This post may contain affiliate links. I receive a small commission at no cost to you when you make a purchase using my link.
Oh, the American dream. Something even we, the teenage kids in the far away country of Ukraine were aware of from the early childhood through the shows we saw on TV, the music we listened to and icons we had on our bedroom walls. We wanted to be them, the Americans, no matter how strong our ties were with other countries of the Former USSR. We envied their easy access to everything and thought nothing like this can ever be accessible in Ukraine. But the times have changed.
Same as many people around the world, me and Yuri, too, were mesmerized by the American dream. After visiting New York during Christmas of 2016, we knew America needs to be looked at closer. Not even a year later, we decided to go to the United States as an experiment to see if we would love to live there. After all, we always wanted to at some stage. And since we don’t have ties to any specific place, we are always on the lookout for the next interesting destination to experience.
But the difference was, we didn’t go to just travel. We picked one spot, which was Sacramento in California (as he had friends there), and stayed there, mimicking the actual living situation. We got the car, rented a room, and were sort of “going to work”, which for me meant driving to the nearest coffee shop to write my book about Ukraine. During the weekends, we went on short road trips to the nearest sights, while during the week we shopped in the local stores, dealt with DMV, went to movies with friends, signed up for the gym, and even went to a Thanksgiving party with locals. Basically, we lived exactly the same as everyone else in Sacramento did. Full blown living experience during the course of three months.
Many people since then, have been asking me about how was the USA and why did we actually come back? Well, the short answer is, we came back because our visa was close to running out and we weren’t going to break any laws. So, we left the country in a timely manner.
The longer answer can be found in paragraphs below. Before you dive into it, I want to say this is just my one-dimensional opinion based on three months of living in Sacramento meant for entertainment purposes only. So, before I sum up the results of the experiment I have to provide you with some qualitative data that I have gathered. I will divide it into pro’s and cons of the American Dream and you’ll figure out which one is which for yourself.
Welcome to the American Dream
I still can’t teach myself to not consider people living in Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco to be lucky. This thought just comes naturally, as we think that they actually are the ones living the American dream, driving by the Hollywood sign, shopping on Fifth Avenue just like Carrie Bradshaw and working alongside giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple. And this American dream has merits as we know them. Welcome to my interpretation of what is the American Dream and how we got to taste it.
How about the most stunning natural sights in the world?
Living in the USA you don’t really even need to travel abroad, you have everything here! The hell with that, you have everything in California alone! Want to see snowy peaks – go to Tahoe lake, have a thing for tall pines and mountains – head to Yosemite or Sierra parks, in love with the ocean – off to Santa Cruz and San Diego to have a splash. Everything you need is here!
And it is so easy to get around because you have to have a car in America. Want to have a short family getaway in the nature? Just pack some snacks, take a blanket and off you go to the next sight that is probably listed as one of the best places to see before you die. Yuri and I made those trips probably once a week during our stay in California and it is one of those things I was never tired of, you could really be a traveler here. And the next step? I’d gladly rent out a camper van to go on a road trip around the United States.
You can be whoever you want to be
I wrote about this already after my trip to New York, as this is where I actually felt it from the start. You see, America is founded by immigrants and you see it right away, especially in the big cities. You just belong, instantly, regardless of what your skin color is, regardless of how imperfect your English is, regardless of whether you have the money or not. And the best part is? This is the place you can just be whoever the hell you want to be! Nobody cares! There are so many weirdos here already that you’ll just be another person in the mixing pot. And most likely there will already be a community out there for your kind of weird that you can sign up to.
Looking for freedom? Look no further!
Freedom is one word that I associate with America. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of expression… Americans are born with the underlying notion that anything is possible, if you work hard enough, dare to dream and do the impossible. Americans are taught to have discussions, apply critical thinking and ask questions. Whereas in Ukraine, you can get a bad mark by expressing an opinion which differs from that of your teacher.
No wonder entrepreneurs from all over the world (including Elon Musk) choose to come here to start their business. It is so easy here. The market is huge, people are prone to try something new and failure is no stigma, everyone can just try again.
The weather in California is something you could move to the USA for alone. Even Yuri, which up to the last point denied that weather has any effect on him, gave in and admitted that having sunshine every day in California made him feel much healthier and happier. Never ending summer, beaches, and waves…even if you have nothing, life is beautiful.
We’ve got them jobs
Funny how people often complain that there are less and less jobs in America, I found the truth to be quite the opposite. There seems to be a job for everyone who is willing to work. Quite often though it will be a cash paid job without any documents (as it also happens a lot in Ukraine), but you can find absolutely anything from babysitting, to filling up the eBay online stores, from driver and mechanic to gym trainer, you name it! I’ve got the impression that only a lazy person cannot find a job in America if they really need one.
