The Downsides to Living in the United States

These things were originally going to be in my last post, but I realised that it’s probably unfair to blame DC for them. Obviously my impressions are coloured by my love of London and the UK (which has grown since I’ve been here) and my struggles to set up home in this country as a foreign national.

  1. The Banking System. Of course the US has many banks – practically every large town will have its own local bank – so it’s difficult to effect any large-scale modernisation but, really, banking in DC has been like going back to the dark ages. There are charges for everything from making an online transfer to withdrawing at another bank’s ATM. It takes days for your pay check to fully clear and the funds to become available. You still have to sign for things – chip and pin is as yet a glimmer on the far distant horizon – and it’s still the norm to use cheques [or checks]. In fact, they’re so convinced that you don’t trust anything else, that they make you send them a voided check to ensure that direct debits are set up right (you can’t be trusted to get your bank account number correctly…). Nearly all bills come in the post and it’s assumed that you will return the payment, using a check, by post. Of course, the postal system is incredibly slow that you have to really think ahead to avoid being charged late fees. The slow postal system in fact, along with other factors, was blamed for the fact that it took practically two months for us to receive our bank cards. Whenever we wanted to withdraw cash, which was often, as we had no other way of paying (except with the emergency temporary checks they gave us), I had to go in person to the bank (between 9.30am and 3pm, Mon-Fri) and write out a withdrawal request. They got to know me very well. Given the charges for using other ATMs, and the fact that there are only 2 HSBC branches in DC, we still withdraw cash very rarely. Things were complicated for us by the fact that we were from overseas, and only one of us had a social security number, but largely the delays seemed to be down to incompetence and the slow post.
  1. Social Security Numbers/Credit records. Everything in the US runs on your social security number. When you’re applying for any kind of credit, leasing an apartment, or just signing up for a supermarket club card – you get asked for your social security. Sometimes, if you don’t have one, there’s no help for it, you’re just going to have to do without those goods or services. Sometimes they’ll accept an ID number, but if you have an out of state – or worse, international – ID, they’re often just not set up for that. We’ve been somewhat lucky with our banking/credit situation. One of us had a social security number from a few years ago, the other had a credit record with HSBC in the UK. When we’re combined we appear to be a just about viable prospect. Had things been different, I’m not sure what would have happened.
  1. The DMV. Again, the UK modernised its public services a while back and began to prioritise the public as ‘customers’. This has not happened in the US. It’s not just the wait times and the misinformation – though that is annoying – it’s the fact that in this country, where the customer is king, and customer service everywhere is delightful, you’re treated so badly by government employees. They clearly hate their jobs. They’re miserable. They’re so thoroughly fed up that they make it plain that they think it’s your fault and that they’re going to make you suffer for it. It makes me wonder whether, if they were nicer to people, and tried to enjoy their jobs, they might not feel just a bit better? We made a massive effort to be polite and patient with the people we met and were rewarded by being able to make it through the process, despite one of our pieces of evidence being not quite acceptable. Others were not so lucky. At the triage stage, some employees seemed almost to relish sending people away, telling them that they now needed an extra piece of ID – that the rules had changed and that they didn’t care what the website said. One mother and daughter had a terrible time of it, the daughter at one point leaving to go and sob outside, and then loudly discussed sending a letter of complaint to the council. The one thing we can say for Georgetown DMV is that it’s slightly nicer than the social security office.
  1. Groceries. While we are lucky in DC and can get a variety of British/international ingredients and treats, in general groceries are of poor quality compared with what we’re used to in the UK. Culturally the grocery market seems to have evolved differently, with a greater emphasis on frozen/cheap in many cases where in the UK we would buy fresh/refrigerated (e.g. it’s difficult to get fresh filled pasta or relatively good quality sausages), and fresh/expensive in cases where we would use dried (i.e. coffee). Overall there’s an emphasis on cheap low quality, or expensive high quality. There are some supermarkets from which some people simply will not buy their meat – they don’t trust it. There are some brands of canned tuna and anchovies that are not worth buying because they are 80:20 water/oil to fish. And then there are the additives: cane syrup, molasses, palm oil, liquid ‘mesquite’ smoke… Don’t even get me started on the bacon. Eating well at home is a challenge here.
  1. Healthcare. There’s not much you can say about the healthcare ‘system’ in the US that’s not been said in Breaking Bad. It’s barbaric. To withhold life-saving medical treatment from patients because their personal insurance won’t cover it, to knowingly offer them a lower standard of care from other patients who can pay for it – this is a situation that I can’t stomach. The attitude that you should get better healthcare than someone who (you believe) doesn’t work as hard as you is something so utterly foreign to me that I can’t begin to understand it – never mind that it’s economically short-sighted to boot. And it’s not as if the care most people in jobs with coverage is gold plated. The facilities usually look worse – poorer, older, dirtier – than many in the UK. R’s company freely admits that the dental and visual care that it provides actually sucks and that you can probably get a better deal if you shop around on the highstreet. Everyone has a tale to tell of an insurance company refusing to pay for something they thought was covered. It just doesn’t work.
  1. Flying. The fact you have to fly everywhere is beginning to get on my nerves. Why does everywhere have to be so far away? It’s also very annoying when your layover takes longer than the entire duration of the fight, and when you have to layover somewhere that’s really not on the way to your destination. The planes always seem to be too small to be able to take your cabin luggage in the overheads too… I know this is one of my pettier gripes.

Right. Negativity over (for now at least!).

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3 thoughts on “The Downsides to Living in the United States

  1. Re US internal flights – I once had to pay an extra $50 to carry on a bag for the overhead locker (the same as it would have cost to check a bag). Of course they didn’t tell me that when I booked, just when I got to the airport and it was too late to do anything differently (i.e. choose a different airline) – bastards.

    Re banking, I used a contactless card in front of a US visitor the other day and his eyes nearly fell out of his head. I think the reason they have no chip and pin is that the cost of the investment would fall on the bank but the advantage (security) is mainly with the customer. Because banks are all so small/local, it’s not worth them making the investment to gain a competitive advantage – and in the land of small, localised government, you won’t get a national government-backed initiative to roll it out the way we did.

    Glad to hear you’re still smiling despite annoyances! and the food situation gives you a great excuse to eat out often…

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  2. You’ve done a wonderful job in covering a great deal of “the downsides to living in the United States,” but there are plenty more horrors to heap atop yours, believe me as I was born here and I am doing everything possible to leave and never, ever have to come back.

    I have no idea what your reasons are for coming to the U.S. but I am always astounded that anyone would choose to come here for any reason. I would say that I hope that it gets better for you, but unfortunately, I wouldn’t count on it.

    Also, please don’t think that it was you that the problem was about at the DMV since as a natural born citizen of the U.S. who simply moved from one state to another and needed to exchange one valid driver’s license from the other state to the new state, I was met with the same reaction from the employees of the DMV. I had brought my valid driver’s license, my social security card, my birth certificate, and a certified copy of my divorce decree and I was told that that was not enough identification to enable me to get a driver’s license in the state I had moved to. I was informed that I needed to get a certified copy of my marriage certificate as that would prove why my last name had changed from that on my birth certificate. That was the reason I gave them the certified copy of my divorce decree so that they would know that my name changed due to an obvious marriage having taken place since they were staring down at the divorce decree.

    I had to send a money order to the state I was married in, wait for the certified copy of the marriage certificate to arrive and then head back over to the DMV. And remember, I was born here. And you are right again, they must really, really hate their job!

    Great post by the way!

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