Ashlyn Oswalt is a New Zealand-based freelance writer.
OPINION: It had been three years away, and setting my feet on American soil for the first time brought a wave of emotion.
When I saw the massive American flag hanging over the escalators to the baggage claim at LAX, my heart skipped a beat. It was so good to be home.
Over the next five weeks of catching up with family in Chicago and road tripping to San Diego, I sunk back into American culture. I was startled to find things felt different. I realized it wasn’t the country that had changed, it was me, and being away for three years gave me fresh eyes, seeing the USA not unlike a well-travelled tourist.
Here are a few things I still miss about the US, and some of the things I realize I had taken for granted in New Zealand.
* From Australia to Europe and Thailand: How my family moved five times during the Covid-19 pandemic
* I can’t travel with anyone for more than three days straight
* In the firing line: The airports with the worst queues
What I missed and love about the United States
Friendly locals everywhere
Americans are often described as friendly – chatting people up while on holiday, making new friends at bars, and quick to lend a helping hand to a troubled motorist. I knew all of this, but was still floored at the genuine kindness, curiosity, and friendliness that welcomed us in the States.
From little things like being greeted at a shop to locals mapping out their favorite surf spots, restaurants, and walks to complete strangers blew me away. While New Zealanders aren’t unfriendly, the level of connectedness I felt to just about everyone in the US was a welcome feeling.
Variety of food
Besides seeing my family, I was most excited to eat all the foods I had missed. Evident by the tightness of my once loose jeans, I indulged in every way possible. I relished the variety in supermarkets – from big box stores to ‘mom-and-pop’ shops – and their selections of colorful produce, artisan breads, craft beers, and more.
The restaurant scene from Chicago to San Diego was no different – spoiled for choice on cuisine and delicious options every mile of the way. Food is a great way to show off the USA’s diverse cultures, and I personally ate my weight through as much as possible.
It’s hard to compare a country of five million to one of 329.5 million, but as much as I enjoy New Zealand’s quiet Friday nights, I found myself thriving on the bustling culture of American cities and towns. Lively bars, parks, and shops were filled with smiling locals and holidaymakers, and we often had to wait for tables.
While the business isn’t for everyone, I loved the vibrancy and atmosphere a busy place brought and no matter where we went, there was a concert or event on that day.
A classic American road trip is one of my favorite ways to travel, and I missed the open road, car snacks, and singalongs immensely. Being able to road trip over five days with my parents and partner was special, and I savored each roadside stop, hotel, and Cracker Barrel. I also enjoyed the long, straight stretches of two-lane highway where 75mph (120kph) is slow.
I struggle with the standard NZ homes’ heating systems; freezing in winter under a pile of woolen blankets. While I agree central heating can be an absolute waste of energy and an inefficient way to heat a home, it was a true delight to wear leggings and a sweater inside while it snowed and not shiver to death. Surely there’s a happy medium we can find between the two country’s systems?
The things that made realize what I took for granted in New Zealand
While food is something I miss about the States, I was taken aback by how salty and sugary food tended to be at restaurants. I was also surprised by how out of season Americans eat – something I had forgotten about. No matter what the season or location, I could find any fruit or vegetable I could think of, often for significantly cheaper than I would find in New Zealand. Sure, the States have the advantage of warmer climates and produce from Mexico, but the array of late summer vegetables in early spring was confusing.
Single use everything
The amount of plastic and single-use items in the US was alarming. Although I’d like to believe the uptick in single-use is purely due to safety precautions for Covid, I think the sad reality is that single-use is just a cheaper and easier way to go about daily life for many people.
From single-use coffee cups and water bottles to straws, plastic cutlery, and styrofoam plates (when we were eating in!), the amount of throwaway containers was disheartening.
Abundance and convenience
This brings me to the next point, sheer abundance. When I moved to New Zealand, I struggled to adjust to the early closing times and laid back lifestyle. I was used to stopping at the pharmacy at 9pm or having a new top shipped next day. I’ve adjusted now, so I was amazed at the sheer abundance and convenience that surrounded me. Stores were open late, products I didn’t know I needed promised to save me time (at the expense of the environment), and I could have anything I wanted, when I wanted. It was overwhelming and intoxicating.
The news was on constantly in the US – from my parents’ home to every hotel lobby. The state of the world today is largely depressing, but the relentless sensationalized news was exhausting. Every moment seemed to be ‘breaking’ and every b-roll clip included an ambulance siren and police cordons. Guns, violence and outrageous politics were often the topics of conversation, sparking heated debates and more name-calling than I thought was appropriate for adults.
I am forever grateful for the perspective living abroad has provided me and feel lucky to have the opportunity to call both New Zealand and the USA ‘home’. Three years away provided me a unique lens into ways I have changed and ways I have stayed the same.
Aside from hugging my family, the introspective look into myself was one of the greatest gifts of my recent trips home.