The power of community and multiculturalism
I mean, American people are just some of the weirdest and friendliest I have ever met. And the weird part is also great on some occasions! I mean, the guy with purple hair and makeup that sold me coffee, the little girl in the line behind me dancing to the store music, a man in mid-forties singing by a metro station to a song that wasn’t even playing, I loved that! America is the mixing pot of humanity and everyone can just be their weird self! America has a place for everyone, yes, even you! Isn’t that amazing? And the hospitality that we’ve received here has been great.
People opened their homes for us like we’re some old friends and offered anything we needed just like that. After living for years in Denmark, where people do not easily invite you to their homes, I was almost shocked by this hospitality. Building a social life in America proved to be much easier.
The good side of consumerism
In America, you have access to everything you need. And though I am not a big fan of consumerism, I cannot deny how convenient it is to have everything available to you. Personally, I hate the giant grocery stores because I get lost in them. There can be rows and rows of just tomato sauce alone, which is almost annoying because I spend way too much time just picking one! But at the end of the day, I am confident that I can always find what I am looking for. And it is cheaper than elsewhere, which means that living in America you have a better purchasing power.
Coming here from Copenhagen, where there is only one big supermarket (Bilka in Fields) and you cannot buy anything in bulk, USA can really spoil you. I could weight as much or little quinoa as I wanted, make my own natural peanut butter right in the grocery store, find any ridiculous little thing, like a Barbie kitchen set for my niece on a garage sale. I mean, ANYTHING is available here.
The Cost of the American Dream
Because America is so popular and famous across the globe, we tend to think that everything is pink perfect there. How about this easy wake-up call – there is no a perfect place on Earth. It just doesn’t exist! Everything comes in comparison, especially to your personal previous experiences. There are places which are more comfortable for some groups of people over the others and every country has its set of advantages and attractive traits. America might be a powerful state, but it doesn’t mean that life there is easy and everyone’s rich. The USA is far from Denmark, where the most dangerous thing you can see on the news is a family of ducks crossing a street full of traffic. This misconception made me face a few things of my own which prove that there is a cost to the American Dream.
The Divided States of America
Sometimes, the United States of America truly feels more like the Divided States of America and here’s why. Whenever you meet new people, who are by the way all very friendly, they instantly want to put you in some sort of a group. Are you a republican or a democrat? Do you go to church or not? If I said I did, the next question would probably be “to which church?” Are you a vegetarian or a meat-eater?
I mean, it’s okay to ask questions in order to get to know the person, but these questions are more about putting people in certain categories, which most likely will just cause an argument and divide us. Life is not as black and white and it is not so easy to put yourself in one particular category.
The matter of security
I know that for those who grew up in America it won’t be an issue at all because it is a matter of getting used to. But the security questions is a burning topic. And I am not just talking about the whole gun control thing (I don’t even want to get started on that!) but the social security as well. Which is like non-existent. Two weeks of holidays a year? Almost no maternity leave? Out of the job, out of the medical insurance? I am sure there are ways around this but sounds too scary for me already. I get it, Europe is spoiling me, but come on people! There is a lot to learn from Scandinavian countries on topics of work-life-balance and social security in general.
I get it, California is warm all year round so all homeless people in America probably live here, which gave me the impression that there are just too many. On the other hand, the questions start to pops-up in my mind, like “how did so many people become homeless?” And they are often Americans, not some illegal immigrants who failed to find jobs. And it’s not just that it creates an unsafe feeling in the neighborhoods but it creates questions around the entire system. What if I lose my job one day? Will I be homeless as well?
What is the deal with chains?
Why does everything have to be a chain? Chain of restaurants (which is really just fast food, not a restaurant), chain of coffee shops, chain of grocery stores, chains of clothing stores. You have to try very hard to find something that is not a chain (at least in Sacramento). Why, why can’t there be just a one-off really good and cozy coffee shop that is not a Starbucks, where they brew their own coffee and not some overpriced barely hot bitter water? That’s another thing, coffee isn’t that great in America either. But my point is: authentic independent shops are some much more charming and have more soul than commercial chains, which are the same everywhere you go.
The American lifestyle
I understand that this one is not applicable to all cities in America. Obviously, Sacramento influenced the way I feel about the American lifestyle. But still, I feel that it is very common in the United States to get around by car, not with your own feet. And funny enough, this bothers me! For me, a person who used to be able to walk anywhere right from the doorsteps of my apartment in the city, it was so hard to adjust to “you cannot walk anywhere”. No buses, no sidewalks, no decent grocery shops or coffee places nearby.
