Teachers used to tell my parents I day dreamed too much. They seriously thought I was destined to fall behind.
Some of them thought I had ADD. They believed I had a reading and writing impairment. Therefore, I couldn’t compete at the same level as the rest of the class. So when I was in 5th grade, they put me in a slower paced reading and writing class for younger children. Ironically, I write for a living now. But what did they know I’d become? Once a teacher called Einstein stupid. Guess that teacher was right, said no one ever.
When I’d go on these daydream tangents, I’d travel through faraway lands. Sometimes I’d vicariously imagine what life was like through famous figures I read in history books. Or I’d imagine I was the female version of an Indiana Jones hopping over Earthquakes cracks, jumping undercover in desert cities and trekking through the rainforests. I’d doodle drawings on every piece of paper I could find and sketch out my explorations or I’d write about made-up archetypes like Mallory, the world traveler. She was an idea I had in 5th grade in order for me to escape. In 3rd grade, I created a book about African countries and memorized almost all their names. Like many kids, I dreaded being strapped to a desk and force fed standardized learning. I didn't necessarily act out in a rebellious, defiant way, but rather I was painfully shy and gravitated towards the arts. And I also hated Math. It hurts my brain, still ;)
FOREIGNERS FROM MY CHILDHOOD LEFT AN EVER-LASTING IMPRESSION ON ME
The first time I met a foreigner I was in the first grade. She was a little French girl named Wendy. I still don't know how that could be a French name, but okay. The first time she took me to her home, she showed me her Grandfather’s junk drawer which was filled with souvenirs and forget-me-nots. It was fascinating for my 7-year old self to see and touch foreign stuff like an art deco poster and French advertisements torn from an old newspaper. After we played and scavenged for treasure, I then became hungry.
However, it wasn’t quite dinner time yet. Like any little kid, I asked Wendy to ask her mother for a snack. Her mother only spoke French though, and I don’t think many French kids eat snacks before dinner. But what did I know? I remember her mother's perplexed expression not knowing what to do with me. So she reached in her empty cabinets until she found some cookies. I'm sure her mother was preparing a freshly cooked dinner. Convenient snacks are simply a "no-go for a traditional French diet, I assume. Unfortunately, I had a childish mean streak at one point in 1st grade, so l decided to unfriend her. I don't remember the reason, probably something stupid. I think she wanted to play jump rope with another girl and I couldn't accept that. We never said goodbye and my parents told me that she moved to Sweden. I still feel this little remorse for what I did to her. I never really forgot her.
Henceforth, I tended to befriend any of the exchange students in my school, like the immigrants or the kids from different states. From the Russian and Ukrainian girls like Anya and Maria, a Polish girl named Katja, to the Pakistani girl who sadly moved away in 6th grade and couldn't dance hip-hop with me at the school talent show. And this girl named Mackenzie from Idaho. They all left impressions on me as a child. Even the foreigners who were not so nice to me like Igor from Russia who ripped up my papers and threw Doritos inside my desk left a big impression on me. He probably acted out because he found America the most confusing place ever and he had trouble speaking English. But we were only 9. I forgave him anyway, haha. I still, to this day, have this inclination towards “different” or “unfamiliar” things and people.
LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCE - THE FIRST TIME I SAW A PLACE OUTSIDE AMERICA
My childhood dream was to visit Paris. I wanted to see Monet’s gardens because I had a poster of Monet’s waterlilies in my bedroom. But my Dad had better plans instead. He took us to Greece to meet my deceased Greek grandfather's family, aka my cousins. From a 10-year old self perspective, nothing would ever be the same. I was hooked. I had this burning desire to travel to Greece again and other parts of the world.
Fast forward, YEAR 2015, I moved to Amsterdam AS A 25 YEAR OLD.
Ok, moving to Amsterdam was no walk in the park. Actually, I first moved to Dusseldorf for an internship at 23, but let's cut to the chase. I don’t own a car. I commute by bike or tram. I lost some weight. And about 28% of my income goes to taxes & I have a comfortable salary*
Decent/liveable is relative, subjective term depending on your lifestyle. Also, lifestyles depend on country, city, etc. I say decent salary because for me, I consider decent when I can pay all my bills in Amsterdam and still save some 10% of my salary each month. However, if you were to compare this salary of US standards in high-income metropolitan cities like Boston, NY, San Francisco, DC, this salary wouldn't save me any money. Period. Rather, I'd have to live at home and commute.
