Getting Used To America


I spent the weekend with a woman who was my closest childhood friend, a fellow Canadian whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years, and her husband, an Englishman.  Both recently moved from England to the Northeast where he teaches at a prestigious small college and she is an artist.


While we caught up and got to know one another again, we talked about the culture shock of moving to the United States after spending most of your life in another country.

It’s brilliantly illustrated in one of my favorite recent films, “Amreeka”, about a Palestinian woman who moves to the Midwest with her teenage son. Her homesickness is overwhelming at times, tempered only by phone calls to relatives in the Mideast who remind her why she chose to leave.

This is not an easy place.

My friends, established professionals with degrees, bank balances and perfect English, are still running the gauntlet of the ICE, awaiting green cards for almost two years after bureaucrats lost their enormous applications packets – twice. Nice. As a result, my friend has not been able to work for almost two years, fun if you like to be idle and have a ton of dough, which she does not.

Some things, however normal to Americans, make little sense to newcomers:

Freedom, liberty, etc. Americans go on and on about how free they are, but live in a country with no paid legally mandated paid vacation (freedom from labor), paid maternity leave (freedom to bond with your children), work “at will” (freedom from any sort of job security.)  Freedom of speech is treasured – while the mass media regurgitate the same four stories about the same six celebrities.

Patriotism. If you don’t love it, leave it. Ambivalence? Rarely discussed or acknowledged. The wearing of flag pins, the flying of huge flags, the automatic assumption that if you come to America and live in America you must de facto love America is erroneous. One can appreciate its good points, but have reservations about its challenges.

The free market. Oy. This is my third recession since moving to the U.S. in 1988. Three recessions, for me and for many others, have severely damaged my savings, my ability to earn a decent income without interruption, to move up in my field. Incomes – for all but the very wealthy – are stagnant or falling.

You have to believe things are going to improve, and figure out how yourself, because no one is going to sit and hold your hand for long, if at all.

The cost of higher education. This is astonishing to people who come from countries where the nation’s best universities are free or low cost, making a first, second or third degree (even some librarians now are expected to have two or three)  much more affordable. In a labor market where employers have the upper hand, so little financial aid for re-training is a slap in the face.

Partisanship. It seems increasingly impossible to create any sort of rational, thoughtful public dialogue.

Guns. It’s estimated that 30 percent of American homes contain a gun. There are even towns like Kennesaw, Georgia, where owning a firearm is a legal requirement. I wrote my first book about this, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” and interviewed 104 people in 29 states. Now I understand why.

Oversharing. Americans happily blurt out the most private details of their addictions or surgeries or family dramas within minutes  to total strangers — the sort of emotional revelations that, in many other places, are held private for years, or decades, and shared only with intimates.

Religiosity. It’s astonishing to those of us who come from countries where millions of people worship their own God, but don’t feel compelled to rub everyone’s nose in it. Canada has had gay marriage for years, while the frothy-mouthed crowd here continues to skew “debate” about many key life decisions, easily made in private in more diverse and accepting societies.

I listened to my friends and told them why I choose to stay:


Risk-taking. Unlike many more conservative countries, and I include Canada in that list, Americans are more comfortable with, and accustomed to, taking risks – or what many other nations consider one. When we were deciding whether one of us should quit a well-paid, secure job to try a new venture, a French friend was horrified. Why on earth would we do such a thing? American culture celebrates those who risk new ventures, encouraging change and innovation.

Let’s do business! It’s all about the Benjamins, for better or worse. I feel comfortable asking quickly and directly for business here because it’s the engine of the economy. Americans are eager to make money and generally happy to listen to anyone they think will help them do so. What can easily take weeks, months or years of negotiation elsewhere can happen at lightning speed here.


Directness. There are cultures where asking a direct question is the height of rudeness. It just isn’t done, even among people who know one another well. In the U.S., in my experience, people say what they think, (I admit, I’ve only lived in the Northeast, so that’s a limited view) and welcome frankness.

Optimism. It’s necessary if you’re going to survive in a place offering almost no government support and many fewer opportunities for help to green card or visa holders. You have to believe things are going to improve, and figure out how yourself, because no one is going to sit and hold your hand for long, if at all. Bootstrap city.

Creative destruction creates opportunity. I got a call yesterday from an editor who had created a wildly popular publication – killed when its owners wanted even more profit. Now she needs writers at her next gig and I’m one.  Constant ferment and turnover, if you’ve got the right skills, opens new doors when others close.

Mobility. If you’re fortunate enough to have good skills and mobility, there are many places to earn a good living.  I come from a country with no more than a dozen – maybe eight – major cities, each with its own challenges (like Montreal’s brutal winters and the need for French language skills.)

If you’re an ex-pat living in the U.S., what do you like best -– or dislike most?

How long have you been here and how has it changed you?

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