Taking a stroll through the city is one of those things that brings me incredible joy and though I love driving as well, I know that my lazy ass will grow in geometrical progression if I don’t allow myself to walk. It’s bad enough that I spend my time sitting behind the computer all the time, becoming car-bound really scares me.
Though America didn’t quite convince me that it’s the greatest place in the world to live, I know I will come back here again. You just cannot let go of the American dream as easy as that.
But for now, America remains as a country with many contrasts which happens when you have so many people of different backgrounds living under the same flag. As it says in Lana Del Rey’s song, ‘God bless America and all the beautiful people in it’ ©
~ by Lana Del Rey.
Like It? Pin It!
I have only been to US once, for a short trip of 2 weeks, so compared to your 3 month experiment is nothing, and for me it was just a trip. I saw NYC, Philadelphia and Atlantic City. But even so I recognize almost to the fullest what you described. An interesting point of view, but for me it would be just to visit, not to live there. Actually one of my “bucket list” trips is to go to New Orleans. And if I think about it a bit.. it does have a bit more of an European vibe. Maybe that’s what’s drawing me to it.
I wonder if my experience would be totally different if I stayed on the East Coast or even somewhere inland. New York, for example has a different feel and is closer to heart, mainly because it is easier to get around without a car and there are plenty of coffee shops 😀
Wow, I loved this post so much! As an American and Californian born and raised, I find it fascinating to view my state (and country) through the eyes of visitors. I appreciate that you wrote this from a balanced point of view by pointing out the good and the bad, which accompanies every country.. I have met a few Ukrainians visiting Los Angeles and they complained that we smile too much haha, but that’s just how we are in California. I’m glad this didn’t bother you. We are very much divided states. You visited one of the most progressive, liberal areas of the country within the most liberal state. Often times us Californians do not feel as though we fit in with the rest of the nation, and citizens of other states have no trouble reminding us that we’re different. But with this diversity you get open mindedness. We have huge problems in our societal structure regarding gun control, social security, health care, etc. But it’s hard to please everyone in a country so big, which creates a massive polarization within this country that is currently a huge problem.. I’m proud of certain things you mentioned in this post, and obviously so bothered by others. No country is perfect and I don’t think that the U.S. is the best country in the world, but then again, I grew up around minorities my entire life, so I’ll have a different view on that than someone maybe from middle America. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your post and about your experiment with living the American dream!
Thanks for your comment, Christina. No country is perfect, that is 100% true. I think California could easily be a country on it’s own and it still would be so much bigger than, say, Denmark 😀 It is much easier to have order in smaller countries and still, I find things that annoy me here. But one thing I’ll miss for sure is how easy it is to be social in America, this and sunshine is something I kinda feel deprived of 😀
This is such an insightful post. To be honest I’ve been put off from living in Trumps US but the way you’ve described the California vibe and those pics of the National Park have made me think twice!
Don’t be too fast in changing your mind. You can always see the national parks as a part of the trip, but you still get a lot of “democrats vs. republican” vibe even in California.
I think this is a really interesting post, but I would say that I don’t think three months is nearly enough to really get to know a country this large. Every state has its own culture and in many of them there are sub-cultures in a state. It is such a complex, massive place. That being said, I think you make some really good points. No place is perfect, and especially right now, many Americans are having to face the harsh reality of our shortcomings.
Agree, and I hope I made it clear that my experience is hugely based on living in California (even Sacramento). But I don’t think my opinions would change much if I lived there longer, apart from the fact that I might have gotten used to more things. That’s why I love having fresh perspective.
Hi, Lena! This was a very insightful post and I can totally relate. My parents are Mexicans, but they moved to California not so long ago, so I visit often and I can see very clearly everything you say. Of course there are a lot of perks and benefits of living in the States, but there are some other considerations that people often ignore. I do believe that people tend to be divided by opinions and lifestyles and the homeless problem in California is real and sometimes scary. We were followed by a homeless person a few weeks ago in San Francisco and he started to get kind of agressive. My family and I had to hide inside a shop and let the security people manage the issue. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Wow, Dann, that’s a freaky experience you had in San Francisco. I’ve seen homeless people punching drugs on a Sunday afternoon with a needle right on the street there, but none of them seemed dangerous to me.
So interesting! We recently moved to a more mobile area. We use our car a bunch, but we also can walk to the park, trails, shops and restaurants. And we love it! 🙂
Which state do you live in?
