Being back in the United States is proving to be more challenging than moving to a foreign country. I’m dogged by a feeling that I should know how things work, but I don’t.
You could call it reverse culture shock, but I don’t think that’s right. Reverse culture shock was the first time I tried to order a coffee and didn’t understand why I couldn’t get it in an actual mug.
It’s walking into a supermarket and finding 657 varieties of orange cheese but no haloumi (WHY), or automatically walking to the driver’s side of the car when you’re the passenger.
These idiosyncrasies are minor, and to be expected. What I’m struggling with are the logistics of being a grown-up in America.
I’ve never lived as a fully independent adult in the country where I was born. I file taxes every year, but never had to get health insurance. I maintained a US bank account and credit card, but haven’t signed a lease since 2002.
I have managed to function in other societies, so I figured this gave me transferable skills. Adulting in Australia can’t be that different to adulting in the United States, right?
So, so wrong.
The US is a tough country to transition to. It’s a place where your life savings can be wiped out with one medical event, but getting (and understanding) insurance is a feat in itself.
This adds an extra element of fear to life in the United States, knowing that your basic needs aren’t automatically covered. I realize this isn’t news to anyone; the US healthcare system is famously broken, but it’s been jarring to see just how fractured it is.
Even when you have insurance, it’s so hard to get answers about how much something costs. Apparently you’re supposed to have a procedure done—without knowing its cost—then wait for a bill that may or may not come.
Imagine walking into the supermarket and seeing no prices. You ask every employee in the store how much things cost, even calling headquarters to speak with their billing department, but no one will give you an answer or even an approximation. In fact, they laugh when you ask. You leave with a bag of spinach, a tomato, and three carrots.
Over the next several months three separate bills trickle in: one for the spinach ($33.81), one for the carrots and tomato ($121.03), and one from the cashier ($79.45). You can either call the grocery store and try to haggle down the prices, or pay the bills outright. Either way, you question whether or not you really need vegetables in your diet.
THIS WOULD BE CRAZY, RIGHT? Welcome to the US healthcare system.
New plan: do not get sick or hurt, because it means making a choice between your health and your bank account—even if you have insurance.
The whole ‘not knowing what things cost’ isn’t exclusive to healthcare. There seem to be hidden fees and taxes associated with every purchase, from buying a car to renting an apartment. Each time it happens I am outraged, but people who have been living here for a while seem unfazed.
Me: We have to pay $25 a month for valet trash service and we can’t opt out!
Other person: Oh yeah, that’s common with apartments around here.
Me: *stares at receipt, trying to figure out how a $100 purchase became $108.85*
Cashier: The Boulder tax rate is almost 9%. Gets people all the time.
We bought a used car before leaving Florida. I thought it would be fairly straightforward—in Australia, there are a handful of websites that make it easy to buy directly from a seller. The price advertised is the price you pay, unless you negotiate a lower price. I assumed it would be similar in the US.
One day I will learn.
Car dealerships have essentially cornered the market on used cars, and they love a hidden fee, particularly in Florida. The cheapest ‘dealer fee’ we encountered was $687; the most expensive was pushing $1,000. And that’s not even taking other fees and taxes into account. It took a few weeks, but eventually we accepted that if we wanted a specific car, we were going to have to buy from a dealer and cop the fees.
Some of these extra costs I understand: the Boulder County tax is high, but a portion of that goes towards the open spaces and trail maintenance, which I reap the benefits of every day. But extortionate and obscure fees? I’ll never come around to them.
Obviously, the US isn’t the only country with taxes and fees, but it’s still been confronting to come face-to-face with them so regularly. Especially because I have long carried the misguided notion that the US was cheaper—cheaper clothes, cheaper cars, cheaper cost of living—but that hasn’t felt true at all. And of course, even when things are cheaper, somebody in the supply chain is paying the price.
I have been hesitant to post this, because it’s essentially one long complaint about things people deal with every day. I thought I should even the scales by talking about the things I appreciate about this country, but that’s a false equivalency. (Also it’s my blog and if you can’t be ranty on your own blog, what’s the point?)
You can be happy where you are but still recognize when a system sets people up to fail. There’s so much uncertainty and grey area in places where there shouldn’t be, and I find myself thinking about how it influences the US culture as a whole (but that is a whoooole other topic).
It’s been eye-opening to truly experience adult life in the United States. In a way, it feels like I’m paying my dues—this is something my friends and family have been managing for years, so who am I to turn up in a tizzy as if I’m the first person to notice this stuff?
The trick has been to let go of what I thought I knew, because it was making things more frustrating. Instead, I have to start from scratch, without expectations. But will I ever think that the way things work here is normal? To be honest, I’m not sure that I want to.