Joburg Expat: Hello America

January 10, 2013

Hello America

If you are an expat blogger, it is all about first impressions. Your best assessment of a new country comes right in those first few weeks of moving there, when everything you encounter strikes you as new or quirky or bizarre, if not completely alien. You look at the world around you in wonder, mouth agape, and notice a slew of cultural differences which a few months down the road will have all but disappeared to your eye.

At those times your writing is best, and most genuine. Which is totally unfair because, at those times, if your husband catches you writing a blog post instead of calling the plumber, getting the sprinkler system winterized, organizing trash removal, vacuuming the house, or at least making some kind of progress towards the thirty-one items on your moving-in checklist, he won't be real happy with you.

So please try to ignore my unbearably messy house, all twelve suitcases in various states of unpacking, cleaning supplies and vacuum cleaner strewn about, kitchen counter laden with stuff.

Because I want to tell you about my first impressions of America, now that I've said Goodbye to Africa.

Please forgive me for calling it America. I know Americans don't do that. But everyone else does, and I'm writing this from the perspective of an outsider. Even though I'm an American.

So my first impressions are these:

America is BIG: Yes, everyone knows it's a big country, but that's not quite what I mean. There is just so much space here. Lots and lots of personal space for everyone. Wide roads, very neat and tidy. Huge parking lots. Supermarket aisles so wide you can barely see the other side. And all of it mostly empty. The only crowded places I could find so far were all the Starbucks I stepped into that first day I was in need of Wifi but couldn't find an empty seat to park my computer and venti latte.

Big parking spaces you could comfortably squeeze two bakkies into.

America is FRIENDLY: People from Europe often complain that Americans are superficial and fake, because no grumpy European can imagine in their wildest dreams that this over-the-top friendliness is actually genuine. On my first run through the local supermarket, a day into our stay here, I was constantly stopped in my tracks by a succession of beaming store clerks, asking  me how I was doing. What Americans don't expect, however, is for you to ask them back how they are doing. My automatic South African reply of "good-'n-you?" was always met with a look of surprise and some hesitation while the proper response was frantically grasped for.  When I call someone up for service and begin the conversation by asking how everyone is, I am usually met with the same hesitation. I really have to stop myself from doing this, but it's become a hard habit to shed.

It's not that South Africans aren't friendly, on the contrary. I am already homesick for all the beaming smiles I was greeted with all day long, the easy laughs, and of course our friends who bent over backwards opening their homes to us and offering their help.

But Americans have got to top any international comparison in friendliness. I haven't been here a week and I already had one neighbor set up a carpool and research music lessons for me, another one taking me out for a spin around the neighborhood, and a half-dozen play date requests for the kids. Plus an invitation to join a local "friends of Southern Africa" group with the promise of regular teas and the occasional braai (accompanied, I hope, with good Chardonnay from the Cape).

America is ORGANIZED: Wherever you go, whatever you do, someone has already set up a nice and convenient procedure to follow, typically accompanied by a form to fill out. Got new kids riding the school bus? Just put them on and they will come home with the driver's business card and a form to fill out. Want to join the library? Register online. Security access for the neighborhood? Already waiting for you at the gate. Need a plumber? Find a business card and coupon in your "welcome to the neighborhood" packet. Things practically  happen before you've even thought about them, which is SO the opposite of "just now" it's not even funny.

America is ANTIQUATED: I'm pretty sure in the three years that we lived in Africa, I didn't write a single check. Here, I've already been asked for several, and the memory of whole stacks of them to balance at month-end came rushing back to me. In what other country are checks still used, I ask you? Oh, and the school buses. Good grief! You can't honestly tell me that the best way to transport kids to and from school is by what looks like a covered wagon with a truck engine? Don't even get me started on washers and dryers. They've added a few more buttons to make them look modern, but the basic functionality has not changed since 1950.

America is MODERN: Yes I know, I"m contradicting myself. But that's exactly it. The same country that still produces Thomas buses is giving me a car that automatically recognizes my phone and lets me call anyone from my phone book using voice activation without a glitch. While my car key is somewhere in my handbag, because it is no longer required in the ignition. Which I personally find is going a bit far. I am forever hunting for my car key, because it is never where it should be. On our first day I dropped Noisette off at his office and drove away, until a few miles down the road a message on the dashboard caught my attention: "The key has left the vehicle." And yet I was still driving. Weird.

America is CASHLESS: You may need a checkbook, but you certainly don't need any cash. I'm well into the second week here, and I have yet to carry a single dollar with me in my wallet. I actually did  make an effort to get cash when I spotted a drive-through bank yesterday, another one of those American marvels of convenience, but when I opened my wallet I realized that my ATM card is somewhere on the ocean between Durban and Rotterdam, or perhaps already a bit farther along.

It's a bit surprising there aren't any drive-through
schools and doctor's offices yet...

But not a problem, because anything can be paid for by credit card. No amount seems to be too small for a swipe. The only person who so far drew a line was the guy at the UPS store when I had him print out one single page for Impatience's homework assignment. He forgave me the 7 cents without paying.

You'd really struggle to get through a day in South Africa without cash. At least you'd be very uncomfortable as soon as the first Parking God stretched out his hand and came up empty. I wonder why the U.S. treasury still bothers to print actual dollars. They are not needed in America. Where they are needed are countries like Zimbabwe. I'm sure Robert Mugabe is secretly rubbing his hands with glee at having fooled the Americans into printing currency for him for free.

Lastly, America is a SHOPPER'S PARADISE. But more on that in another blog post.

Please excuse me now while I rearrange some furniture so that it looks as if I've been busy.