asia, it was unusual to see people traveling (or going pretty much anywhere) by themselves. It was much more common for people to walk down the street, go out for a bite, shop in a market, or take a trip somewhere with family, friends, or coworkers. Daily life was far more social. People here in D.C. seem eternally busy and preoccupied.
  • People look less glitzy here for a given level of affluence. In Southeast Asia, if you can afford to fly or dine in nice restaurants and you’re female, you’re probably wearing high heels, a lot of makeup, fashionable clothes, and expensive accessories. If you are male, you’re probably wearing a tie, pressed trousers, and nicely shined shoes. Making as good an appearance as possible seems more important there, maybe because people are eager not to look poor.
  • The stereotype is true: Portions in U.S. restaurants are huge. I’m finding it hard to leave food unfinished here (if I’m not in a position to take leftovers with me) when I know it will go straight into the trash. At the small, family-owned food stalls where we’re used to eating, we were pretty sure that any leftover food went into the mouths of the family or other people in the neighborhood who needed it. Here, I imagine that some low-income restaurant workers would love to be able to take leftover fruit, vegetables, and other expensive, nutritious food back home to their kids, but it’s not legal. That feels obscene.
  • We’ve seen a lot of suburbs since we’ve been back (while housesitting or visiting friends or relatives), and boy is suburbia weird! Street after street with nothing but houses and no commercial life, full of sidewalks with hardly anyone on them. It seems so odd that if you want to grab something to eat or buy a soda—or if you run out of shampoo or feel like having a drink with your neighbors in a convivial bar—you have to get in a car or walk a long way to find those things. I can scarcely think of a place we were in Southeast Asia, urban or rural, where we couldn’t find all of those things within a couple of blocks. The zoning rules that govern the layout of U.S. suburbs feel like a strange concept. Why wouldn’t you want the services you need close by? Why don’t we allow there to be shops and food stalls and neighborhood drinking spots in people’s front rooms or yards or on the sidewalk? Immigrants from around the world must find it as mystifying as we do.
  • There are so many options in the supermarkets. After being used to buying in small corner stores, with no more than two or three types of any item, the choice feels overwhelming. Do we really need 12 brands of yogurt and 8 kinds of pancake syrup?
  • Everything looks so clean and tended and manicured (buildings and lawns and flower beds and sidewalks), not higgledy-piggledy. Even cities look so much cleaner and neater here, for the most part. Melissa said that when she first came back, it all felt like a stage set.
  • There’s a conspicuous absence of motorbikes here, compared with Southeast Asia. After dodging them daily for eight months, I find I kind of miss them. If I see someone go by on a small motorcycle or moped, I smile at the familiarity of the sight. Instead, the United States has cars and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and trucks—such big vehicles for a person or two. We are used to seeing whole families traveling on one moped.
  • It’s not humid (at least right now). And even when the sun is shining brightly, it doesn’t feel nearly as intense now that I’m 20 to 30 degrees of latitude farther from the equator. Despite my fair skin, I find that I actually like warm, sunny days here!

4 comments

  1. Coming back from Italy I found much of the same! Especially the concept of suburbia (Italy has CITIES and VILLAGES and COUNTRYSIDE and that’s it. No suburbs). Since we were in countryside everything was far away, but in the cities everything was close. And the first time I went to a supermarket after we got back, it took me 3 hours to get out. I was completely paralyzed by all the STUFF.

    Reply
    • Oh, Meg, I had exactly the same experience the first time I was back in a supermarket. It took me about three hours too to stock up on the necessities. I felt like I was moving in slow motion the whole time, trying to remember what was what.

      Reply

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