I love hearing about your experience in America. As an American I love to hear the stories of people that come here from abroad. For me I feel the way about other countries as you do to ours. There is a rose and a thorn to every place. I am really glad you had a great time here though. I am a huge fan of our National Parks and natural places as well.
Oh yeah, I think I could actually live in Yosemite full-time, even if it is in a car 😀
Very interesting to read how someone from outside views living in America. I agree with alot of your points. Great experiment, I want to do the reverse.
I’d love to hear the reverse! Where would you go?
Great and diverse look on America you got to experience in 3 months of living there. As you said, contrast is what makes this country so unique. I’ve only spent a couple of weeks in few Hawaiian islands and loved it, but especially look forward to exploring the beautiful nature in the future – that’s one thing that never disappoints. Great blog post 😉
As an American, it is so refreshing to hear a positive perspective from a foreigner. California is absolutely amazing, along with many, many other states and cities. That being said, there are definitely some things that I would like to change too (more maternity leave, walking more etc..) 🙂 A great post, and glad you did the experiment!
I think that America is a place that will work well some people who love freedom and won’t work that well with people who like guidelines better. It was a fun 3 months, that’s for sure!
As an American, I think your article is well written and touches up on a lot for such a short stay! I especially agreed with your input about being put in boxes. I’m from the East Coast and this is true as well.
That was actually something I didn’t expect to see. Especially when it comes to politics. People expect that if you give them a D or R it will describe all your viewpoints in life. But that’s what you have when there are so many different people under one flag.
It is always interesting to hear about other’s opinions and impressions of my home country. You are so right–it’s so big and diverse that it is really hard to know it and even define it one way or another. Come to Chicago! 🙂 I don’t have a car (ride my bike or take public trans everywhere) and we have tons of independent shops, coffee shops and restaurants. Sacramento is a pretty small city and not the same as LA or SFO. But yeah, many small cities (and of course suburbs) often have bad public trans and then people need a car. it’s one of the reasons I like living in a bigger city like Chicago!
That’s a fine perspective, dear. I have always been jubilant to hear what expert travellers have to say about moving and settling to another place. As a migrant and a traveller too, I had to move to the US in the early 90s to stay with my partner and since then I have the time of my life. US is very different from my native (India) but it’s refreshing because travelling is easy here and inclusive.
Great write-up! I was born in New England (Vermont), attended university in NY, lived in London (1 year), San Francisco (7 years), Portland, Maine (now, a combined 10 years) and Munich, Germany (2 years). Currently I live on an island, offshore Portland, Maine.
I know Sacramento a bit, but I write a quick blurb about the homelessness in California. I used to volunteer at a “homeless shelter” in SF. I put it in quotes because I worked in a building that provided long-term rooms for people who would otherwise be on the street. Frequently our residents would spend their days on the street looking amfor an extra handout (hey, why not? People give generously and one thing shelters don’t provide is beer). Also, plenty of rooms for the transient population who don’t stay long enough to qualify for long term arrangements. The trouble can arise when those people arrive after curfew or don’t adhere to the policies in place. If you don’t comply with house rules, you can’t stay. There’s also a segment of the population that doesn’t WANT shelter. The street is their preferred home. Frequently, their troubles begin with a mental health diagnosis and/or addiction. Generally both, in fact. While they seem like lost faces to most people who walk by, takecomfort knowing that there are people who spend countless volunteer hours trying to find permanent or semi-permanent homes for them. Meals, medical checkups and laundry services too. It’s an overwhelming concern for residents in these cities, even if to the passerby, they seem forgotten and abandoned. You can be comforted knowing people are always working with this population in some capacity. I love your concern.
I made my home (for now) in the Northeast. It’s safe, progressive, and mostly sunny. Mountains nearby and Canada is “over there”. It’s a great mix. I think we get nearly 2x’s as much sun here than we did in Germany. And snow!
In 2 years we’re going to take the family (3 kids now, too) to SE Asia + NZ + Oz. Ready for a change of scenery for a bit.
Wherever you go, I hope you’re living the dream!
Wow, Caroline, thank you so much for reading my post and taking the time to reply in such detail.
For a European person, seeing so many people living on the street is really strange. I have also seen the same in Canada, so it is not just a USA problem. You are right, many of them are mentally ill and that is even more sad. I was wondering about why that is, because there are homeless people in every country, even in Denmark. But somehow here they are not sitting around on the sidewalks. I guess, government must be doing something to keep them busy, but I don’t know too much about it.
Other than that, California has so much to offer, I really miss it now that it is March and we are still in winter mode in Copenhagen… I could really use some of that Sacramento sun 🙂 Hope you are well wherever you are.