What is the Simple Life, as distinct from the American Life?
March 21, 2022 5:26 PM   Subscribe

I heard an interview with people who moved to the US as refugees ( from Iraq, Kosovo, Vietnam, etc) All the interviewees said that their lives had been simple until they moved to the US. What specifically does this mean? I’m not disputing at ALL that American life can be complicated. But if you moved to a new country and feel now that your old life was simple I’d like to hear examples of what things were like for you compared with how they are in your new country.
posted by Vatnesine to Human Relations (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
One guess: life is a bit simpler if you're not a refugee.
posted by nixxon at 5:53 PM on March 21, 2022 [19 favorites]


Best answer: On preview, nixxon's answer is an excellent one, but I've typed this now so will post anyway!

I'm from the UK, but lived for 3.5 years in a fairly remote island community where I would say life was much simpler. Off the top of my head, things that made it so:

* Very few shops and no advertising (except the exact same ads for the same handful of local businesses in the back of the small newspaper each week). This was about 15 years ago so internet shopping was in its infancy and anyway, even if you could find somewhere that would deliver there, things ordered online took 3 weeks to arrive so you'd have to weigh up whether you'd still want it 3 weeks from now. Basically the whole bit of your brain that in more consumery societies is always noticing things you might want to buy, switched off completely, leaving a lot more peace. It also mattered less what you wore, what haircut you had etc.
* The community was only 2500 people. I didn't know everyone, but there was a real sense everyone was interconnected and that pretty much everyone at least knew who you were, knew something of you as an actual person rather than a stranger passing by, which was a good feeling.
* There was virtually no crime. If you stole something there was nowhere to go with it, so people tended not to steal things, everybody's house and car doors were left unlocked 24/7. This just seemed to make sense somehow. Like, nobody I know in day-to-day life is a thief AFAIK, but in a big city I have to accept that some people I don't know might steal my stuff, for reasons I'll never really fully understand. Having visceral proof that everyone around me was at some level decent (because nobody stole my stuff) just made sense and was simple.
* There was only one TV channel, so you either watched it or you didn't, and everyone had shared experience of what had been on TV the night before.
* The people I knew, all knew each other. There must be a word for that, I don't know what it is, but it's a good way to live.
* Because the place was small, and doors were open, and so many people knew each other, it was normal to just drop into someone's house unannounced for tea or G&T in a way that doesn't happen in my life now, you'd maybe get absorbed into their plans for the day if they were doing something interesting. The social world just felt a bit like a big family where you could come and go quite easily rather than planning in advance/feeling like you're being fitted in around other events in people's lives.
* Due to the small size of the place, there was no faceless bureaucracy. If you had a tax issue, you didn't hang on the phone for hours to a call centre, you popped into the building round the back of the government offices and talked to Tina. If your boiler broke, you called Fred.
* There was, in general, a lot less choice. Fewer shops and TV channels as mentioned above, but also fewer leisure pursuits, fewer restaurants, fewer places to go away for the weekend, fewer places to go for a drive, very limited options to travel long distance (could be done but was so expensive most people who did it went once a year only). Lack of choice - assuming all your basic and social needs are being met - is simple and kind of relaxing. There's no FOMO, no nagging sense that maybe there's something else you should be doing right now to make the most of life.
* Being outside a lot was A Thing. I think maybe because of the relative lack of venues to go to, and a pretty awesome landscape, we'd have fires and barbecues outside a lot even though it wasn't a particularly warm place. In winter we'd just wrap up even warmer and sit nearer the fire. Being outdoors is good for the soul.

All this makes me sound like an old lady reminiscing about life a century ago, but it was my experience. It's not all straightforward - I left eventually, and do enjoy my life now in the city and the variety and opportunities it affords. But there are definitely things that I miss and I'd say simplicity is a good way of summing them up.
posted by penguin pie at 5:58 PM on March 21, 2022 [119 favorites]


Perhaps they lived in more rural locations in their home countries with less technology and modern "hustle bustle" than wherever they were placed or landed in the US?
posted by atomicstone at 6:19 PM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]


Dealing with full on weather cycles makes life complicated - winter tune-up specials, checking furnaces, double glazing, putting stuff in storage - preparing for each season. I live as far south as Toronto is north, but on an island, and there are four seasons but they don't involve hurricanes, and I can ignore household repairs for a few years without the house becoming uninhabitable.

