The biggest thing I had with me when coming to the US for the very first time some weeks ago was probably my curiosity, which luckily fit very well in my three luggages. We all “know” this place, even without having been here ever – after all, no other country is this present in the news, TV series, and movies. We know how college life works, how working life works, and that the American dream means if you just slog away, you can become super rich, extremely successful and smoking hot. This, plus the fact that the US labels itself not seldom as the number one country of the Western world, or in general just the entire world, in terms of innovation, opportunities, and development, had my expectations sky rocket. I imagined something similar to Europe, just bigger, better, faster – and more efficient.
As big as my curiosity was, as huge grew my confusion when I discovered everything to be very different. From basically anything. The first US-impressions were still nailing it in terms of media-created expectations and stories my friends told me about the food-hunt, but then it was also so different from any other daily cultural aspect that I knew from Europe. It’s odd: Europeans once went to conquer this country, not even that long ago; they built their own little version of Europe over here, and then things must just have gone crazy. Isn’t it surprising how the seemingly same people come up with completely different solutions to the same problems, only because they are put in a different spot on earth? I heard Spanish people say that about Latin-America and the language development there – I think now I kind of get it. Trying to understand how to fit into this country, survive here, find my way around and especially, find out what I can eat here, will still take a while, I reckon. But still, I can’t stop pondering and speculating why on earth everything is so extremely different here.
For starters, capitalism might be an explanation. Sure, that doesn’t account for the Americans having decided to invent a weird string running through the entire bus that one can pull, instead of simple stop-buttons. A string that you can only reach when you manage to reach the windows. Try reaching the windows in a crammed 8-am-school-bus, good luck (but I don’t wanna complain, it is a nice and probably city-borne feature that the buses are for free)! Or for the green light being actually white and not green. Or explain what is going on with the toilet flush: Why is there a little swimming pool in the basin? I now know things about myself that I wasn’t even interested in and I desperately wish I could unsee again.
While these things might remain a mystery forever*, capitalism can help explain many other oddities. For example, that everything here is so extremely complicated. Of some things I know only through media and second-hand-reports, like how difficult it is to find a proper school for your kids, or how bureaucratic the voting process is; and other things I experienced first-hand. Finding food, for instance – it’s a challenge to get any non-processed food. While you do find restaurants at every corner, it is immensely hard to find grocery shops. The closest one to my house is about 1.5 kms uphill, and close means usually super expensive. I am talking Norway-and-beyond-expensive. Not even Finnish prices can reach up to the US ones, and that’s not just food, but also soap, washing detergent, bike-locks – anything one might need in their daily lives. If you really want to do some grocery shopping, you need to travel further – 3, 4 kms at least, it might be more around 6 to the next Walmart, which has ‘cheaper’ prices. Cheaper still means Finnish standards and slightly more – which is odd given the fact that Finnish prices bear a 24% VAT that is not implied in the prices here, and yet they are even higher.
This means whenever you are in need of a pack of butter, but you don’t feel like making a day-excursion to a Walmart because you also need to eat, sleep, and work, you go and buy the butter for 4 dollars in the “closer” shop. Or then you just stop preparing food altogether and instead buy a hamburger meal at the nearest fast food location. Those are everywhere. And it’s like 3 dollars. Yes, you can get an entire meal for less than a pack of butter. That’s another weird thing: Products that seem to have undergone additional processes are cheaper than the raw version. My ground coffee is more expensive than the same sized package of the same ground coffee with chocolate or vanilla flavour. How, I am asking? Does the coffee actually come naturally with a sweet flavour, and in order to make it neutral, little coffee elves need to manually pick all the chocolate- and vanilla-pieces out, and get paid for it?
Right, why I wanna blame capitalism for this: Let me tell you about that one time a friend of mine asked me to help him with his homework. He does not study business, but had some finance-related classes to take. We had an argument about what the ultimate goal of a business is – my suggestion was to increase shareholder value and maximize the profit. His was to satisfy customers. You see, there is exactly the problem. Contrary to common beliefs and wishful thinking, the purpose of a for-profit business is ultimately to make money. Satisfying customers is just one of many tools to achieve that. Caring about the environment and how employees feel are just investments into making more profit due to better reputation. Yes, unhappy customers leave and buy their stuff at a different business, sure – but how about if they didn’t have any other option? Do you still need to care about their satisfaction as a successful business? Probably not. Making others happy is lots of work, right? Everyone who has ever been in a healthy relationship knows that painfully.
