10 things I would change about the United States

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I recently wrote a post entitled the 14 things they don’t tell you about Spain. As many of you know, I have been living in Spain for a year and a half. The list was real. I always talk about how you really experience more of the culture actually living abroad versus traveling. Well I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t write a similar list about the United States. My country is far from perfect, after all.

I will just say as a disclaimer that some of these won’t apply to cities like New York or Chicago. In general, the largest cities of a country will always be more ahead of the curve than the rest of the country.

Where am I from?

I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati is always what I describe as an average American city. While there is tourism, I always joke that foreigners can skip it if they don’t have a lot of time in the United States. We have a population of almost 300,000. We are surrounded by suburbs and sit in the Southwest corner of the state of Ohio.

My city is average but well-loved. It really does have a special place in my heart. I really fell in love with it in my 20’s. I had grown up in the suburbs and really didn’t know too much about the actual city beyond baseball games and trips to the museum. However that changed with a job working at a community center, making friends in the city and eventually moving into the city after university. I really know the city by the back of my hand and love it. That being said, I also love living overseas and traveling. Hence I’m not currently living in Cincinnati.

I think in a lot of ways, I love my city more than I love my country. For me, my city represents many of the best Americans. The people I surround myself with are working for a better world. They’re not perfect but they are really good people. Furthermore my city represents many of my favorite places. My favorite bars, cafes, parks and restaurants. It’s a place where I don’t have to explain myself. Living overseas, I feel like I always have to explain myself. That is one of the things they don’t tell you about being the foreigner.

However my country is one I find myself looking at with a critical eye. It’s the one the whole world sees. These are the things I would change about the United States.

1. Public transportation

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I’m so very spoiled in Europe. Everything is so well-connected with buses and trains. Over Christmas, I traveled to Amsterdam and Brussels. I simply booked a flight into Amsterdam and out of Brussels. I knew between the bus and the trains, I’d figure the rest out. I was floored when I saw that they two were only two hours apart by train.

However in the United States, it is hard to go from place to place without a car. With the exception of New York City, Chicago, Washington DC and a few other super large cities, public transportation is often lacking in many cities. In many parts of the United States, it’s impossible to live without a car. In fact lots of places are set up with cars in mind. Take strip malls, for example. Strip malls are basically a group of storefronts stuck together with a lot of parking spaces in front of it.

I’m not saying we take away cars. I just wish the cities would improve their public transportation systems and encourage people to take it. I also wish we would improve train transportation between cities. There are cities (such as Louisville or Nashville) that I simply cannot take a train to because one doesn’t go there. That sucks and I wish I could change it.

2. Second language proficiency is low

According to a Gallup poll, one in four Americans can hold a conversation in a language other than English. However one thing we need to note here as a disclaimer is that some of these people likely come from homes where another language is spoken (such as kids with Mexican or Polish parents). Those people speak a second language because of environment more than anything. If we took them out of the equation, I’m sure that number would be quite lower.

Out of all my friends and family, I can only think of one person who is actually bilingual. That would be my best friend who works as a bilingual speech therapist. At least half of her clients are Hispanic. She studied Spanish in university and has always been passionate about working with the Hispanic community. She, however, is the exception. The average American really isn’t like her.

I feel like we do languages all wrong. The best time to learn a second language is as a child. Children absorb languages like a sponge. However most elementary schools in the US don’t teach second languages. Bilingual schools are even fewer. You are required to take a foreign language to enter university, so most students take a few years of say German, Spanish or French in high school. However the majority can hardly speak a word after graduating college.

The truth is that right now, English is the common language. The whole world learns our language as a second language, so we don’t really have as much of a necessity to learn another one. Furthermore, you don’t need a second language to get a good job. It can definitely help, but it doesn’t hurt your chances of getting a good job if you only speak English. I think many Americans would love to learn a second language. However most don’t have the necessity and therefore find it hard to find the time.

3. Everything is bigger

I teach private English classes here in Spain. Two of my students ages 10 and 12 wanted to skype with my brother one class. So before we called him, I had them write down some questions to ask him. One of them was “is everything really bigger in the US?” Too funny but also true. My brother has never traveled to Europe, so he was like “well I don’t have much to compare it to but yeah, things can be big.

After spending time over here in Europe, it really is true. There are so many SUVS and pickup trucks in the United States. On one hand, I get it if you truly need the space. But if you don’t, it’s a lot of gas and pollution. The cars are simply not as big over here and people still seem to live life. They also don’t have to take their car everywhere as public transportation is better.

