America: Not exactly a dream come true


Photo by Eliza Steffen

Clara Laino


   “I can’t believe it! You’re really going to America! It can’t be true!”

   “You will experience Homecoming, Prom, the football games! Oh, and you will switch classes every hour! You will see so many cute boys!”

   “Please, you have to use my birth date as the password for your locker!”

   “We want pictures of everything!”

   “The yellow bus! You will take the yellow bus to go to school!”

   “You’ll eat so much fast food, don’t forget about our real one!”

   America is the dream of every European teenager. That’s why most of the exchange students choose the U.S.A. over every other country in the world.

   It’s not just for the English, for the yellow bus, or the cute boys. It’s for the atmosphere, it’s because we’re born and grew up hearing about America: how Americans saved us during the war, how there everyone is free to do whatever they want, how everyone is welcomed with open arms. 

   Is it all true? Is America the promised land, the best place to live? 

   That’s what I wanted to find out!

   Let’s start with school, the main part of a teenager’s life: in fact here, unlike Europe, every school has sports or clubs in the afternoon. For this reason, most teenagers spend most of their time at school and after-school activities are really important for the student’s life.

   First thing: the yellow bus. So many people asked me to show them the famous yellow busses. This is true, they really are used. And, the weirdest thing, here teenagers are not excited at all about taking the bus. I don’t think I will say it around when I will come back: everyone would be so disappointed… Don’t ask me, though, why yellow busses are so cool in our mind, because I don’t think I have an answer: maybe it’s just because they’re so American.

   More about the school: lockers. Yes, they exist, and my friends could not believe me when I told them that almost none uses them in my school.“Why do they waste this opportunity? I would pay to have them!”. 

Considering, though, that we spend our day always in the same class, it would be useless for us in Europe, but still, everyone thinks that they’re cool; it’s a part of American culture after all.

   One of the best things about the American school is that the teachers are nice and most of them are young; no more old ladies yelling for every silly thing at 8 in the morning. No more fear of going to school or of the teachers. No more pressure to do everything perfect, because here you always have a second chance. 

   In Europe, we don’t have retakes, no open tests with notes. No work with partners. Our homework is not graded, even if the teachers make sure that we do them all the time. In this way, if the test day is just a bad day, and the score is not the best, there’s no chance to improve it. In America, teachers give you time for homework in class, and even if sometimes they don’t, the homework is minimal.

   In general, people are nicer, and it’s not rare to have strangers stop people while walking to compliment shoes, hair, or a t-shirt, but it’s still surprising how kind-hearted most of the teachers are.

    No doubt that every European kid would love to have a school like the American one.

   Switching classes every hour (sometimes less than one hour) can be fun, especially walking with a friend, but walking alone is not that bad as well, because it’s a chance to disconnect for a second from studying before starting again with a different subject.

   It’s not so fun if it’s raining…

   Shifting the focus from the school, let’s talk about the food, the famous American food: it actually doesn’t exist, it’s just food from different cultures mixed together, sometimes in the weirdest ways (ex.: pineapple pizza). The only original American food is fast food… But hey, some people really like it and, moreover, it’s not so expensive and it’s fast.

   With fast I mean that here people have no time for anything: they do so many things every day, so I’m not surprised that fast food is so popular. They do so many activities at school, like school dances and football games, and outside as well. I really appreciate these amazing moments, but people have no time for anything, even to cook a real meal. 

       Talking about the football games, they are one of the best moments of American life: it’s a way to have fun together through sport, and it doesn’t matter if the team wins or loses, because it is an opportunity to spend time with friends and to feel part of the school community.

   I said football games, though, and not other sports, because here people care way less about other sports, especially the girl teams. 

   Something else that we really look forward to is the opportunity for teenagers to drive. We have to wait until we are 18, but here the age is 16. For us it is very cool, and when we see on the internet videos of these groups of friends just going around in a car, with music and food, it seems to us the best way to hang out. 

   Unfortunately, there are also so many accidents due to teenagers driving irresponsibly, and the lack of public transportation makes cars needed and environmental pollution worse.

   Movies and tv series widely influence our vision of America. In fact, exactly like in the tv series, we think that kids in school are divided into “populars” and “losers”. Luckily, it’s not the truth. In the school where I’m studying right now, there are so many different ethnicities, people from different countries, who can speak different languages, eat different foods, and have a different culture, and I feel like everyone is welcomed here and there’s not a lot of discrimination.

   There’s something about America that is hard to see in movies and tv series is that everything is huge: the streets, the food, everything’s bigger. 

   Another curiosity that it’s hard to notice in movies, people use weird “minutes”: the third class of the school day, for example, starts at 10:02 and finishes at 11:01, or the fifth hour ends at 1:39. We only use “round” times: 10:00 or 10:30, never in between.

   The thing that most characterizes American people is their pride. They are proud to be American, glad of being born or grew up here, strongly believing in the values of their country. Every morning at school they stand for the pledge of allegiance, and for us Europeans, it’s something new. Often we are not proud of what we are, of the story of our country or we just complain about what our country is not able to provide us.

   But could all these things we look forward to having a bad side?

   Doing activities after school is a lot of fun, but because of this, and the fact that a lot of teenagers work, it can be very stressful. People have no free time to relax, and actually no time for studying as well, because so many people come back home late in the evening.

   I heard a lot of adults talking about how these new generations are weaker and less resilient. Perhaps it’s because of the fact that, in school, teenagers are treated as children even if they are sixteen. I think it can harm them, because in life after high school, if it happens to fail, most of the time a second chance is not provided. Sometimes the only way is to swallow your failure. When we’ll be adults, with a family or a job to take care of, none is gonna tell us “ It’s fine if it’s late, do it for next week”. If the bills need to be paid, they need to. No delays.

         Or, about the classes, for people that take a lot to focus on something can be really hard to do with this system of schooling, because there’s barely time to start focusing on something that the bell rings again. For me it’s still hard sometimes, used to the long classes (two or three hours sometimes) that there are in Europe.

   And, if the weather is bad, the school day goes on, and walking between buildings is still required, even if it’s snowing. 

   The importance of food is underrated and often people don’t recognize how unhealthy what they eat is. It’s scary the quantity of snacks that people eat every day, instead of having a complete meal. Among teenagers obesity is not so common, because most of them are engaged in a sport, but among adults it is scary. There are obese people in Europe too, but not so many and not so much. 

   People seem to care less also about the environment: I immediately noticed the amount of unneeded plastic that it’s wasted. It’s sad that they perfectly know the struggles of the planet but they keep living with their bad habits without changing at all. At the grocery store, for example, I’ve rarely seen people with a reusable bag. Furthermore, in most European countries, plastic bags in the shops are not free, in order to push people to bring their reusable one from home.

   But the saddest fact is that people are so proud, so happy to be American that sometimes they forget that the U.S. is not the only country in the world. The U.S.A. is  a beautiful place and a lot of dreams that people have about it are actually true and can make people feel the character of a movie, but there are some sad realities like these that are hard to realize until you don’t come here. 

   “Do you have the moon in Italy?”, “There are trees in Germany?”, “Do you live in a forest in Brazil?”, “There are phones in Italy?” are questions that made me and the other exchange students laugh and smile at first, but they have a bitter taste if you think about them a little longer. 

   I would suggest everyone visit this country, and I’m sure that the expectation will not be disappointed. It’s not, though, the perfect country in the world, and even if we idealize it so much and the people born and grown up here often are sure about this statement (so much that they don’t even believe that the moon is not only American) maybe there are also some problems that we don’t talk enough about.