Not to mention the amount of stuff you need to deal with the weather changes.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 6:24 PM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]


A lot of people are moving away from close and extended family who can pick up a lot of slack for them. Their lives where they come from are more walkable/bike able/public-transit-friendly and they understand how to get around and have the necessary credentials and equipment. Local affairs there are probably conducted in a language they speak natively. The medical industrial complex in the USA is uniquely terrifying, with the potential to save your life when in many other countries you would just die, but also the potential to ruin your financial life for years to come for treatment that costs a few hundred dollars in many other places.
posted by potrzebie at 6:27 PM on March 21, 2022 [14 favorites]


100% this, from penguin pie's comment:

There was, in general, a lot less choice. Fewer shops and TV channels as mentioned above, but also fewer leisure pursuits, fewer restaurants, fewer places to go away for the weekend, fewer places to go for a drive, very limited options to travel long distance (could be done but was so expensive most people who did it went once a year only). Lack of choice - assuming all your basic and social needs are being met - is simple and kind of relaxing. There's no FOMO, no nagging sense that maybe there's something else you should be doing right now to make the most of life.

Think of how many decisions you have to make each day, from small (What's for dinner?) to big (What do I want to be when I grow up?). And think about how many decisions are dependent on each other, in order to achieve a particular outcome.

1st world decision tree, "What's for dinner" style:
  • Which recipe to follow? There are soooooo many hits on Google!
  • Do you want meat or a vegetarian meal?
  • Organic? Grass-fed? "Regular" chicken?
  • From which store? Based on drive time, loyalty, and is chicken on special this week?"
Simple life version:
You don't have a ton of money and meat is expensive. So your meal will, by default, be veg. It's a traditional meal you learned from your parents, so you don't have to look anything up. There is one grocery store in your town, and you've been making this recipe since you were little, so you're in and out in 15 minutes.
posted by tinydancer at 6:50 PM on March 21, 2022 [9 favorites]


I really like Annie Lowrey's piece for The Atlantic on the amount of bloody bureaucracy in everyday American life in both the public and private sector. This dovetails with the paradox of choice: so many stores, so many brands, and the locals know what they signify but you don't. How are you meant to get up to speed with that? (More often than not, I think it takes a full generation to get up to speed.)

Simplicity has a lot to do with familiarity and familiar (and more limited) choices: either things are ruled out for you by your circumstances, or you've ruled them out yourself. Complexity is when there are so many unfamiliar choices that you don't know if you're doing something wrong, and if you make the wrong choice in America then it can bite you very hard on the backside. Complexity is habitually second-guessing yourself.
posted by holgate at 6:58 PM on March 21, 2022 [15 favorites]


Follow-up, taking your post title very literally: the "American life" as I understand it (I'm not American) is always wanting to get ahead, be the best you can be type of stuff. Which is another way of saying that your self and your life is always a work in progress, never complete until you draw your last breath! You are never quite good enough because you can always have a better wardrobe, nicer car, work promotion, get healthier, be more engaged politically, etc. etc. etc. Can't you see how exhausting that is?

A simpler life can also be tied to our expectations of ourselves and our lives.
posted by tinydancer at 7:32 PM on March 21, 2022 [21 favorites]


Off the top of my head: language barriers, bureaucracy, not knowing ahead of time what goods you are likely to find in the store that are probably different from what you're used to, not being able to find the goods you are used to to cook, things being handled differently here (for example, if you live somewhere where it's easy to find a public bathroom, vs. coming to America where only some places have them and/or want you to buy something before you can get a key to the bathroom), different subjects being taught in school, no longer having the qualifications in the new country to get a job that you had in the old one.

