Last month I visited New Zealand for the first time since moving to the USA. Lots of people asked what living in the USA is like. Here’s what I told them:
It’s always sunny in Palo Alto
I live in Palo Alto, California. It’s near San Francisco and part of Silicon Valley. Palo Alto is officially a “city,” but it feels suburban: the streets are clean, there are trees everywhere, and most buildings are one or two stories.
Palo Alto has two main attractions. One is the weather: the air is warm and dry, it seldom rains, and it never snows. I don’t feel guilty about spending a nice day inside because every day is a nice day. (In fact I have the opposite problem: I spend too much time outside running and cycling, and too little inside being productive.)
The other attraction is Stanford University, where I study. Most of my interactions are with students and professors. Yet Palo Alto doesn’t feel like a university town: it’s easier to find ice cream than beer, and everything is expensive. The rent on my studio apartment here is more than what I paid for a two-bedroom apartment in the middle of Wellington.
Palo Alto is culturally diverse. I hear foreign languages daily. Most of my friends here are from South America or Europe. Despite being used to hearing different accents, people have trouble with mine: they often think I’m named “Bin.” (We all feel embarrassed when I have to spell my name, one of the simplest in the English language.)
In contrast, Palo Altoans seem politically homogeneous. The Americans I know all vote Democrat; the non-Americans would if they could. But people signal their politics in different ways. Some decorate their lawns with “climate change is real” and “black lives matter” signs. Others wear masks while walking alone outside or cycling without a helmet.
People here seem aware of, and concerned about, social issues plaguing the USA. But they’re also insulated from such issues. There are no riots. There are few homeless and no (visible) guns. No one looks obese.
Clearly Palo Alto is not representative of the USA. Other areas have skyscrapers, snow, cheap drinks, Republicans, climate change deniers, and openly carried guns. I’ve visited some cities on the east and west coasts, but nowhere in the south and almost nowhere rural. So my perspective on living here is biased because my experience is biased.
But I don’t think anywhere is representative of the USA. There’s so much variety in where people live, how they behave, and what they believe. I didn’t appreciate that variety until moving here. I thought of the USA similarly to New Zealand: I thought everyone was basically the same, with minor differences in wealth and lifestyle. I thought wrong.
How’s it different?
New Zealand and the USA differ in many ways. Here are some of my observations:
When I read a restaurant menu in New Zealand, the price I see is the price I pay. When I read one here, the price I see is about 80% of what I pay. The last 20% comprises taxes and tips. Taxes vary by product, store, and state. Tips vary by (perceived) service quality and social norms.
The norm in Palo Alto is to tip 18% of the pre-tax price. I’m not sure why the fee for shipping items from kitchen to table depends on the price of the cargo. One local menu reads:
We are a no tipping establishment. 20% service charge will be added to your bill to ensure a better living wage to our staff.
They could just raise their pre-tax prices by 20%, but then they wouldn’t get to virtue signal. At least they prompt people to multiply by 1.2 before choosing what to order.
I pay income tax to the state and federal governments. I use third-party software to avoid the risk of committing fraud by mistake. That risk exists because both governments already know my taxable income. They could, like New Zealand’s tax office, just fill out my return and have me spend two minutes confirming it. But then I wouldn’t be intimidated into paying an intermediary to organize my financial data. I’m fortunate in that Stanford pays on my behalf. Others in the USA are less fortunate.
Stanford also pays for my health insurance. I’d hate to be uninsured: I broke my wrist last year, and my hospital and surgery fees totalled just under 100,000 USD (currently about 160,000 NZD). But I had surgery just three days after my accident; in New Zealand I’d have paid almost nothing but waited weeks. Sometimes you get what you pay for.
(As an aside: My surgeon prescribed oxycodone, a pain-relieving opiate. I paid 1.25 USD for 20 days’ worth. That payment helped me understand why the USA has an opioid epidemic.)
Talking to strangers
In New Zealand it is (mostly) socially acceptable to talk to strangers. People trust each other. If you’re approached by someone you don’t know, they probably don’t want anything from you (other than, say, directions). They usually just want to chat.
In the USA, it seems (mostly) socially unacceptable to talk to strangers. People don’t trust each other. If you’re approached by someone you don’t know, they probably want something from you. They might want to chat, but only to build rapport before advancing their agenda.
Americans (and other non-New Zealanders) use “how are you” as a greeting rather than a question. They don’t actually want to know; they just want you to say “good” or “fine,” and move on. Replying “bad” would make the greeter’s day worse. I hear “how are you” most often when walking past people I know. They usually don’t stop and wait for an answer. I’m still learning not to take offense.
Likewise I’m still adjusting to how Americans receive thanks. New Zealanders always reply “you’re welcome.” Americans always reply “sure” or “of course.” I find those responses dismissive and rude. They suggest my thanks were unnecessary and I’ve wasted my time offering them. Whereas I think Americans want to avoid a sense of reliance: they don’t want me to think I owe them anything in return.
Most people I’ve met know New Zealand is scenic and beautiful. Scenery in the USA—at least, the scenery I’ve seen—is not as beautiful. But the USA has something New Zealand doesn’t: scale. Redwoods are huge. Big Sur is huge. New York City’s skyline is huge. New Zealand’s main scenic attractions—glaciers, lakes, and national parks—are not as huge.