After fifteen months of travel, I returned to the United States ready to give American life another try. After a few months at home with my family, I moved back to San Francisco, the city I lived and worked in before traveling. I started looking for a job, looking for apartments, looking for new friends. I felt eager to re-enter American society, and pick up somewhat where I left off.
Within four months, I had changed my mind.
After struggling with so many aspects of US society and culture, I ended up finding a much preferable life in Cape Town, South Africa (along with a pretty great American boyfriend who had moved here years ago and found the same). I spent much of last year hopping back and forth between the two countries, allowing me to distinctly see the differences between them. I officially moved to South Africa this past July.
At least one survey suggests I’m not alone: according to a TransferWise national survey of over 2,000 adults, around one in three Americans say they’d consider leaving the United States for another country. For us millennials it’s even worse: 55% of Americans between the ages of 18-34 say they’d consider it.
Though life in South Africa comes with its own unique set of struggles, my life here is in many ways more rewarding and more enjoyable than what I have experienced thus far in the States. Here are four big reasons why:
For years, the US has had the most expensive yet least effective healthcare system in the world. The recent drug price scandal reminded us that unlike Canada, Australia, and many countries in Europe, our country does not regulate drug prices in the same way we regulate other basic needs, like water and electricity. Instead, we are one of the only developed nations that allows drug makers to set their own prices, regardless of whether average Americans can afford it.
As a freelancer, healthcare became one of my top priorities when deciding where to live. Individual plans in New York City can go up to a grand a month. And in my homestate of Florida, the limited access to affordable women’s healthcare—including pap smears, yearly gynecologist visits, and affordable birth control—became a large part of why I left. Planned Parenthood centers were few and far between in Florida, and charged comparatively high rates after losing funding from the state government. The St. Petersburg Times reported that in 2001, presidential candidate Jeb Bush cut over $300,000 from funds devoted to Planned Parenthood family planning services. The result? In 2014, an evaluation of health data found that Florida was tied with Oklahoma and Arkansas as the worst state for women’s health.
In the Transferwise survey, “a better quality of life” was the most popular reason people chose to consider leaving the country. It was the top on my list too. I enjoy living in places that prioritize joy instead of only productivity. But in the US, the anxieties of professional life are almost cliché: People work more and get paid less. Corporate profits increase, while incomes stay stagnant. The New York Times has published pieces arguing that our work world is toxic and doesn’t even leave you time to be nice. We are one of only nine countries that don’t offer paid annual leave. And workers skip vacations because they’re afraid of the workload that will stack up while they’re gone, or because they fear taking vacations will make them look lazy. Meanwhile, American presidential candidates claim the problem is Americans aren’t working long and hard enough.
Living outside of the United States, I see that this didn’t have to be the norm. Other countries are far better at making work-life balance a reality. In South Africa, I saw people both engaging in meaningful work, and enjoying their weekends. I saw workers consider their loved ones and their overall well-being in their work decisions, without feeling guilty or selfish.
And I’ve seen people with the most opportunity for financial gain simply choose not to capitalize on it. My boyfriend once asked the owner of a coffee shop we often visited why she closed on Saturdays and Sundays, and so early during the week. He explained to her she could make a killing with brunches on Saturday. She shrugged her shoulders and told him she already knew that—but, she said, she’d rather be with her family on Saturdays than have to worry about work. Similarly, I’ve seen some wine bars close Friday at 10p.m., at the time they’d perhaps be most profitable. I prefer this kind of prioritizing.
In his New York Times article, “The Next Great Migration,” Thomas Chatterton Williams describes the story of his friend who moved from New York to London: “He confessed, ‘The race situation back home occupies so much space in your mind, even just safety-wise, I actually never fully understood what it meant to be American, and all the advantages that come with it, until now… You immediately remove that affirmative action target from your back. A work visa gives you the validation that you’re good at what you do.’”
In South Africa, I’ve had similar experiences. Instead of being the “affirmative action kid” I was often labeled as at college, here my achievements are never tied to my racial background. People care far more about my US college degree and work experience than how I racially identify.
Indeed, my primary identity in South Africa is “American” in a way it never was back in the States. After years of trying to figure out my how my Latino identity fits in my life, it’s a nice change to live in a place where no one seems to care.
Life in the United States is generally only about the United States. This is reflected in everything from American travel habits to American media to the American curriculum in schools. A few years ago, Business Insider ran a story that illustrated the differences between US media and media internationally. They put side-to-side the cover stories for Time Magazine’s US edition versus its editions abroad. One month, the cover in the US had the headline “Chore Wars,” while the rest of the world got “Travels Through Islam.” Another month, the rest of the world had a front page story on rebellion in the Middle East, while the US got “Why Anxiety is Good For You.” Statistics back up this apparent lack of interest in the rest of the world: a State of the Media survey found that in 2008, news agencies in the US devoted only 10.3% to foreign coverage.
While watching the news in South Africa, I also noticed the key differences in the way we frame our international coverage. When watching coverage of developments in Iraq and Syria, newscasters actually interviewed Iraqis and Syrians. I realized that this was perhaps the first time I had ever seen an Iraqi or Syrian civilian given substantial time on television to tell their story.
In some ways you could argue that our media is just catering to what Americans truly want to know—which unfortunately, seems to be only about ourselves. Too many people from the US generally don’t have an interest in what happens internationally, and while the numbers are increasing, the majority of Americans still do not own a valid passport. I know I want to live in a place where citizens and institutions care about the world around them and have a natural curiosity for learning about others. Unfortunately, it seems more difficult to this kind of global curiosity—and empathy—in the States.
I’m not sure if I’ll live abroad forever, or if these four priorities will be my same priorities in the future. But for now, the US will have to try a lot harder to convince me it’s worth going “home.”