The American bad dream

Through the newspapers and film, the US of A has, for a long time, been successful in selling the image of America the Beautiful and the myth of the American Dream. After the internet arrived and became available to ordinary people, that image has crumbled to some extent.

Yet many people still go to the US each year, hoping to realise their dreams. In many cases, things begin to come apart as reality sinks in.

The following letter is written by a close friend who decided to migrate to the US after nearly 10 years of life in Australia. He left along with his wife and young son in April 2004. The letter tells its own tale:

We finished 106 days in the US today (September 7, 2004). Since August 16, we have been living in a whiter part of Kansas City (KC) - no regrets there - which is in Kansas state. The western part of KC is in Kansas, while the rest of the city is in Missouri. It is a more affluent part than where we lived in Missouri and has 95 percent of the jobs we were looking for, the main reason why we shifted. Also, it has very good schools.

We have signed a 12-month lease on a two-bedroom apartment. The good paint job and clean-up done for prospective tenants worked a treat - we failed to test the fixtures and appliances (the house comes with a fridge, stove and dishwasher) and from day one we have had to call the maintenance guy to fix problems. We are still calling him.

G... (his wife) is in her fourth week at a Presbyterian child care centre. She enjoys the work but the pay is poor. And un-Christian practices, such as bludging, politics and favouritism, are rife in her workplace. B.. (his son) is in a good school and enjoying it. I have still to find a job. I drew a blank with about 10 newspapers I applied to except one, where I went for an interview last week. A response is due by this Friday latest, so the young female editor told me. In the meantime, I have applied to staffing services (aka employment agencies in our language) for production, assembly and such unskilled work. No luck there as yet.

I am disheartened by some of the "livability" indicators we have found so far. Compared to Australia, the cost of living is higher, wages are lower (the minimum wage here is $5.15, compared to about $A10 in Australia), and health care of the standard we were used to is unaffordable. To rub it in, Americans are not friendly, more so black Americans.

Where we lived previously in Missouri was predominantly black and nine out of 10 black Americans would not smile back at us. I don't know why. I can only speculate that it is because they think we are Hispanics taking their jobs and running crime rings. But the fact that white Americans are not as friendly as Australians has come as a shocker to me. I think the reason for that is out here the environment is very competitive and everybody is too busy looking after their own, scrambling over each other in the race to be top rat, to have a sense of humaneness, compassion or scruples.

I am horrified by the cost of health care. There are one or two free medical clinics, none of which is close to us. Without private health cover, you pay anything from $45 to $200 for a consultation at the private clinics. I thought most companies offered health coverage but that is a myth. The best companies offer 100 percent coverage, i.e. they pay your premiums in full, while the good companies pay 80 percent. The rest pay anything from nothing to 50 percent. And in the real world, how many best and good companies are there? A fraction of the total. G... is getting about 25 percent from her company but that piddling contribution makes buying health cover unaffordable on her wages.

I'm also shocked to find the black-white divide as wide and deep as ever. You rarely see white Americans mixing with black. In fact, I think the divide has now become a polarisation, with the black community developing its own codes of culture, dress and language. The black American language, for example, is so far out that none of the other races - white, brown or other - have a clue what they're saying.

We're also feeling pretty isolated. There are very few Indians in Kansas City. There is not a single Indian or Asian in the church we go to. The only Indians we've met are at the Indian shop but the worst part is the Indians are even less friendly than Americans. I get the distinct impression they avoid other Indians.

I'll leave you with a few images burnt on my brain that lend themselves to partly describing what is America:

The health insurance man telling me, "Health care in the United States, my friend, is not cheap," after quoting me a plan that cost $2973 for three months for the family;

The Indian at the supermarket who told me: "I pray every night to God that I don't get sick."

The supervisor at the staffing services who, after reading the endless forms I filled in, said, "So you're from Australia. What language do they speak there?"