I came to the US with bright eyes, high hopes and dreams of working and learning from working in rapidly growing and successful firms in the US. A part of me wanted to settle down here to and eventually start my own edtech firm with a social purpose (that great entrepreneurship dream!), and another part of me wanted to learn from the best and the brightest and return to India to help my country become more like the greatest ‘developed’ country in the world. Despite not being sure of my long-term plans, I knew I was hungry to learn from living in, what I thought was, the best city in the world.
Boy was I in for a shock.
I didn’t undergo a culture shock (in the sense of not getting along with people or understanding what to do over the weekend) as much as I went through a morality shock. In India, we have a multitude of social evils like corruption, poverty, the subjugation of women and a nefarious caste system that permeates everything from marriage to voting decisions. However, arguably, most of our political parties understand that these are ‘evil’ i.e. these are bad and need to be eradicated. Whether they choose to take any action to do the same is another matter.
In the US, on the other hand, I felt like the same social evils had been ‘institutionalized’ in the garb of capitalism.
- Corruption: Lobbying politicians and selecting Supreme Court Justices based on their ‘political leaning’ is the norm here! It’s both refreshing and disconcerting that the manipulation of some of the most important strategic decisions of the country is so open. (I’m saying refreshing because it is definitely counterintuitive that open corruption is considered ‘transparency’!) Be it gun rights, legalizing tobacco or even starting a war - so many of these decisions are clearly done as quid pro quo for financial and ideological support while political parties are campaigning
- Poverty: “There will be people left behind” seems to be the mantra rationalizing homeless and crazy people walking around the streets of New York or the working class that continue to lose their jobs as manufacturing jobs move overseas or simply become redundant due to automation. I was also appalled at how expensive a college education was in the US even for middle class Americans - such that it is normal for students to expect to graduate college with debt! Imagine being 21 years old and in the middle of a 4 year college degree and trying desperately to find internships and jobs under the burden of $200k or more of debt. I have seen people make the choice to go to state college or a lesser-known college with full scholarship just so they can graduate without debt. What they don’t realize is the amount of elitism and brand narcissism that pervades hiring decisions, especially by the best-paying employers in finance and consulting. It is unfair that the ‘best’ colleges are so expensive that even bright students that clearly qualify to get in have to consider whether they can pay for it (or fight for limited scholarships).
- Subjugation of Women: One only needs to walk to the middle of Times Square to see massive billboards with extremely scantily clad women (and in some disturbing cases, teenage girls e.g. American Apparel) for advertisements for products ranging from shoes to jeans to underwear. Then there are the topless women walking around and seedy men selling tickets to strip clubs in the neighbourhood. I don’t see how any of this demonstrates a society advancing women’s rights. The rare instance of limited male nudity I’ve seen in advertisements or marketing material is always targeting the gay demographic. I definitely don’t see any equality between the sexes in work either. Women, especially in client-facing jobs, are under a tremendous amount of pressure to look good all the time. Sephora and shoe stores are as ubiquitous as Starbucks in NYC as women cake on the makeup and strut in high stilettos that hurt their feet so they can fine to appear ‘professional’. Not only that, but they have to buy multiple high-quality dresses with appropriate accessories and and tailor them so they fit their bodies perfectly, while men cruise by in the dressing department with assembly line power suits and shoes. I didn’t anticipate the ‘fair and just’ world of the future to look like this for women. I guess I expected more equality in terms of pay and power instead of 'token' positions in firms where the imperative is to look attractive
- Nefarious Racism: I guess this needs no explanation, but America’s institutionalized racism is about as insidious as it can get. I can’t imagine the police force getting away with murder in any other developed or developing country (unless it is a conflict-ridden area or the ‘encounter killing’ of a criminal I suppose). In this country’s case, I am shocked by how many times policemen have shot and killed innocent people. Shooting to kill! Not even shooting to maim or just injure! I guess it doesn’t help in decision-making if your populace is filled with people armed to the hilt…but then why were so many of these shootings in cases where the victim didn’t have a gun? And worst of all, why is it that in most of the high-profile cases, the policemen involved have gotten away scot-free? If that wasn't enough evidence of racism, the country recently also elected a President who openly insults Muslims and immigrants. It is disturbing that part of his votes came from the hidden racists in the country who came out of the woodwork to vote him into power. I would still like to believe that most of the electorate did not vote for him only because of his views on race, but his thinly-disclosed economic policies?