Thursday, October 22, 2009

One year in Chicago

Exactly a year ago E and I took our cat, four bags and a big poster box and made our way to Chicago.

When I moved here I was expecting a lot and nothing at all. "You are so social, you make friends easily", "You will have so much fun!", "Americans are so open, it will be really easy to meet new people" my friends in Holland were telling me. Of course, as you know if you have been reading this blog it has been a lot harder for me to make new friends than I could have imagined. It has been harder to find a job. A lot has been harder than I had expected.

That doesn't mean that it hasn't been great. Not all the time but a lot of the time.

The biggest change was probably the change in myself. I have gotten calmer and friendlier and more like myself. More like I want to be, at least on the inside.
Six years of Customer Service really did a number on me. Especially the last year when I managed a team. I hadn't realized how hard I have become, how rude and snappish.
Of course I didn't enjoy having to look for a job for such a long time when I moved here. It made me feel like a loser. But it's also what I needed. I needed the time off to just become a normal person again. To be sane again. And to realize what I want.

Here are some of the things I discovered that I like and don't like about the US. Let's start about what I don't like:

*Feminism or the lack thereof
I have always been an advocate for women's rights. As a teenager I first joined an Amnesty International group for women's rights. I tried and still try to educate people about all the horrible things that are being done to women around the globe.
When I moved to the US I was shocked how many people here still live in the 50s when it comes to emancipation. I just saw a report on this on TV where they said that since the 50s the number of American men who help in the household has doubled - from 15% to 30%. They thought this was a great development. I say SERIOUSLY? You think that's great? This number should be much much higher.
In Holland I would not have called myself a feminist. My views are moderate. I believe in equality for all people, women, men all races, all incomes, no matter what sexual preference you have. I think everybody should be treated fairly and the same way. I don't think women are better at anything just because of their gender. I don't think women should have more rights than men. I believe in EQUALITY.
Well, in America my views make me a raging feminist. I read a few American feminist websites and I am surprised how many women on there think that the 50s were a much better time for women to live in. Who want to live in the world of Mad Men.
I am getting pissed off just looking at the commercials. There is one commercial for a dust cleaner in which they lock a woman into a glass walled, dusty room. She begs her kidnappers to let her out of the room because she has to pick up her children from school. Of course she can't help herself but start cleaning when she sees all the dust. When she is finished she has a satisfied look on her face, as if she had just made love.
There are NO commercials showing a man clean. Or cook. Or do something with his children (unless it's with his boys and they are playing sports outside).
The "Girls Only" toy cleaning set will surely show your girl her future place in the family!
Of course not everybody is like that and there are plenty of emancipated women living in the US but compared to the Northern European countries - even to a lot of the Southern European countries the US is still behind. And unfortunately - it's the women's own fault. Because it's more important to be appealing to men for them than to stand up for themselves. And this is what bugs me most.

*Social/racial differences
Chicago is a segregated city. We have the white North of the city. The safe side.
And we have the black and hispanic South side. The poor side. The criminal side. Did you hear about the young boy who was beaten to death in front of his school? That was on the South side. White people don't go to the South side. With a few exceptions - like my friend who happens to be a one of the teachers of this boy who got beaten to death on the South sides.
The stories I have heard from my friend, the teacher are horrendous. See, that boy was just one of many students who die of violence in this neighborhood every year. The kids - high school kids - can barely read. They grow up not expecting to have any future. The main funding for schools are from the taxes from their neighborhood. Since most of the people on the South side are unemployed and live in poverty of course they are not getting many taxes from them. What a great way to keep the poor people in poverty and the rich people rich.

And you have this happening all over the US. About a week ago we drove up to Milwaukee, along the lake. We saw some gorgeous villages with perfect little houses, perfect lawns, perfect trees, perfect school. Beautiful. Whitey towns. And then in between those gorgeous little towns you had run down villages. Houses that were falling apart. Dirty streets. Liquor stores on the main square. On the streets you only saw black people.
I have heard people say that it's their own fault. America - the country of unlimited possibilities. Well, your possibilities are very limited when you never really learned how to read in school. When you are just trying to survive everyday. When your world is full of violence. When you never really knew anything else.

I myself come from a very poor background. Of course - in Austria being very poor means you still have food on the table most days and you still get to go to any school you want (we don't have many private schools and they are not necessarily better than public school in Austria anyway). I didn't have things like birthday presents or parties and I spent maybe $50 a year on clothes (which is probably why I am somewhat addicted to shopping now) but I still lived. I had problems at home and moved out when I was 17 years old. Thanks to the Austrian social system I could pay for a place to live and with the help of summer jobs I managed to provide for myself enough to finish school. I didn't have it easy but I had a future. Here in America this would have been a lot harder. My life is NOTHING compared to what so many people have to deal with here every day.

