Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Six surprising things I learned/realized while living abroad.

After reading these really interesting things that non-Americans couldn’t believe about the US until they actually came here and experienced life in the US for themselves, I felt inspired to write about some of the surprising things that I learned/realized while living overseas.

The US does not have the best healthcare in the world. Nor does it have the worst. With the debate about healthcare that’s been in the news over the past several years, I’ve heard tons of people say things like ‘the US has the best healthcare in the world’ (often followed by ‘and we don’t want Obamacare to ruin it’). I’ve heard tons of people going on about how countries with nationalized healthcare plans have awful healthcare, while what we have is The Best in the World. It’s not.

I haven’t been to every country in the world, and a lot of the places I’ve been to do have worse healthcare systems than the US – often far worse. But not all of them.

South Korea’s national healthcare plan is wonderful. Everyone is on it. If you’re living in South Korea and working legally, you will have access to health insurance. If you don’t have health insurance, the costs are actually still quite affordable. Access to same-day healthcare (for things both minor and major) is easily available without having to go to an ER, and the technology and medical treatments available are state of the art. Koreans simply do not understand why healthcare costs so much in the US, even with health insurance. The cost of healthcare here for uninsured folks in the US is simply inexplicable to them.

On the other hand, if you’ve ever spent time in a developing country, you’ll know that we here in the US are very lucky that at the very least we can go to a clean and competent ER if we fall ill, and the hospital will be obligated to stabilize you at the very least (if you lack insurance). In many countries, this option is unavailable, as the money for modern facilities and trained medical professionals is lacking. We don’t have the best in the world, but we are far from the bottom.

Reliable, fast, frequent, and cheap public transportation is a wonderful thing. We have a terrible public transportation infrastructure in the US. Unless you live in one of a handful of big cities in the US, you are not going to have access to decent public transport. Many large cities (such as Orlando, where I currently reside) do have a semi-decent bus system, but buses come roughly once an hour, are incredibly slow, and you may very well have to walk a long way to reach the nearest stop. This makes life really difficult for people without cars. If you don’t live in a large city, you must have a car, because your only other option is a taxi or bumming a ride off a friend. I never really considered this a problem until I went overseas – specifically to South Korea. I have traveled all over the Korean peninsula by means of bus and train. It’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s easy, and you can do it even if you speak very little Korean. I wish I could hop a train for the cost of a tank of gas and get to my mom’s in a fraction of the time it would take me to drive there, but that’s not an option here. Once, when I was in college, I looked into taking Greyhound home (from TN to FL) for Christmas. It would have taken 25 hours, and it would have cost more than a plane ticket. That’s absurd! Meanwhile, I can get from one end of South Korea to the other in just a few hours (by train) for under $50, and I can do it for far less if I go by bus (although then travel time can be affected by traffic).

American toilets are wonderful. Our toilets enable us to sit down. They have bowls filled with water. I’d never really thought about this before my first trip to Russia, but when you poop into that water, the water covers the smell. In Russia (and in many parts of the former Soviet Union), many of the sit-down toilets in people’s homes, in dorms, and in businesses have a ledge inside the bowl. You poop, and your shit sits on this ledge until you flush, at which point a stream of water washes your poop off the ledge and down the drain. There is no nice covering of water over your poop, which makes the whole experience much stinkier.

However, sit-down toilets are not a world-wide thing. They’re not even a Russia-wide thing. I encountered my first squatter in Moscow at VDNKh. I walked into the only open stall and saw a hole in the floor. Not a ceramic squatter of the kind common in many countries, but a hole in the floor in the center of the stall. I thought that the toilet in that stall was missing (and this may well have been the case), so I retreated and waited for another stall to open. Imagine my surprise when the next woman to enter the bathroom went into that stall and used the hole! Then the next stall opened, and it, too, had only a hole. I have since used squatters ranging from holes in the floor to fancy, gleaming porcelain basins, to holes in a concrete slab over a large sewage pit, to wooden squatters over hand-dug pits. I’m really good at squatting now, but trust me, I much prefer to be able to sit.

