Beyond Borders

Stay off my grass

2011-03-11 10:00
Jean Barker is currently studying in the US. (Photo by Alex Griffin)

Jean Barker is currently studying in the US. (Photo by Alex Griffin)

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Jean Barker

America - like most of the world - is a place made of immigrants and their children and their children's children. America the beautiful was born of bloodshed and violence and stolen land and all that jazz. I'm a third-generation South African, so that's nothing new for me.

And America - or California at any rate - is rapidly beginning to feel like home.

Unlike London (the last foreign place I spent more than a month in), California is a great place to live, and I am far from the only person who feels like a stranger from time to time. Southern California is full of people who came here hoping the grass would be greener on the other side, and wound up ensuring it would be - by mowing it, watering it, and then blow drying it - in the hopes that their kids would live the great American dream, legally.

Multiculturalism is part of life here. Americans may not know much about the rest of the world. But that's really perfectly understandable. Why bother to know about the rest of the world, when it's always...er...visiting?

But despite all this diversity, one thing seems constant in California: a strong ethos of rampant capitalism. America is a very, very capitalist nation - in a way that is very hard to understand if you're from, well, anywhere else I've ever been.

Private property is the most sacred of things here

It's always irritated me when people said that being robbed feels "like being raped". How the hell would they know? To an American, it may really feel that way, though. They place the right to protect your private property above the right to own a gun, or even the right to play football. And if you want to stay out of trouble here, you have to do the same.

How did I find this out? Well, I live in Orange - the Stellenbosch of Los Angeles. I'm just close enough to go to LA for work. I'm just far enough to breathe air that contains traces of oxygen. And there are a lot of lemon and orange trees in Orange. Every second house here has one, and at this time of year, they're all overloaded with fruit. Oranges fall from them, land ripe on the ground and... rot there. I couldn't resist this. There they were: ripe fruit. Just lying on an unfenced lawn, waiting to be gathered and eaten. So I went and started picking them up and then suddenly I had this weird feeling that the cops were watching me.

I turned round, and the cops were watching me. A black and white Ford crawled slowly after me as I moved across the lawns gathering fruit. Though not yet flashing their lights or going Woop! Woop! they were definitely beginning to "take an interest" behind those pitch black sunglasses.

So jumped on my bike and I cycled home as fast as I could, discovering in the process the advantages of wearing your cap backwards (it doesn't blow off).

But aside from nearly getting arrested for a little bit of harmless hunter-gathering, living in a police state does have its advantages.

Orange is so safe that the on-campus security people launch a highly publicised SWAT op if a stranger is reported to be wandering the Chapman dorms asking for booze (how can they tell?). The university's Chancellor sent out an e-mail to all staff and students when a crippled cyclist pinched this one girl's ass in passing. Bicycle theft is news. I was never one of those people who complained about South Africa's crime rate. But, hell, no, I don't miss it. It's awesome to feel safe, and I love that I don't have to worry if I forget to lock my door at night.

What's missing?

What I do miss from home is that sense I always had in South Africa that people were giving what they could to those who had less than they did - whether willingly or unwillingly - and that paying tax to cover the cost of medical expenses for those in need was a civic duty (yeah, I know, I sound like a Communist there!) and not a curtailment of your freedom.

While you don't routinely help yourself to other people's stuff, here in the USA, you also - unfortunately - aren't expected to be particularly generous when it comes to sharing your stuff with your fellow Americans.

It's weird for me that it's even legal for the government to break a long-term contract with workers due to a change in government (as the Republicans currently are attempting to do in Wisconsin). It's weird for me that any American is against what the Republicans have labelled "Obamacare" (why this is bad is also beyond my comprehension - it's got the words "Obama" and "care", which both sound like positives to me!). It's weirdest of all to have to pay $70 at a "cheap" clinic every three months to wait two hours for a 10-minute appointment with a doctor in order to renew a prescription.

And get this: the only place I can find that offers free birth control and pregnancy testing with proper counselling and without extensive paperwork is... a Catholic clinic. Yes, kids, that's what she said.

You win some, some stuff gets pinched

I realise it's possible to die in a queue while waiting to get your arm sewn back on in South Africa. But on the plus side, if you make it to the doctor alive, you can at least get it re-attached by a trained doctor at the state's expense. Here, if you don't have health insurance, someone will probably just ask you if you want to sell it to them. To cover the costs of being sued for damages by the nurse who slipped in your blood and bruised her elbow, you'd probably have to let it go pretty cheap. Situations like this make me miss home.

Because sure, everything from your car to your legs and arms might be harder to hold onto back home in South Africa. But to look on the bright side, the replacement costs of important things like limbs are a hell of a lot lower in Joburg than they are in LA.

- Jean is a former journalist, now studying screenwriting in the USA. She blogs photos of signs and weird observations about life in the USA on her blog Sign Language and tweets as @jeanbarker.

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