Another trip home is almost come and gone. Each time I come back, I like to write down a few new items of “reverse culture shock” I’ve noticed about home—whether it’s the United States or the West in general—that I’ve only been able to notice by virtue of having been in Africa. You can check out the master list here.
This time around the list is small—I have been gone for 4.5 years after all—but there are always a few. Starting from #36…
36. Ice Water.
America is obsessed with ice water. It doesn’t matter that it’s winter and 35 degrees F (about 1 degree C) outside and you’re sitting next to the door so every time it opens you get a gust of cold air. If you order a water, it’s going to come with at least 50% ice. Don’t get me wrong, I like my water nice and cold, but the water that comes out of the fountain is already chilled: you don’t need to make it even colder by adding ice to it. Not to mention harder to drink—don’t you hate all those ice cubes clinking up against your teeth?
37. Not having to worry about buying water.
Despite the ice, it’s nice to have a respite from thinking about where you will get water. Normally in Africa I hate having to pay $1 or so for bottled water when I go out, so I normally carry around a water bottle that I obsessively refill every time I get the opportunity: the water filter at the house, the cooler at the office, the Teva filter at the gym. After all, I grew up in a place where water is the free option at restaurants and you don’t expect to pay for water. But I’d sort of forgotten that. The other day as I was about to leave a Mexican restaurant, I felt compelled to quickly down the still half-full glass of water remaining at my table to take advantage of its availability. Then I remembered, I hadn’t paid for that water. And there would be more free, drinkable tap water at home. Isn’t that wonderful? You can turn the tap and YOU CAN DRINK THE WATER THAT COMES OUT! So the next time you go out and order a water, just be thankful for the $100 or so dollars you save every year from not having to buy bottled water at restaurants.
38. Not having to worry about keeping your laptop charged.
Today as I was writing this, I compulsively ran upstairs to get the laptop charger even though I was still at 100%—if the power went out, I wanted to make sure I had a full battery remaining in case it took 2 or 3 hours to come back on. Then I realized, the power is not going to go off. I could have used the laptop until it went down to 10%, then plugged it in. Not that there is any advantage to doing that other than not having to move the laptop charger, but still—the fact that our power is so reliable that you don’t need to ever think about it, you don’t need a backup generator, is one less thing you have to spend mental energy planning for.
39. Amazon, mailboxes, and shopping malls prove how little we have to fear traditional bad guys.
I recently rolled over my 401k so I could invest with my dad’s company Thrivent, and they sent me a check in the mail. So for several hours, there was a check for thousands of dollars sitting in my mailbox, unlocked, that anybody could have just gone and gotten. You can walk into any mall or supermarket without passing through a metal detector; it would be so easy for ISIS or Al Qaeda to just go in there, with legally-bought assault weapons, and kill 50 people—and yet only 45 Americans have been killed by “radical Islamic extremists” since 2001, a rate of 3 per year. Every day, Amazon delivers hundreds of thousands of packages, many of which are left sitting on people’s doorsteps in plain sight, and nobody steals them (with the occasional exception of course). Donald Trump says we need to be afraid of immigrants, yet how many lawn trucks do you see passing these same package-laden doorsteps every day, and the immigrant workers in the trucks don’t jump out to steal these packages? This tells me that there are actually not that many bad guys out there trying to get us. The fact is, America is safer than it’s ever been. Most of us have literally nothing to fear from humans’ traditional threats of robbers, foreign enemies, or wild animals. If these are your number one concerns and you don’t live in inner city Baltimore, you probably need to rethink how tough and fearless you really are.
40. American culture is possibly the most innovative on the planet.
If you want a few minutes of entertainment, tell an Italian you put pineapple on a pizza and watch what happens. To extend the entertainment, tell them you also put chicken on it. Their jaw will drop and they will protest that “you cannot put pineapple or chicken on a pizza! That is not pizza!” It’s taken me 3 years to find an objective explanation for why certain tasty things are or are not allowed on pizza, which is that “to be real pizza, you can only use ingredients that were available in Italy at the time pizza was invented.” That’s an objective standard at least, but thing being valued there is tradition: we do it this way not because it is good or bad, but because it has always been done this way. And most places on earth I’ve been are basically the same, especially with food: for each dish, there’s one right way to do it. Hell, in Uganda if it is not matooke, it is not considered food at all. By contrast, as soon as something arrives in America, we have to start dreaming up all the things we can do with it. 10 years ago there were no microbreweries. Now we have more beers than Belgium; just look at this picture!
Sometimes innovations don’t work out—BBQ smoke flavored IPA? Gross!—but no one will stop you from trying it. And it’s not just food: look at Americans’ receptivity to Uber, compared with other countries’ hostility toward shaking up the cab market. Speaking of which…
41. Uber is awesome – and you don’t even have to tip!
One thing America does NOT get right is the tipping culture. Why don’t waiters get paid a real wage? Why do you tip a cab for doing what you already paid him to do? I have no idea. But now thanks to Uber, you don’t have to, and it has become surprisingly cheap to get across town. I’ve taken four Ubers in three different cities this break, including a 1-hour ride to San Francisco’s airport and a 30 minute ride across Dallas, and spent less than $100 on it. Being able to call up a car from your phone, know how much you’ll pay before you book, have it arrive in 2 minutes, and then not have to get out your wallet to pay, all for 30% less than a cab? Awesome.
42. Nobody cares about American sports outside of America, but everyone cares about our politics.
It’s the playoffs? Already? In American football? And what’s that you say, I don’t have to call it “American football,” I can just say “football”? Because most of the sports we like in the USA—baseball, (American) football, basketball—the rest of the world just does not care about (again, with a few exceptions). Yet the stars of our national sports can still earn millions more than (association) football players simply because America has so many people and such a huge economy. When it comes to sports, we really are an island, and when you’re off the island you have a hard time keeping up on its goings on. In politics on the other hand, I never miss a beat, because the American presidential election is on every TV news show on every TV in the world—we don’t miss a single one of Donald Trump’s antics. Speaking of Trump, despite his antics…
43. You have to admit it’s getting better.
From listening to Trump and the other Republican candidates and their supporters, America is falling apart at the seams. So why is it that every 6 months when I come back to visit, this place just seems more and more wondrous? The economy is strong, we’re creating millions of jobs, terrorists are only killing 3 of us per year, we have hundreds of delicious craft brews and good cheeses when 15 years ago we only had Budweiser and Kraft singles, you can get cuisine from anywhere in the world, crime is the lowest it’s been in decades, and startups are bringing us wonderful new things and conveniences all the time. Did you know you can deposit a check JUST BY TAKING A PHOTO OF IT WITH YOUR PHONE??? You probably did, but this seems new and incredible to me!
You know how when you see someone every day you don’t notice them aging, but when you don’t see someone and then run into them after 5 years, you notice the changes? I think it’s the same thing: most people who think America is going to hell in a handbasket have just experienced the improvements in their lives too slowly to notice them. Sure we have problems—we’re overly scheduled, don’t spend enough time with our families, can’t seem to stop mass shootings, and have been too slow in acting to reduce CO2 emissions—but overall, we are nearly all better off than we were 4 years ago. I would know, since I only come back every 6 months to see what’s different.
So if you’re considering voting for Trump or Ted Cruz, my recommendation to you would be to go overseas for the next 8 months, come back, and ask yourself: are things better off than they were 8 months ago? I think you’d be surprised by the answer.