However it doesn’t end with cars. Elevators are bigger. Food portions are bigger. Supermarkets are bigger. Some stuff makes sense and others just seem like a waste.

4. The number of people who travel internationally is low

Now I want to address this one lightly and with caution. First, I fully recognize that international travel is a privilege. Not everyone is in a place where they can travel internationally and that is totally okay. It’s expensive for sure. People have responsibilities and things that prevent them. I often get annoyed when people who travel a lot act like just anyone can do it. That is simply not true.

However on the other hand, the number of Americans who travel outside of the United States is low. According to the BBC, the percentage of Americans who have a passport is almost half. That number has been growing over the past 20 years, which is awesome. However it’s still a low number.

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I really wish more people who could travel overseas did it. I feel like to many, a trip overseas is daunting and they feel like they might only get one shot at it. So they’ll say “well when I do go to Europe, I want to go for a month or two.” I personally think that’s a good excuse. I mean if you really do have a month or two, take it and go travel. However the truth is many Americans will never have a month. After all, many of us only get two weeks of vacation. I think one week traveling in France, for example, is worlds better than never leaving.

The truth is, we will never see it all. But if you can travel outside of your country little by little when you can, you’ll learn so much more about the world than if you don’t ever leave.

5. Vacation time

Unless you’re a teacher or are self-employed, if you’re an American, you likely get two weeks of vacation. While that seems normal to us, it’s ridiculous to people in other parts of the world. Here in Spain, for example, people get at least four weeks. That seems to be the norm in Europe.

I really wish we would follow suit and give people more vacation time in the United States.

6. The focus on money and material

I feel like I’m not the normal American a lot of times. It seems like with so many people in my country, it’s just study hard and work hard. Pick a career that you enjoy but is also secure. Work work work. On one hand, our work ethic is one of the things I love about my country. In fact, I’ve grown to love and be even more proud of it living over here in Spain. However there comes to a point where it’s all just too much.

Why do we place such importance on a big salary? Why do we place importance on spending money? The other thing that comes to mind here is just stuff. It feels like the shops and companies are just selling selling selling. It’s all about getting more products into more people’s hands. Electronics are designed to be obsolete in just a few years so that we feel the need to buy more.

When it’s all about money and material, we spend less time on what’s important. We spend less time just enjoying life with family and friends.

7. No paid maternity leave

We’re the only developed country that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave, according to polifact.com. That’s ridiculous.

8. That we don’t pay our teachers nearly enough nor support them

Today while riding the bus home, a video popped up about a teacher shortage in the United States. It’s such a stark contrast from Spain. Here in Spain, there’s a big economic crisis. Teacher salaries pay comfortably, so everyone wants to be a teacher it seems. Also the cost of living in Spain overall is significantly less than in the United States. So many people want to be teachers that the government gives this big exam and gives spots to the people with the top scores.

Over in the United States, no one becomes a teacher for the stability. Everyone knows it’s super hard to live comfortably on a teacher salary. That is absolutely ridiculous. Teaching is one of the most important professions on this planet. Everyone. Every. Single. Person. had teachers. Everyone has to learn. Teachers shape the future.

Bottom line is that they need to be paid and better supported. I hear so many stories of teachers spending their own money for their classrooms. That’s ridiculous. They should not have to spend a penny of their own money on classroom supplies and materials.

To me, it seems obvious. A better educated and empowered population makes for a better country.

9. Our current president

I really don’t want to get political. But I did not vote for him and I wish someone else … anyone else … could take his position.

10. Our immigration system

Okay, so yes this is also political. If you know me personally, you know that it’s hard for me to not get political. However a lot of it just has to do with the people I know and issues I’m involved with.

I really owe my Spanish to people who don’t live in the United States legally. Before moving to Spain, I worked with a social service agency in my city that mainly worked with the Hispanic community. In this position, I was organizing English classes for adults. I got to know so many hard-working immigrants from all over South America. Speaking Spanish allowed to get to know them on a level that a lot of Americans cannot.

I know I know. Hispanic immigrants don’t always get the best reputation in the United States. They’re seen as criminals because they entered my country without papers (but wait … isn’t that what the Europeans did hundreds of years ago? … that, though, is a conversation for another time). However I have found that the average American knows little to nothing about how our immigration system actually works. They’ve simply never had to think about it since they were born as citizens.

