Dear America: You’re Doing It Wrong

Heart and Mind Mural

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of traveling and living abroad, it’s this: There is no perfect place on Earth.

In the years leading up to our move overseas, I knew I was ready to leave the United States. As an American living on American soil, however, it’s not okay to dislike a lot of things about the country you were born in. If you voice the way you really feel or believe aloud, you’re labeled “unpatriotic” or “un-American,” as if having an opinion that goes against the norm somehow makes you less of a person.

Well, I’m calling bullshit on the whole façade.

Since moving to Ukraine, I’ve returned to the U.S. twice for a few weeks at a time. Returning to the United States is amazing in so many ways. I savor the time I spend with loved ones. It’s so easy to be surrounded by the English language. Everything is so freaking convenient. And the library. Oh, the library.

Though I had experienced similar feelings upon returning to America post-Peace Corps service living in Kenya, everything feels particularly pronounced now. It’s bad enough that I have to pay taxes into a government with policies I oppose even if I never step foot on American soil, but I hate spending money on a daily basis in a country that elected a buffoon as its president. And, reflecting on these trips over the past month since I’ve been home from my most recent American excursion, I’ve realized one of the things that rubs me wrong about the U.S. is that, as a whole, there seems to be a belief that it is somehow better than other places.

I know that’s a generalization, and it certainly doesn’t apply to many individuals. However, there is a mindset of superiority that is incredibly pervasive that hangs over the country as a whole.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I think the United States is a great country. But it is not the only country in the world nor the most progressive. And it’s certainly not the best one. I don’t think that label can be claimed by any country, quite frankly.

However, there are many countries that are light years ahead of America in many ways, and I think it’d be wise for my country of birth to take detailed notes on what they do right.

Is this unpatriotic? Un-American, even? In my opinion, it’s honest. And sometimes the truth hurts.

Dear America: You’re doing it wrong.

You’re too damn loud.

I miss not having English-language speakers surrounding me when I go out and about in Kyiv. Communication with store clerks or waitresses or the average person on the street often defaults to Google Translate and sign language. And it works, but I miss hearing English.

What I do not miss is hearing Americans talk. They are So Damn Loud. Americans use language like a verbal block, pushing people around by speaking louder and louder until no one can enter the space with their own voices.

Take a breath and just be quiet. It’s okay. You don’t have to talk all the time, and you certainly don’t need to talk as loud as you do. In fact, my mental health would thank you if you’d just turn it down a notch.

Bigger is not better.

Seriously, is there any good reason why anyone needs to buy a half-gallon of syrup, a pound of chocolate chips or a box of cereal the size of a small television? I don’t think so.

For us, a trip to the market only ever equates to two reusable shopping bags, and that’s only because a four-pack of toilet paper takes up a sizable amount of space. (I typed that sentence and realized I don’t even know if it’s possible to buy a four-pack of toilet paper in the U.S. I only ever bought them in packs of 12 or 16 or 24 — something I can’t even imagine doing that now.) People rolled full carts out of the grocery store, transferring a dozen bags into their oversized vehicles, and it truly mystified me. What could anyone possibly need that fills so many bags?

The whole “super size” me joke about America is real. Take-out cups of soda from convenience stores contain far more sugary liquid than any person should ever ingest. Fast food menus are so overwhelming, it’s challenging just to order a burger and fries. Massive big-box stores. So much junk mail. An incredible amount of stuff for stuff’s sake.

Embarrassing confession: Though I prefer American chewing gum better than gum I can buy in other countries, I can only chew half a stick at a time. A full stick of gum is simply too big.

The world is a big place, but that does not mean America needs to take up all the space.

Let’s talk about public transportation.

Don’t get me wrong: Ukrainians have cars, and traffic jams in the city are a reality. But at least there are options other than driving in Kyiv and beyond. Getting around Kyiv, we walk and take the subway, but we could take public buses as well. When we travel throughout Europe, we hop on trains, which are efficient, effective and convenient for getting from one place to another.

To get anywhere in the U.S., you have to drive. Unless you’re fortunate enough to live on the East Coast, car transportation is the only option. State to state. City to city. And around cities. Places simply aren’t built for people who don’t want to drive.

Public transportation is better for the environment and the natural landscape. I imagine it’s also safer and better for fostering a sense of community.

“But, I want to go where I want when I want to,” say Americans. Well, guess what? This world isn’t designed to cater to your desires.

There’s a sense of entitlement born into American DNA that seems to seed a sense of independence at the expense of the greater whole. This is one of the things that I most dislike about the American mindset, and it’s also something that seems to have gotten worse in recent years.

As an extension of the public transportation topic, let’s talk about parking lots. It is shocking and tragic how many people circle parking lots in their cars looking for a “closer” parking spot. Park at the back and walk. You have legs. Use them.

Take care of your people.

The U.S. fosters an environment dismissive of anyone who is not a straight, white male: Focusing on punishing people rather than providing them with support, education and care. Making decisions about women’s health when it’s no one’s business but each individual woman. Spouting Christian nonsense as if it’s the end-all-be-all of moral, cultural and political dogma, and dismissing anyone who doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid.

The U.S. ideology seems to be that born-and-bred, white Americans are better than anyone who is not. This fails to recognize that people are people, and everyone deserves to be treated as such.

I continue to be floored by the country’s (lack of) maternity policies. I hate that medical care is so expensive and inaccessible to so many people. It breaks my heart that U.S. policies are more focused on putting people into jail for minor offenses than offering rehabilitative services that help set them up for success. People do not have the dignity to die. Family planning is demonized, and then no support is offered when women are forced to give birth even though they’d prefer to terminate their pregnancies.

I would gladly pay higher taxes if the U.S. placed an emphasis on using this money to support its people — all of its people. We are in this world together, so let’s start taking care of everyone … not just those who meet a narrowly defined image of “worthy.”

Community is not a bad word.

One afternoon in Kenya, we got stuck out in a rainstorm far from home. An old couple noticed our plight and invited us into their home to wait out the downpour. We didn’t know each other. We didn’t speak the same language. Together we sat in their small, dirt-floored home as the rain pounded on the corrugated metal roof. They had very little to offer us, but as is common, they managed to scrape together a couple cups of chai for us while we sat together.

I believe people are inherently good. I have to believe that. But the American isolationist mindset teaches people from a very young age to be suspicious of people they don’t know.

This is unfortunate but also dangerous.

Americans do not know their neighbors. In some neighborhoods, physical walls are built to separate people. Instead of building up walls, we need to tear them down. A community is stronger when the people who make it up are able to support each other — or at least empathize with each other in times of hardship.

Talking to each other, getting to know each other, realizing that people aren’t that different from each other … America needs more of that.

Instead of locking front doors, I think all Americans would be wise to fling them open and invite strangers in for a cup of chai.

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