So here’s the thing: The population of the USA simply and firstly seems to be its own customers. The people being inhabitants, citizens, members of a society, comes second or third. Primarily, this country built its entire system on capitalism, a successful business with its population as one of the input factors and a few powerful institutions being the shareholders that collect the harvest. Healthcare? You can buy it, feel free to choose whichever provider you want. Education? Same thing. Private schools, chartered schools, home-schooling for the ones who prefer that – an equal quality of education seems to be rather secondary, the main purpose is to make profit with students and pupils. So, let’s see, what else do humans need? Food. But if they want it, they have to buy a car first in order to reach the supermarkets. So now you can also sell them car insurance, gas, drivers licenses. It’s a perfect system – for the profit-makers. And the customers won’t even leave, because where would they go? To a different country?
If the focus is on generating quick profit instead of satisfying the customer in the long-run, you as a consumer end up with huge ads trying to mislead you, a system that is mainly designed to take care of profit and not so much your well-being, and, in the end, a very shitty buying-experience.
I know I said after my Rome holiday that I have never been in a place where so many people so obviously wanted my money, no matter how much they would have to scam me for it. I take it back. It’s way worse here. You constantly need to be on edge to not make a mistake and accidentally pay more than you should. And it’s everywhere, in every daily situation. When you order something online, there are promotion codes which pop up to be used at check-out – you feel like you save money, but in fact they just earn money with inattentive customers. Because if the code is available for anyone, why not make the product cheaper in the first place? Right, because you gotta earn it! This is America, you have to earn everything here. If you want to buy stuff in a supermarket, you should know approximately four different types of sales taxes. Per state, or even per county. They are not included in the prices displayed, they come extra at check-out. You never really know how much money you are gonna pay until you actually pay it, and if you want to bring your friend something, good luck figuring out how much they essentially owe you now.
There’s advertisement everywhere. When I was in China, I was amused by the constant noise level that was omnipresent, each shop playing their own music over speakers facing outward, to the street. Here, the noise level comes in the form of flyers, emails, adverts on Spotify and TV, and in the shops, covering the actual prices. They might say something like ‘only today, save 1 dollar’, or ‘50% off the second item of the same kind’ and people see only the big 1 and buy the chocolate bar for 3 dollars instead of 4, and it doesn’t even taste good because apparently there’s no cows in this entire continent, so who knows what chocolate is made of here.
Whenever you leave your email somewhere (everybody wants your email. I am expecting at least 50 greetings for the next holiday from government and administrative offices, if not more), you’ll end up on two to five new mailing lists that you then actively need to unsubscribe from. Opt-in is not a thing here, and opting out is a major challenge. Even Amazon tries to scam you – that shows how protected we must be in Europe, by freely being able to order something and not subsequently receiving tips and ads and suggestions via email three times a day. I had to actively unsubscribe from every list of every Amazon-department there is after my last order. And then they have extra items there, so-called add-on items that don’t add to the accumulated price and only are shipped when you reach a minimum accumulated price before you add this item. I tried for 45 minutes to get free shipping by even adding the entire stock of drugs I might need in the next eight months, and then gave up and just paid the shipping costs.
Advertisements on Spotify that should discourage people to drive drunk or intoxicated don’t talk about the dangers – they address your moral system by warning you from ending up a loser without a girlfriend (she’s gonna leave you) and without a job (you’re fired because you don’t have a girlfriend, or something), if you drive drunk and get caught by the police. Yes, only if you get caught. It’s a wonder they don’t also advise you to do a hit-and-run in order to avoid the getting caught part. Status, money and achievement seem to be the ultimate goals here, and the ones who are successful don’t even hesitate to walk right over other people’s feet and heads for that. And the ones left behind nod in confirmation, and think to themselves that they probably just didn’t work hard enough if they are not at the top yet. And proudly sing their national anthem before every ordinary college football game.
I feel a bit sorry for the people living here who got used to life being so complicated, who might not even know there could be an easier way. Who think that one day, they will also make it to the top and have an easier life – while the entire system is built so that only a few can survive at the top, because they need the heads of the others to stand on. I wanna take them by the hand and show them that it is also possible to have a daily life without the system throwing obstacles in one’s way constantly. It’s possible to actually focus on the real struggles in life, like family and hobbies and career achievements, instead of how to prepare a dessert for your friends’ dinner party in three days if you don’t have a car and no time to spend half a day on buses to the next Walmart and back. For me as a European it is for now slightly incredible how people simply accept being treated like customers in a really shitty monopoly, gulping whatever gets poured on them. Why don’t you stand up for your basic rights?* Go and complain to the customer hotline!
And, I really hope I get used to it quickly myself so that it doesn’t feel so damn hard anymore.