Let me break it down for you. There simply is no way for the majority of these immigrants to get a legal work visa. For a company to legally hire a foreigner, they have to prove that that foreigner has special skills that none of the American candidates could fulfil. This typically ends up being foreigners with super specific skills and high education. There is also a visa lottery where they just give random foreigners work visas. However that number is ridiculously small. You can get legal status through marrying an American. Studying is another option as well.

Meanwhile you have lots of very poor countries located below the United States (such as Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, etc). Some parts of these countries also have a lot of violence. There are lots of wonderful and hardworking people who simply have no options in their countries. They don’t have any super specific skills or connections, so they’d likely never get sponsored by a company. However they know that if they can make it to the United States, they can find work. Factories, hotels, restaurants and farms hire immigrants because they’re willing to do the work and they work hard. These are jobs that a lot of Americans don’t want.

At the end of the day in my experience, the immigrants I know from South America are good people just trying to make a better future for themselves and their families. Isn’t that what the United States is made of? After all, we are a country of immigrants. Other than cultural differences, there really is not too much different than a family from Mexico living in the United States today and a family from Ireland living in the United States several hundred years ago. Both are just trying to live the American dream.

Our immigration system is simply not working. I say we figure out a way to give these immigrants a visa. I’m not saying let everyone in. There would still need to be a basic background check and such. But instead of fearing the other I feel like we need to learn from them.

There we have it

I’m sure I could write more than 10 things. However 10 seemed to be a good place to stop. Are you American? What things would you change? What do you love about the United States?

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57 Comments

  1. Amazing post! I felt you passion and heart in all of the words written. I can’t believe America, which is supposedly the most forward an developed country doesn’t have maternity leave?!! I also find that its so important for your kids to learn a second language in school. We have in Australia our school system that they learn one or two languages in primary and high school. And the president? Well, a majority of the world wishes he would disappear. But I won’t go into how I feel 🙂

    1. Yeah I can’t believe it either. That’s awesome that kids learn a language in elementary school in Australia. I find that some English-speaking countries (like mine and the UK) don’t prioritize learning a second language as much since the whole world learns English. So that’s super refreshing to learn.

  2. LANGUAGE!! I WISH WE WERE FORCED to learn languages!! When I travel, everyone overseas knows more than one language – and I am here like, Oh yeah… I Know English and um, THAT IS IT! Ha! I wish I wasn’t such a stubborn ASS when I was little.

    1. Well I also always say that it’s never too late to learn. I basically learned Spanish at the age of 26. Now at age 30, I live in Spain and speak it fluently.

  3. Nina I enjoyed the article and agree with many of your observations. One thing I believe you are wrong about. Immigrants do not get citizenship by marrying a US citizen. Many years ago that was true but not anymore. It does not even get considered.

    1. Hi Jan. Thanks for stopping by and reading this! I know that immigrants who marry Americans don’t get handed citizenship. But what it does make them eligible to do is apply for permanent residency i.e. a green card. You can also get a green card from a work visa. Then after I believe it’s 7 years of legal permanent residency in the US, you can apply for citizenship. One of my friends married a woman from China maybe 3-4 years ago. While she’s not a citizen, she is now a legal permanent resident. However correct me if I’m still wrong on any of this. I know you probably know a lot about the process as Van went through it.

      1. I don’t know a lot about the immigration process I just know that Van already had her green card when they became engaged. Van and Brett had said that being married did not have an impact on her citizenship process. It is good to find out that marriage helps even if indirectly. I was very happy when Van became a US citizen. Right now Brett, Van, An and Greg are in Vietnam celebrating Tet. Van’s family are very happy to spend some time with An.

        1. She likely already had it through her job. What they were probably told was that their marriage wouldn’t speed up the process at all. No matter how you get your green card, there’s still the same wait period before you can apply for citizenship. However lets say Brett had been living in Vietnam instead and met her. The two of them getting married would have made her eligible to apply for a green card if she didn’t have one.

          That’s great that they are in Vietnam right now!

  4. You had really heartfelt observations and I’m proud to see you pointing some of them out. I mean…not many would. Anyway, it seems hectic that there are no public means of transportation while you’d really want that.

    1. Yeah I think it’s hard for people to turn a critical eye on something that is their own. And yeah, all I would love to do is easily be able to travel to the cities in my region when I’m home.