And NOW, I still get a lot of questions of why I moved to Europe.
“WHY ARE YOU HERE?” OR ALTERNATIVELY, “WHY AREN’T YOU IN THE US?”
That question is definitely an icebreaker. Normally, in the US when we first meet someone, we ask, "What do you do?" Because in America, your "work" defines you. And every time I meet someone I can't just tell them what I'm doing, I have to justify why I'm here. And my answer to them is quite simple:
I don't want to run the rat race.
Once people start to open up to me, I get a series of questions or statements like:
Them, “I’d do anything to live/work in the US”
Me, “Ok, would you sell your soul to a corporation?”
Them, “Salaries are high in America, so why are you here?”
Me, “Um, cause there’s more to life than money.
Them, "It must be easy for you to get a visa in Europe. Cause you're American."
Me, “Um, no. Not always. Read this.”
Them, “Guess what Trump tweeted/did now?”
Me, “Not now. You’re rubbing salt in my wounds.”
Them, “The US is HUGEEE…”
Me, ”No shit, Einstein.”
“You like guns? Why are you guys so crazy about guns?”
”Why do you generalize us? I’ve never touched a gun in my life. But let’s talk about it…”
Dutch people, “Americans are so fake,”
Me, “WHY DO YOU GUYS ALWAYS EAT SANDWICHES WITH OLD CHEESE THAT MAKES PEOPLE FART?”
Them, “Americans are so dumb.”
Me, ”And you’re an asshole.”
I’m getting used to hearing the two last statements. Lately, I've been excusing myself from participating in political discussions because some people are on their high horse. They tend to beat me down when they know I'm not too happy with our current, so-called president and his crooked administration. I'm tired of talking about it and trying to justify that not everyone voted for him.
Regarding the statement, “Americans are so fake,” here’s my take.
In terms of being “fake”, I can understand why there might be an impression that we come across fake. For example, we consider it normal to ask, “how are you?” From waitresses, your neighbors, co-workers and strangers in general, asking “how are you?” is another friendly way of saying “hello.” It’s customary to ask. Usually, we don't expect a soap opera of feelings to pour out from the person we are asking, but whatever the answer is, it's your choice to express yourself or not. Most people say “good” because the interaction can happen fast, for example, in a check out line in a grocery store. Others open up with casual small talk. And sometimes, people can connect with that person. At least we have that option. It's harmless. And you don't need to justify or engage back. It's just what we do. Sometimes I miss the friendliness of Americans because let’s face it, the Dutch are not too friendly and lack customer service.
ANYWAY, HERE’S HOW I DEFINE THE “RAT RACE”
I grew up in the tri-state area between Boston and DC in a suburb outside Philadelphia. The Northeast has been historically one of the most industrially advanced and fast-paced regions of America. And with all the commerce, infrastructure and people, it would just bring more stress and competition to the culture. So the older I got, the more I realized that everybody had been running in this imaginary "rat race" with no finish line to cross.
The rat race was about making more money, gaining a higher social status, having a bigger car, pool, getting your kids into an ivy league university... My generation has low trust in institutions. We don't have confidence in corporations, the job market, political parties, religious institutions, education and the justice system. My choice to move abroad might have been a combination of bad timing from being born in the wrong era, lowered expectations from personal family circumstance and a lot of wanderlust built up from a childhood filled with day-dreaming. Let me give you a quick personal anecdote to explain.
It was around 6 AM and our garage door opened. My father was pulling out the driveway in his car to work. I'd jump out of bed to wave him goodbye on his way to Philadelphia. He'd wave back with a sleepy smile. One morning, he didn't leave and while I was getting ready for school, I asked my mom why he was still home. My mother pulled me aside and whispered,
"Sweetie, your dad is gonna stay home for a while, he lost his job."
"Greed. You'll understand when you get a little older."