I would imagine living in a whole new world where most things are different from what you're used to to be very stressful. You can't go on autopilot about going to the store for groceries, you have to THINK about what you're getting now. You're always having to be alert and thinking in this new world.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:46 PM on March 21, 2022 [5 favorites]


language barriers, bureaucracy, not knowing ahead of time what goods you are likely to find in the store that are probably different from what you're used to, not being able to find the goods you are used to to cook,

Ironically these are the exact issues that have made my life complicated since I moved from the U.S. to Mexico. And in fact I do sometimes miss my simple life from the U.S.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:22 PM on March 21, 2022 [6 favorites]


Not a refugee, but I was once an immigrant in the US, and the bureaucracy is incredible, along with other weird hurdles to everyday life, like the healthcare system and banking, oh and taxes on stuff. And all the different types of police. It was back in the 90s and I kept on joking that the Soviet Union and the US had more in common than both countries ever imagined.
I don't know what to google for to find a link, but I have often seen articles that claim that it is hard to start a business in the US, compared to other countries, exactly because of all the red tape. Most of it makes sense when you begin to understand how US legislation works, with the different levels of government, but if you are from a country with a simpler governmental structure, it is very confusing.

The countries you mentioned are all relatively developed, with their own bureaucracies, but they are much smaller than the US, so naturally there are fewer steps between the government and the citizens.

Also, American mores are obviously different, and difficult to navigate for immigrants and refugees, and might seem complicated. That would be the same for an American immigrating to an other country, of course, but it is worth mentioning, since it makes navigating the real challenges harder.
posted by mumimor at 1:05 AM on March 22, 2022 [4 favorites]


I'm an American living abroad. I think, in no small part, any shift away from a country where you've grown up and grown accustomed to a lifetime of infomration--every process and procedure, every shared reference and in-joke, every assumption about access to goods and services--makes daily life elsewhere seem complex. We take for grantd the bureaucracy that we're used to, because once we switch to another buraeucracy that isn't intuitive it's clear that there is just so much of it to learn how to navigate.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:34 AM on March 22, 2022 [8 favorites]


The "American life" as I understand it (I'm not American) is always wanting to get ahead, be the best you can be type of stuff. Which is another way of saying that your self and your life is always a work in progress, never complete until you draw your last breath! You are never quite good enough because you can always have a better wardrobe, nicer car, work promotion, get healthier, be more engaged politically

Oh yes, this should also have gone on the list for my former home! Nobody who lived there was going to have a lifetime of career striving because the career pyramids were relatively small. The highest of flyers could come back from Uni in their 20s and become second-in-command at a Government department. When their boss retired they'd take the top job. And that was about it for a determined upward trajectory.

People generally either had a job that used their professional training and kept it forever, or moved around between totally different areas of work over the course of their life and bounced up and down in seniority, depending what was available at the time they were looking for work, or what took their interest. Because there was a small population, there was probably more flexibility from employers in taking on people who didn't have 'relevant experience'. You're interested in this field and you've got a decent brain? Fine, I'll teach you the rest.

I went from being news editor of the radio station to having 5 different part-time jobs for half a year (waitress, shop assistant, tour guide, care assistant and freelance journo) to then being a PA/office manager. A friend was a teacher, the head of education, the head of tourism, a tour guide, a journalist etc. Another went from being a ship-board fisheries observer, to an onshore aquaculture project, to training as a pilot for the local light air service.

So jobs were much more about paying the bills, contributing to your society, and spending the day doing something reasonably pleasant and interesting to you, they weren't really about status and continual forward progression.

Possibly related: The imported Govt Chief Exec when I was there brought in an "Excellence Programme" where government departments were supposed to do tiresome self-reflection exercises to drive up standards. Someone who'd been involved in the early stages told me afterwards that they'd genuinely considered bringing in an "Adequacy Programme" instead, because it was more realistic, would have been perfectly fine, and probably more honest. As long as things were good enough, why introduce constant pressure to do more, and work differently, which just ends up in people rewriting what they're doing anyway in ways that make them fit your checkboxes.

I've no idea how true that was, but I like the idea.
posted by penguin pie at 5:28 AM on March 22, 2022 [14 favorites]


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