Growing up, America was THE place to go to. Every single person who grew up poor in the Philippines dreamed of emigrating to this advanced, rich utopia where jobs are aplenty and hard work pays for a grand house with a yard. And because there were more poor people in the Philippines than other social classes, their mentality prevailed in all forms of media. As such, it was easy to fall and believe in this propaganda left over from the last world war.
Alas, I was not one of them. I wanted to VISIT America, not LIVE here. I was forced to move here with my husband when I was granted a green card. We were both under the assumption that working under NATO would exempt me from the residency requirement, but clearly, we should have done more research beyond scrolling through the US immigration website. Only soldiers with actual military orders were exempt; contractors were not. With only a few months to find a new job, move our entire household across the pond, and find a place to live, it was a surprise we didn’t end up homeless somewhere.
Moving is like a finely orchestrated relay, one mistake by one person (or in this case, a company) could cost everyone the race. Luckily for us, my MIL, FIL and SIL were glad to host us (and our dog!) for a few weeks until we could find suitable living accommodations.
Transit is not Number 1 in the World
Chicago is a pleasant city, but it’s a far cry from a modern utopia. The transit system is subpar. Sure, they got the EL train, but the system is more than 100 years old. In some parts, the train has to chug at a speed slower than a snail. I could run faster, and lord knows I am not the kind to jog with my Lululemon outfit at 5AM in the morning while on vacation at a tropical beach. Unless you are in the Loop on rush hour, buses could come as infrequently as every 30 minutes. It’s like living in the rice fields of Korea. There’s no TV screen with a live feed of the bus location or ETA, so you couldn’t confidently make a decision to just walk or grab an Uber. There is an app you can download to help you, but good luck getting LTE on some areas. When I think of cities, flashes of Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul are in my mind, all of which have great transit systems. Heck, even Brussels had more options, and my Asian friends and I were already complaining of waiting 10 minutes for the next tram. My expectations of “first world country” were obviously too high.
If you look at Chicago as a whole though, it’s not that bad. I live in a nice neighborhood, Wrigleyville to be exact. A lot of things are within a 10-minute walk. If I wanted to be fat, I could walk 3 minutes every day to the Dairy Queen and order a Brownie Dough Blizzard Treat (yes, it tastes as good as it sounds). The beautiful baseball stadium is just 3 blocks away. I say beautiful more so because it isn’t enclosed with a 5-kilometer stretch of parking space on all sides. It’s so safe here that I haven’t seen anyone wielding a gun, and it’s America, which is saying a lot. Chicago is supposed to be the most dangerous city in America, but it rings untrue on this side of the river. If one were to believe Fox News, one would think that stepping off the airport would immediately mean getting shot by a black man.
On Suburbs, Parking Lots and Grass
The suburbs were a whole different story. For a country of suburbs. I was surprised to find that there were zero options for transit other than to drive. Some lucky suburbs may have a train station or a bus station, but the majority rely on driving alone. A LOT of white people moved to the suburbs during the 50s and 60s, so I was surprised that transit options didn’t multiply as people started clamoring for big houses and lawns. I researched and found that car companies lobbied to REMOVE transit options in the cities and have people solely rely on cars throughout America. That’s a shit move.
When asked what I think of America, I replied that “It’s like going back to the 50s, and there’s a lot of grass and parking lots.” It took me a month or so to realize why I did not like the suburbs. It just looks like one big lawn and one big parking lot. Only in America have I seen a tiny little McDonald’s with a parking lot 5x as large as the lot the actual restaurant was occupying. Banks were tiny with drive-thru ATMs taking up more space. It was surreal. It was ugly. The lack of any natural beauty in the Midwest didn’t help. Maybe if grand snow-capped mountains peaked through behind the parking lots, it would look more appealing.
I would not be surprised to know that Illinois has more grass lawns than living space. It boggles my mind that people are willing to mow them every week when it’s just one big toilet for animals. It isn’t beautiful for me at all. Trees are nice. Rivers are nice. But lawns? They represent climate change for me. Instead of driving 2 kilometers to your destination, you have to drive 10 kilometers because there are 8 kilometers worth of lawn you have to traverse. It’s not even natural.
It didn’t take long for me to realize why the US would wage wars for oil. Gas and utilities here are cheap, and that’s because everyone relies on them heavily. Everyone needs a car or they literally can’t do anything. Heating and cooling are all centralized instead of prioritizing insulation and area-type climate control. Street lights are left on all day! It is a culture that allows waste to flourish, because people don’t have to think of its monetary impact.
Cheaper Groceries and Diversity
I know I am generalizing a country the size of a continent, but these are my views based on my observations from Illinois and Wisconsin, the only 2 states I have visited so far. I am confident that these won’t change as I have been told numerous times that Chicago is one of the few cities in the US that actually resembles a modern city with transit options. I could probably change my mind when I visit NYC, but I’m not hopeful.
America isn’t all that bad. A lot of things are cheap here. Of course, the middle class is dwindling as the cost of living gets higher, but it’s not as bad as in Belgium where groceries are quite expensive. As an English-speaker, I love that I can join any class or activity without worrying of language barriers. Walk a block around Chicago, and you will hear people speaking English in Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish and Italian accents. No one stares at you because you are the lone Asian in the block. Multicultural families are very common. Chicago isn’t modern, but it sure is diverse.
And diversity has its pros. Asian and Latin American groceries are everywhere! It isn’t hard to find gochujang, evaporated milk, or dried kelp. There’s a thousand sushi places within a kilometer walk. Cheap hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurants are present, as long as you know where to look. Heck, I can even get a Tui Na massage without whoring out my dog to afford it.
The Mid-Western Friendliness
Everyone here seems kind and non-judgmental. When I walk Porkchop, everyone says hi or at least smiles and waves. Sometimes they are way too kind, and I find it odd and a bit too forced. But I am raised as a Chinese kid, so what do I know about being pleasant to strangers. In our family, it’s “be kind to your parents, pretend to be kind to immediate family, and fuck strangers unless they could help you make money.”
I had my first American wedding experience last week, and I was floored to see that people were actually there to have a good time. This is unheard of in our culture. Weddings are THE place to show off how far you’ve come by bedazzling yourself in jewelry, wearing your finest couture clothes, and talking about your son’s acceptance to medical school. It is also the best place to judge how low Family X has fallen by allowing a daughter to marry into a Filipino family that isn’t even rich, to wonder if Aunt Y’s pearl necklace is paste, say some unkind words about a good-for-nothing unintelligent daughter of Friend Z for choosing art as a living, and to judge the overcooked lobster the newly-wedded couple has dared to serve.
Overall, Chicago is a way better city than Manila, but it is certainly not better than Seoul. America, as a whole, isn’t THE BEST, it just is. I wish Filipinos would see this country as any other country: a place with its on pros and cons. After all, there’s always the Japanese Dream, Korean Dream, and Singapore Dream to think of.
P.S. Totally unrelated dog photos, but it’s Porkchop, how can you ever say no?! Plus, it documents his adjustment to Chicago life!