  5. It really is crazy considering how the United States is one of the most visited places in the world that it does not have a better form of transportation, especially since there are those who cannot drive so would need to take a taxi which I can imagine it must be so expensive. I had no idea that the second language proficiency was so low either!

    1. I know! It would really help and be better for the environment. I heard that years and years ago, the tire companies lobbied for less trains or something. It was in their best interest to sell more cars I suppose. And yeah I would love to change language proficiency. I’m the exception to that only because I live in Spain and have the opportunity to speak Spanish everyday.

  6. I’ve only visited the US once but I was amazed how reliant on cars people are! I never drive in the UK.

    Immigration and race also seems like such a huge issue

  7. You really shared a lot about America and its illuminating. Thanks. Tho the focus on money and materials is still what i love about America. The focus keeps everyone on their feet.

    1. I mean I think what I want is a balance. Here in Spain, everyone wants to work in the public sector because the private sector really isn’t doing that great. In the US, the private sector is always way better, so the people who want to make a lot of money would never work in the public sector. I think too much of one extreme is not good.

  8. Yes, yes, and yes. Amazing! I live in Amsterdam and see the same things. The vacation time is a huge thing. My husband gets 5 weeks paid vacation. Thats one big reason we don’t want to live in the states. But literally every point you made is something that my husband and I talk about often.
    Great post!

    1. Wow 5 weeks is amazing. I feel like if Americans had 5 weeks, you’d see more of them travel internationally. I hear so many people say “well I only get to two weeks and that’s not enough time to really see Europe.”

  9. I think there are many things that we would change about many different places. I don’t think there is one place on earth that is perfect and that’s ok. There are some really important things that need to change though, that’s for sure!

    1. Of course no place is perfect. I often think people from a place often cannot be as critical, which is why I decided to write this.

    1. Well I will say the best way to really experience another place is living abroad. Just traveling only gives you a sliver, especially if you just stick to the touristy spots. The US is great of course but it’s not perfect.

  10. It is amazing that when you travel to other countries, people there can speak several languages. I took French and Spanish in school but it doesn’t seem like it was taught for conversations. I had to pick that up on my own.

    1. I know what you mean! I took Spanish too but never really learned it to speak it back then. I speak it now because I live in Spain.

  11. I agree with your point about vacation! So many people are burnt out in the U.S. and it is almost looked down upon when you take a lot of time off. People in the U.S. seem to glorify how busy they are, like it makes you more important. It’s the opposite in other countries. Vacation time is glorified. The latter makes more sense to me! 🙂

    1. I know what you mean. Everyone in the US wants to be the hardest worker they can be. While hard work is great, people do need to relax every now and then.

  12. Heathcare should of been high on the list. We are the worst when it comes to healthcare I feel so many other countries are more fair. Higher education is horrible here too. And dont get me started with the FDA and how our food is regulated so much GMOS…

  13. I am not American and I won’t certainly judge your country but it does seem, from a foreign perspective, that as you say there are many things that should be improved or changed. No paid maternity leave? That’s crazy!
    A very interesting post 🙂

  14. I love that you mentioned the vacation time. So many people would love to be able to broaden themselves with travel but time off from the tireless working doesn’t allow for it.

  15. Nice post, really enjoyed reading this.. Some of those are what makes your country a dream land. It may not go down well with a lot of people but without some of those things you pointed out, that country will somehow be messed up.

  16. I totally agree on so many of the points you brought up. It’s really sad when I hear some in the states have no interest to learn another language. Knowledge is power, and the ability to communicate in other language and others in diff culture is to me so important.

  17. I have travelled around the states a few times and I am always surprised at how bad the public transport is. We are really lucky here in the uk.

    1. It really is ridiculous. I got rid of my car when I moved to Spain. Planning a visit home is a headache and I often just have to rent a car.

  18. Oh to be Bilingual. My husband is fluent in Korea! And I’ve studied it off and on over the years. We are taking the kids in May! We can’t wait for our trip. We want to show them the world!

    1. Well I always say it’s never too late to be bilingual. I learned Spanish at the age of 26. So if it’s something you want to speak, you can do it.

  19. Well, Thanks for this post because i read few new things about USA. I am waiting for your more travel post to visit the world through your post.

  20. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I think it’s really interesting to visit the USA and spend some time there as a tourist, especially if you’re coming from Europe!

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