Over the last three years I spent 2 weeks in the USA, my country of citizenship. This meant I always received news from afar: reading news and talking to friends and family. The reality of life in the States was always remote. I didn’t experience broadcast TV, the price of gas, talking with strangers or natural disasters. I worked in offices, shopped in grocery stores, rode the buses in the places I lived, but I hadn’t done those things in America in years. All I knew about work culture, food trends, and cultural moods came from the news and conversations with friends.
Reading the Guardian, watching Al Jazeera, listening to NPR kept me appraised of the situation of the world and my distant home country alike. Of course, I read American websites, but my constant feeds were more often local blogs and international news organizations. Yet, no matter how much you try to include personal stories and situations, it is difficult to actually know what it is like to live in a place—to go shopping, to talk with your waiter or cashier, to take the bus.
The big news stories–shootings, gun control, Sandy, polar vortex, health care, pop culture–got the most focus in these sources, with in depth analysis and contextualization. Over the past three years there have been slews of shootings, bombings and natural disasters, which somehow America seemed unable to rectify.
My fiancé was in Boston on a business trip during the Boston bombing, and had been at the Marathon earlier in the day, after earlier in the week seeing my family and friends who lived in the area, including runners. While he was in my home country, I feared for his life and the lives of my friends. While this was an exception to the norm, shootings are, unfortunately, not. The experience of fear for my friends, reinforced by the constant stream of reports of violence, translated to my move.
The unfortunate truth of gun crime in America terrifies me, and the imagined threat of crime–pick pocketing, muggings, random shootings–was on my mind constantly as I arrived in the States, and continues to distress the community. The University of Chicago sends out security alerts every time there is a mugging on campus, and they are distressingly frequent, with acquaintances counting among the victims. I have changed my habits–in Hong Kong, I would listen to music on the way and read the news on my Nexus5 while riding the bus. I don’t wear headphones on the train or bus in Chicago, or play on my phone while walking around. I don’t take some public transit late in the evenings if I can avoid it.
Violence is a problem, one of the most important problems in the States today, and there is certainly a disparity in how much violence affects different segments of the population. Now especially living in Chicago, violent crime, and its disparities, should be something I think about. It is important as a citizen of the USA, and as a person, to be aware of the problems facing our communities. Especially in terms of violence, inequality and the factors that cause them. To take a look at some of what goes on in Chicago, the Tribune has a useful resource.
This is all important and needs to be addressed. However, my three years of distance allowed me to constantly overlook the wonderfully mundane aspects of life. People watch football and baseball; grocery stores stock an incredible array of selection; strangers talk to each other on the bus and make friendly conversation. In my first week back in the States, I had conversations with half a dozen people who told me all about their lives just because I said hello or asked if they needed a hand with something. I also went to my first cubs game, walked a dog, bought cereal and ate many tacos.
When I went to New York to visit some friends I hadn’t seen in far too long, I talked to them about my fears moving back, about how the news gave such a grim picture of life. Their response was moderately perturbed: their general experiences didn’t mesh with the narrative of the States. Data points and experience are different things. People have lives beyond the traumatic news stories.
As I evaluated my expectations of moving to America, I found I had essentialized, I had made America a monolith of culture. Instead of thinking about the diversity of experiences among my friends, I overweighted the reports of the news. My expectations and my fear were based in facts, but the experience of life is much more defined by the pedestrian experiences of day-to-day living than it is by the muggings, even those that are close to home.
The news of America gives us the facts. With good reason, we don’t talk about the people picnicking at the lake with a book, the easy conversations with cashiers at the grocery store and going to the nice brewery down the street. Yet all of these things are important aspects of what it is to live in America, the friendliness, the crime, the delicious food and the obesity. News isn’t about daily life, rather about the exceptions (or what we hope are exceptions). Living in America is walking down a street lined with 3 story brick houses, all with balconies. It is having conversations with strangers occasionally on the train because none of you are wearing headphones and the conductor made a funny comment about our commute. It is walking into a popular dinner just for the cinnamon rolls and waiting in the line with your friends, to get huge meals and endless coffee. It is sitting at home on Sunday watching football over dinner. It is wide boulevards full of cars, and driving half a mile instead of walking on a nice day. In other words, it is normal.