Thank you, America

It’s that time of the year. Thanksgiving is upon us and we are supposed to feel thankful. When I came to the U.S. as an immigrant back in 1987, I felt a bit weird about this holiday. It wasn’t a tradition I knew what to do with, since it was the first time this holiday had been bestowed upon me.

But since I made the choice to come here, in fact, worked very hard to become a legal resident and then a naturalized U.S. citizen, I felt that maybe I had more reason to celebrate Thanksgiving than many Americans who were born here.

This was a wondrous country with more groceries in the supermarket than I’d ever seen before. It had bigger homes, bigger cars, and bigger most things. Even the salaries were much bigger. The only thing smaller than I was used to, were the taxes.

I loved my new life in my new country; my only serious disappointment during the first year was buying household appliances. I’d never before seen the old-fashioned, huge, washers that required preheated water, nor weird upright vacuum cleaners in dull colors that looked as if they were leftovers from an alien spaceship. Only now, twenty years later, have we in the U.S. picked up the appliance design and features Europeans have enjoyed for many years.

And don’t get me talking about the office and three-ring binders that open up and make all the paper fall out, as soon as you open them. In Sweden we had four interlocking grips that made it impossible for a single piece of paper to fall out. The U.S. paper format I liked though, a tiny bit more square than the European A4 format. Gallons and inches were a different story; to have any measuring system, which can’t be divided by ten, like centimeters and meters, appears to be another hang-over from the medieval ages.

Then we have the U.S. television. Yes, getting another one-hundred channels was really nice, if there only had been something to actually watch. And if not one of those screaming used car sales people came on every ten minutes during a commercial break. That was back in 1987. Today, we have one of those feel-good drug commercials with dancing people and happy dogs every ten minutes. I don’t know which one I detest more. Many European countries only have commercials between the shows, at least they did in those days.

One of the things I liked most was that income taxes were less than half of what I used to pay. Funny thing, though, was that housing costs and auto insurance ate up a significant part of the difference. I just read a Swedish newspaper, which proclaimed that the most expensive single family home in Sweden, based on last year’s tax assessment is $1.5 million. Ten times that amount wouldn’t even begin to cover the most expensive homes in the U.S.

But of course, white-collar salaries in the U.S. are twice what they pay in Europe, so in the end it was a pretty good deal, even with that shocking auto insurance. And maybe one problem was that I didn’t have a U.S. driving record and that the first car I bought was a black Corvette. They put me in a high-risk pool and I had to fork over $3,000 for that pleasure–”and this was some serious money back in 1987.

The Corvette I bought was less than a year old, however, I got to know the Chevrolet service manager better than the car. That car spent a lot of quality time in the shop; literally once a month. Everything broke down and I wasn’t going to take the risk with another domestic car, so it took another fifteen years until I bought another domestic auto. I know, I know, what do you expect with a sports car . . . but hey, this is the country where everyone had a car one generation before anyone in Europe had this, so I thought Detroit knew how to manufacture those darned things back in 1987.

During my love-hate experience with my Corvette, I bought Consumer Report, checked the reliability–”or lack thereof–”among American cars, and learned that my experience wasn’t the exception. Today American car makers have finally started to catch up, but they sure aren’t ahead. Nor are the models particularly appealing. So for once I agree with Bush when he told Detroit that car makers should stop bitching and “build a relevant” vehicle. At the same time, I have to say, I love my Jeep, and have had very few problems.

Jeep, in fact, is one of the few American auto brands that has consistently and skillfully created a good product and managed to position itself favorably around the globe. The other American cars you can hardly find in any other country, because very few people except those in the heartland want them. (That’s supported by hard, cold sales statistics.)

But even though I didn’t have a good experience with American cars, I had a great experience with Americans. Few people are as open, friendly and easygoing. The fact that I had a foreign accent didn’t seem to matter until much later in my career, and then I turned it into an advantage by transferring to the international division of a large company. Then again, if I hadn’t been tall, blond, and white, I’m sure my experience wouldn’t have been quite the same.

All in all, I wouldn’t have traded my life in America for anything. Moving here was one of the best things I ever did. That, of course, doesn’t mean that I don’t think there aren’t a few things we could improve, as those of you who may have read my book and my articles may realize.

One final reflection among many, about what moving to a new country does to you, is that you’re really never completely at home. You don’t have the same background and experience as the natives, and after a few years, you also don’t have the same experience as the people in your own home country. So you are something of a stranger everywhere. But that is also the beauty, because your life is so much richer with all those experiences.

And I, for one, am thankful for what America has given me and my family. I hope I have returned something of value and that I’ll be able to continue to do so.