10 Things that Blow This Immigrant’s Mind about the American Economy
As we stepped out of the clinical air-conditioning of the Atlanta airport and Georgia’s wall of humidity hit me for the first time, my first thought was, “We moved to the jungle!” Little 10 year old me had only seen so many trees and so little population in forests and jungles. We had immigrated from Indore, India- population over a million.
We had moved to Augusta, Georgia- the golf capital of the world- population 200k. The timing of this post wasn’t intentional but happens to be on the same Sunday as the Final Round of the Masters, which means I don’t need to remind you what Augusta is- it is all over your TV screen. Today is Augusta’s day in the sun. Augusta is a community where families commonly have a 4000 sq foot house and half and acre all to themselves. Why would anyone need that much space? The lawns were perfect… how did the lawns get to be so perfect?
I remember when my dad finally bought a car. I was about 7 years old. Papa came home with a Fiat and all the kids gathered around it like it was an amazing thing of beauty. He took me and all the kids I was playing with out on an inaugural ride around the neighborhood. It was amazing. Cars were rare and only bought with cash. So were houses for that matter. In the US, a car is an expectation for every member of the family over sixteen.
Being an immigrant gives a unique perspective on economy. There are many things that we take for granted financially that are really quite unique to the western world. At the risk of increasing my “otherness,” I want to share with you the differences I find intriguing. It’s interesting to me how many comforts we are blessed with here in the states and how our expectations differ from the rest of the world. So here goes.
Traffic in Indore
10 Things That Blow This Immigrant's Mind about the American Economy
The idea of borrowing money to buy a house and to buy a car was so foreign to me. In India in 1995, people save and save and save, and then buy a car. Then, they save and buy a house. Financing out furniture is out of the question. Credit cards weren’t a thing at all in 1995. The fact that everyone could afford a house was so weird. Turns out, they really can’t (see 2008 housing crash). These days in India, people are starting to finance everything too, sadly.
2. Investing for the Common Man (or Woman)
Retirement in India is basically a pension or a lump sum. And family savings- generations of families live together and consolidate costs. Not many people invest in stocks. It was certainly not readily available online. If one wanted to invest, they had to go to the bank in person and drink chai, and spend half the day signing forms.
I couldn’t understand how grass could be so perfect. It looked like so much work. Turns out, it IS just as much work as I thought… and takes tons of money! Here in the states, we spend so much time, money, and energy on lawns. In India, my family had a lawn once. We let it grow out long enough for the elephant in our neighborhood to come and eat it. The only people that had perfect lawns were rich people that could afford to hire a groundskeeper. Contrast that with the city that hosts the Masters, which has been rumored to paint the grass green. Expectations were high. Regular people in the states spend a large percentage of their free time fiddling around in the lawn- whether its raking leaves, mowing the lawn, trimming the sides, pruning the bushes, planting the flowerbeds… the work is endless. And rarely do you see that Average Joe playing on the lawn he worked so hard to maintain! He’s too darn tired and is getting some well deserved rest!
4. The Overuse of Paper Products
Think toilet paper, paper towels, paper products in general. So, Indians have a cup with a faucet next to the squatting toilet. You splash and rinse. Using paper to wipe was weird to me initially. Now, when we got back, my relatives have to go out and buy TP just for us. Weird. Paper towels are not a thing still in India. Cleanup is done with a reusable rag. Can you imagine the amount of forests that would be cut down if 1.3 billion Indians caught on to paper towels? Goodbye rain forests.
5. Distances and Lack of Public Transport
Everyone has a car and so everyone can drive farther to get to things. Everyone has land so houses are far apart. People play basketball in the street! You’d get killed in India if you did that- by two or three motorcycles and scooters, at once. Cul-de-sac’s aren’t a thing in India. People live close together, everything is close by. The distances here really get in the way when the elderly lose their ability to drive. In India, the elderly can still walk to places and they do. They retain mobility. The distances combined with a lack of reliable public transportation really make cars a necessity.
6. Central Air Conditioning
We’re all so comfortable inside. But that means being outside is so uncomfortable. People in India may have window air conditioning units for specific rooms, but central air in homes is still very, very rare. Stale, recycled air needed some getting used to. I’m still not convinced its the best thing. It makes people intolerant of the outside.
7. Government Infrastructure
There are indeed crazy, rich Indians. But, in India, people are also very, very poor. Trash collection only just became a thing in Indore. There are no government subsidies. There is no such thing as Medicaid. So the poor live in mud huts and the rich live in fancy high houses. I remember when I finally got to see where my nanny lived (a mud hut), I was appalled. But, that’s the reality. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Poor living conditions harbor disease and outbreaks affect everyone. The poor in the US have an apartment, running water, and central air. They have medicaid and food stamps. Hospitals have to provide care in spite of ability of the person to pay (EMTALA) and there are free clinics available to the very poor. How people feel about these things differ according to their political leanings, but they are important things that make life better in the US for the poorest of folks.
8. Filing Taxes
I had to talk to my Mom about this. I don’t ever remember anyone mentioning taxes or tax returns when I was a kid. She confirmed, in India, filing taxes wasn’t a thing. Taxes got taken out of your paycheck and that was that. No filing. No possibility of getting money back. The poor paid taxes and the rich paid taxes. My mom recalls being so excited when we got all our taxes back when we first moved here (we were well below the poverty line). She used the money to pay for our first trip back to India. So, we take for granted that taxes are heavily subsidized here for the lower incomes
9. Being on Time
Do you know an Indian that’s always late? You probably do. Indians function on Indian Standard Timing (IST). If someone says a party starts at 7, they will be offended if you show up at 7:15. They expect you to show up at 8, maybe 9 if you’re super cool. Being an hour late is the expectation. This carries over to the workplace. People amble in whenever they are done having their breakfast. Lunch is over when it is over. Since everyone is largely debt free, the employer has a little less power to make everyone show up on time and rule by fear.
10. Perfect Produce
Seriously, have you ever appreciated how perfect the produce looks around here? Apples shouldn’t be that shiny. All the produce looks amazing but generally tastes like cardboard. Produce tastes amazing in India, if you know how to pick it out but definitely doesn’t look as good. That was hard to get used to. I’ve finally found farmers markets and organic produce that tastes better.
I hope to keep travelling because of realizations like these. There are so many things in our life that we take for granted as the status quo. But, someone somewhere else could take it as crazy. Maybe they could teach us to do things a little differently. Maybe they could learn from us. That’s what makes it all so interesting!
I hope you enjoyed and I’ll see you next week!
Stay frugal, ya’ll!
Standard Disclaimer: Not meant as individualized financial advice. Title picture from Unsplash.com.