I’ve been in America for almost a month and it’s time to put down some of my first thoughts about the place, in the form of some of things that have been unexpectedly weird. Of course I expected all the things we know to expect, like guns and Walmarts and stupid people (and also highly intelligent people) and fast food and the like, but here are a few things that have surprised me.
With the amount of wars the USA fights to ensure its control of the world’s oil, you’d expect fuel here to be rather cheap. And it is: most fuel I’ve seen is around $3.50/gallon, a bit under $1/litre. That’s about 50% cheaper than in Australia and half the price of European petrol.
What I didn’t expect is for it to be of such low quality. Most pumps here in Virginia offer “standard” petrol at 87 octane, “premium” at 89 or 90″ and “super-premium” or “ultra-premium” at 92 or 93. That’s pretty much on par with what we were getting in India a few years ago, and nothing like what you’d see at the pump in Australia, East Asia or Europe.
While low prices make fuel economy less important than elsewhere in the world, low-octane petrol limits the advantages car owners could get from newer economy-conscious cars. The result is roads full of larger and older cars than most of the developed world.
In the 24 years and 360 days I’ve been alive I’ve dealt with one cheque (or check, in American). I got it as a prize at a high school speech night, lost it under a pile of clothes, found it a year later, took it to the bank and ended up paying a $40 fee for trying to cash an expired check. For everything else there’s Mastercard (and Visa, and EFTPOS, and online banking, and direct debit, and ATMs on every corner).
In the USA cheques are still very much a part of the everyday economy. Grace gets paid by cheque, people pay bills by cheque, and more than once I’ve had to wait patiently at the supermarket checkout while the person in front of me carefully writes out the full amount and signs on the dotted line. Included in the daily pile of junk mail that arrives at the front door are three or four different ads for “personalised checks”, replete with little rabbits, cats, pirate ships or whatever else you might want.
When I was looking at opening a bank account recently, Grace asked me, “I suppose in Australia you don’t have think about location when you choose your bank.” She was right: my money sits (virtually) in a Credit Union that I’m told has one branch and one ATM in the state, neither of which I’ve seen.
Trucks and Buses
This one’s kind of weird, but lots of buses in the US look like trucks. I see them as some kind of ode to the great American ideal of having anything you want trucked across the country for you on demand. Look, you can even truck humans!
You can see the might of American trucks on full display on any highway, or innerstate as they are known (the word is actually interstate, if you’re writing it). They act just like any other car, changing lanes at will, tailgating cars and driving in whichever lane they like. It’s so rare to see a truck in the slow lane that three-lane innerstates seem to function like two-lane highways with tremendously broad shoulders (it doesn’t help that there are entrances and exists every few miles, as the innerstates have to fill the gaps in local road networks).
America is meant to be anti-tax, anti-big-government, anti-all-those-kinds-of-things, right? Well, let’s see. Last year in famously high-taxing Australia I earnt around $25000, and paid less than $1500 in tax (if the Coalition is elected I would end up paying a whole lot more, as they’ll move the tax-free threshold from $18000 down to $6000, but that’s another story). An American who earns the same amount pays over $4000 in state and federal income taxes and social security payments, a huge amount of money for a low-income earner.
Tax also leads to a baffling experience at the supermarket, where nothing is as it seems. Just yesterday I paid $3.06 for a $2.99 box of spinach. Maybe someone should come up with the terribly sensible and almost universally practiced idea of including tax in the price!
Another thing that I find interesting is the way tax is talked about, which is always in a “what are we getting for it?” kind of way. There’s less agreement on the need for taxation, the need for public services and wealth redistrobution and all those other warm and fuzzy things the can provide than just about anywhere else I’ve been. It’s replaced by a sense that the government might just be ripping everyone off, and is probably going to steal our free speech while it’s at it.
Coming soon 😉