Voice mail is not a universal phenomenon. Here in the US, when someone calls your phone it will ring 4-6 times, and then the caller will be shunted off to your voice mail where they can leave a message. In Kyrgyzstan, and South Korea (and, from what I’ve heard, in many other places as well), voice mail does not exist. If someone calls you on your cell, it will ring and ring and ring until they give up and hang up. Not only is there no way to leave a voice message, but there is no limit to the number of rings – there is only a limit to the caller’s patience. And to yours, if you’re trying to avoid answering a call from a certain persistent individual. In both of these countries, it also seems perfectly acceptable to let the phone ring and ring and ring until the person answers it. When I worked for the computer company in Seoul, this was so unbelievably annoying. Someone would be away from their desk, but would have left their phone behind. Someone else would call and it would ring for five minutes. Or more. It’s not like the phones didn’t have caller ID (they did), or like they didn’t accept texts (they did). The caller could have texted a message or simply assumed that the person they were calling would see the missed call and call them back…. But no. Letting the phone ring incessantly seemed to be the thing to do. It drove me nuts.

All Asian kids are not super-studious and well-behaved. The myth that all Asian students are studious and well behaved has been around all of my life, and it’s just not true – at least not in Korea at any rate. Now, granted, Korean children and teens spend far more time in school (both in public school and in private ‘extracurricular’ schools) than their American counterparts; however, for the most part this is due to their parents’ desires, not to theirs. If it were up to them, they’d be at home playing computer games, not shuffling from private school to private school. And well-behaved? Hah. Kids will be kids, and if you put a group of them together, they are going to act like kids. I’ve certainly taught well-behaved Korean children and teens. I’ve also taught some who were total hell-raisers, and many that just wanted to gossip with their friends.

A lot of people in other countries think that there is no poverty in the US. I don’t mean that they think there is less poverty here than in their home country; I’ve met many people who truly believe that there is NO poverty in the US at all. Some people believe me when I explain to them that yes, poverty exists in the US, but some don’t. Below are two examples of conversations I’ve had about this – although I’ve certainly had more than two.

Back in 2000 when I was studying abroad in Russia, I met a young man whose father was, shall we say, connected to the Russian mafia. This kid (and he was 20 or so) wore designer clothes, had a cell phone (back when no one but Russia’s elite had cells), lived in a huge and recently remodeled apartment in the center of St. Petersburg, and drove a Mercedes. He told me one night that his goal in life was to become an American citizen because all Americans were wealthy. I pointed out that he was already wealthy, and that most Americans – myself included – were unable to afford his kind of lifestyle. He continued to state his belief that all Americans were rich, so I explained about how I was only able to go to college (and to Russia) because I had received a full scholarship, and that I lived with my mom, who was working part-time and making very little money. He became furious and began shouting at me that I was lying. He claimed that I was just saying that because I didn’t want foreigners coming to the US and becoming rich.

One day this summer, while I was in Kyrgyzstan, my host mother offhandedly said, “Well, there aren’t any poor people in America.” She was really, genuinely surprised when I said that actually yes, there are. She said, “But I never see poor people in any American TV shows or movies!” She was really amazed when I explained to her that we do have a poverty problem, that there are many people who are homeless or struggling to make ends meet. While she was far more accepting of this than the Russian guy I met back in 2000, I did hear her tell several of her friends in an incredulous voice, “Did you know that [Annie] says there are actually poor people in America?”


John from Daejeon said...

I, too, loved the basic health care in South Korea until I needed major surgery and found out that it was not very good for anything other than the basics as the hospital did its best to up jack up the price of my bill because I was a foreigner (not a South Korean) and most likely would not fight the outrageous costs that they decided to add on.

In regards to the wonderful public transportation in South Korea, realize that the country is tiny and built up in countless high rises of a few big cities in comparison to the wide open spaces and single family homes on vast tracts of land that plague the U.S. That extreme high density living leads to very reasonable, and affordable, public options. Yes, Americans pay a different price for living so far away from so many "basic" amenities, but many South Koreans would give anything for a little bit of that space for a little escape from their pressure cooker lives.

I'll leave with my favorite part of living in South Korea. Of course in part due to the smaller land size and higher population density, South Korea's Internet is truly remarkable for both its speed and price in comparison to that of the U.S., especially out in the far-flung rural parts of it.

In the end, it's all about choices and some countries offer an endless array of them while others are truly despotic and the worst of hell-holes--sort of like the one north of South Korea.

Shaye walsh said...

Hey! I was wondering if you could email me so I could ask you a question about your dog.