*Health insurance
This is the country where a one year old, solely breast fed baby was refused health insurance because apparently he was too fat! At the same time a two year old girl was refused health insurance because she was too skinny. The health system is run by the insurances. People have no rights. It's ridiculous. It needs to be changed and I really, really, really can't fathom how anybody could not agree with this. But so many people don't. I don't get it.

I hear a lot of Americans saying that the European social system (of course there is not just one) is flawed and that they are afraid that Obama will make America "just like Europe" (oh the horror! They might end up with 25 holidays and the right to health insurance even if they have a pre-existing condition!). I have to say - I hope Obama does JUST that (but he won't).

*Body image
I don't get it. So many American women look up to French and Italian women. They admire how they age gracefully (no Botox!), how they don't wear much makeup, how they don't blow dry their hair, how they are so wonderfully and seductively imperfect.
Yet, they do everything to be perfect all the time. To conform. Everybody in America wants to look the same. Everybody wants to be 5.6 ft (or taller), skinny, with big boobs, with blow-dried light colored, shiny hair, perfect nails, perfect teeth, perfect, tiny noses, wrinkle-free skin - flawless.
When did we forget that people don't all look the same? And that this is ok? We don't have to be perfect to be beautiful.
TV and magazines are full of photos bashing people for not looking like they are supposed to look like.
About a month ago this picture (NSFW) caused an uproar in America. It was published in Glamour magazine. Most people said that they loved it. Finally a woman in a magazine who is not perfect but who is still beautiful. And then you had quite a few people who said that it is damaging to put a picture like this on a website. That it glamorizes obesity. What a bunch of crap. This woman is normal. She would have been normal in the 50s. She would have been normal in the 1820s. She is normal. She might not be what people are used to see in a magazine but she is not obese. Just like really skinny women are normal. Women have come in all shapes and sizes - always (except in times of famine). So have men.
I think the yearning for conformity not only creates a bad body image in young people but it also makes life a lot more boring.

But of course it's not all bad. There are a lot of things I like and appreciate about the US:

On one side there is this really conservative part of American culture that I really don't like but on the other side there are the liberal, open-minded people who I like very, very much. And there are more and more of them. There are so many things I am interested in that most Europeans are not interested in. I started so many conversations in the Netherlands, talking about TV shows or music or fashion or home projects and people had no idea what I was talking about. In Austria nobody ever knew what I was talking about. Since I have moved here I have found quite a lot of like-minded people when it comes to my interests. It is strange that I had to move to a different continent to find people who are interested in all the same things I have always been interested in. All my life I have looked for a culture that I fit in - goths, punks, hippies, alternative, fashionistas ... I am not any of this but I am a little bit of all of them and so are a lot of people here.

On Sunday we flew back from New Orleans. We did a curb-side check in. When we stood in line - just when we were going to be next, a young woman pushed right in front of us. She said she was late for her plane and she wants to check in her bag. The woman at the counter said she would help her - right after she helped us - since we were next in line. The woman complained a little bit but eventually stood back.
I'll confess something to you - I am kind of anal and moments like that give me great joy. I really hate when people don't adhere to common rules of society. I think most rules are there to make our life easier and if everybody would follow them everything goes much more smoothly.
And in America most people think just like me. When this woman pushed in front of me, I was surprised. That doesn't happen to me in America. This is not common here. It is in the Netherlands though. In the Netherlands people push, forge ahead, elbow wherever they can. It's all about them getting somewhere first. I have had times when I couldn't get on a train a. because the train company neglected to send a train long enough for all the people who wanted to get on and b. because people were so brutal, pushy and forceful that I decided it would just not be worth it to get to work black and blue. Standing in a line, waiting for anything, you can be almost certain somebody will try and push ahead of you. It's pretty stressful when you have to keep an eagle eye out in the grocery store because people just don't respect the fact that you stood in line ahead of them.
Not having to worry about this is a big stress relieve for me and I often remind myself of this when I am standing in a line at the supermarket - or at the airport.

*Customer Service
What can I say. I like not having people forget about my orders. I like that things get done in time. I like that if I send a letter complaining about something I can be almost certain to get an answer. I like that if I send a letter of cancellation to a company - whatever I want to cancel actually gets cancelled!
Those are all things that seem very normal in America but are not normal in the Netherlands (Austria is not like that though! It doesn't have anything to do with the social system).
I don't care if waiters and waitresses work for tips, I like to be smiled at and to get my food in under an hour.

From experience I know that it will take me much longer than one year to really get to know and understand the American culture. But I do feel at home here. Bad stuff and all.