It was the beginning of the end. My parents constantly got laid off from big corporations. Mom jumped from contract to contract as a contractor with no benefits anymore like a full-time employee. And my dad became "outdated" "old" or "overqualified" according to corporate America standards. Sometimes they'd collect unemployment checks to make ends meet. But they were hustlers, fighters and we were still very grateful to live within the means of a middle-class lifestyle. They didn't fuck up, foolishly overspend money, or mistreat me. So I never went hungry and always had a roof over my head. I'd give them the world if I could.
When I got a bit older, I would start to question, what is this supposedly "Greatest Country on Earth"? The middle class aside from the poor was and still is in decline in America. Those long-held ideals of getting a college degree, a one-way ticket to getting a good job and building a decent middle-class lifestyle like buying a house, having 2.5 kids, with a dog, just didn't seem applicable anymore. At least not applicable for the millennials like me. Arguably, there are reasons why my generation struggles to build careers without getting sucked into the gig economy, or why we struggle to buy a house, pay off student loans, car loans and why we get married later in life, if at all. And the whipped cream on top, there are financial reasons why we delay family planning. But I digress.
Right after the 2008 meltdown, I remember coming home from my first semester in college to witness the evidence of a collapse. Construction of housing developments suddenly stopped. Foreclosure and "FOR SALE" signs were on every corner. Some of my classmates dropped out because their families lost everything and they could no longer qualify to take out a loan. When I look back, I thank the universe and my parents for selling our house just before the crash. If they didn't sell before October 2008, my life would be radically different. For starters, I probably wouldn't have acquired a higher education degree.
My Europhile, rose-colored glasses also inspired me to make the bold move
I came to Europe filled with these idealized, dreamy, rose-colored glasses, cliche-filled expectations. I pictured myself in the outdoor cafes, not looking at my smartphone, people-watching, slowly sipping my coffee, meeting friends, doing art or “finger-painting,” as my friend calls it, writing a travel blog or book and just being an all around dreamer.
I wanted to detox from all that superficiality, consumerism and noise in America where the land of “schedules” rule and families and friends would be brushed aside. In America, being busy is normal and the spontaneity for life isn’t really welcomed…People thought I was crazy to even think of moving abroad.
EUROPEANS KNOW HOW TO RELAX AND TAKE TIME OFF. AND THAT IS SOMETHING WE DESPERATELY NEED IN AMERICA RIGHT NOW
Many Americans, including my parents, have never taken as much time off as Europeans do (for vacation, sick leave, maternity…). And it's a privilege that in the Netherlands full-time workers like myself are entitled to 4 weeks paid vacation. 4 weeks paid time off is the minimum by law! And as an employee, you are entitled to your yearly vacation bonus as well. The bonus is this 13-month salary scheme and it's available in most European countries. So not only can we take time off but we get our money set aside (8% monthly) for us to spend it on vacations!
Meanwhile, America is STILL the only developed country that doesn’t have official paid time off laws. What a sad and very unhealthy life that is. I know it’s also due to our culture besides our legal system. Americans are afraid of losing their job if they take time off. Our “work hard” mantra has led us to unhealthy, unhappy and short-lived lives. A tragedy, indeed.
Education is a fundamental human right
It's normal for Europeans to get free or low-cost (affordable) higher education. And I admit. There were many times I'd get jealous of the European interns I used to work with. They'd tell me they got a free Master's degree back in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, etc. That's the whole point of taxes right? They pay for things society needs.
Or looking to the Dutch who get subsidized education, an average 4-year Batchelor degree from an institution could cost them two to four thousand total. When people ask me how much debt I owe, I tell them to pretend that it's like a car loan, just multiply that by 5 more years plus 6% interest. It's okay. It's normal for American students. Unfortunately. And I'm not even one of the worse case scenarios.
Bills & Other Basic Human Needs
Now in Amsterdam, I never spend more than 1/3 of my income to rent. When I lived in Boston more than half of my income went to rent for a one-bedroom apartment. My roommate was literally living in a storage room closet. In Amsterdam, I can afford high-quality groceries and health care and take vacations without worrying I'll get fired.
I rarely see people living on the streets. And overall, indeed, the quality of life is much better here. But to each his/her own. This is my subjective view. And while there are so many other small reasons why I left America, I don't think we have the time to read them all. That's a mystery for you to ask me later.
Until next time, keep exploring and please leave a comment below to reach out.