This isn’t going to be one of those bittersweet love letters, a regretful discourse that begins with, “I love America, but…” There’s nothing woeful about my decision to leave this country and move to a place that is completely foreign and unfamiliar to me. I want to mince no words about why I’ve come to the conclusion that living in the United States in no longer an option, or in my best interests. I don’t want to feign loyalty or give the impression that America has some special place in my heart because it doesn’t. This is my place of birth but that doesn’t mean I’m required to defend it or uphold the false and pretentious narrative that this is the greatest country in the world.
I’m Black. I’m a woman. And I’m Muslim. Some might say America is a dangerous place for someone like me. But the truth is I’ve never once feared for my life for as long as I’ve lived here. I was born in the South (Georgia), spent the bulk of my childhood and adolescence on the West Coast (Southern California) and for the past decade, have called the East Coast (New York City) home. I briefly lived overseas for several years as a kid, having lived in Italy, Germany and the country formerly known as Czechoslovokia. As a military brat you’re afforded the opportunity to see the world at a young age which I firmly believe made a significant impression on me. Since then, I’ve always harbored the desire to travel and leave America behind. It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I began to notice something more unsettling about living here and once I had children, leaving just seemed like the most logical thing to do.
America is a farrago by design, a quality that puts itself at the mercy of popularity. Truths, opinions, tastes, perceptions and morality is always changing, and the pendulum never stops swinging. As a society we are perpetually shifting attitudes, swayed by the latest fad or trend related to just about every aspect of life. When it comes to change, we don’t take the time to really examine how these shifts will impact our lives in the long term, not until the unintended consequences begin to appear. In terms of food for example, so many things that were once deemed unhealthy are now being praised for their health benefits. Nonetheless, the smear campaign was so successful against fat that finding full-fat yogurt in the grocery store is a literal quest.
Simply put, America has schizophrenic tendencies in terms of what is right and what is wrong. That’s not to say that other countries don’t go through changes. Change is a factor of life no matter where you are in the world. However in other cultures, I get the impression that there is a slow and gradual shift when it comes to the adoption of new ideas. The exception is when American culture is exported and Western habits seep into the culture. The change is so sudden and unprecedented because it’s in complete opposition to what was there before, and, unsurprisingly, creates tension and discord among people who don’t care to adopt the American way of life. It seems like every decade, there are new rules. It’s gotten so bad, that our culture has become inverted and common sense and wisdom is problematic. It’s disconcerting and confusing at best and doesn’t bode well for future generations.
Something I find even more problematic is how many Americans are convinced that this is the greatest country in the world despite glaring inconsistencies and contradictions. It’s a dream that’s been part of American folklore for so long, the idea that anyone can make it here, that all it takes is a little grit and hard work, and you can achieve anything. The reality is that there are people who immigrate to this country, having left dire circumstances (war, extreme poverty, political unrest) and have been able to thrive and provide for themselves and their families and live lives better than they would had they stayed in their own country. It’s also worth noting that this can be said for people migrating to any country where there is relative peace and stability.
As far as the “American Dream” is concerned, many immigrants come here to escape one thing, only to encounter another. I’m not an immigrant, but from what I’ve gleaned those who become successful in the monetary sense, where they accumulate the type of wealth that sets them at a standard of living that is above average, is few. The majority are struggling, eking out a living in a country where the cost of living is high, and the quality of life is low. Many immigrants find themselves working jobs they’re overqualified to do or, even worse, come with the idea that wealth will come easy only to be greeted with a reality similar, or in some cases, worse than what they had back home.
Ultimately, America is not the end all be all that everyone makes it out to be. Not only have people been cut off from all that they now, they are now forced to assimilate into a culture that is in most cases, the antithesis to the values and norms that they grew up with. My in-laws, who immigrated here from Central and South America never left the housing projects my husband grew up in. It wasn’t for lack of hard work, but not having access to certain resources and living in an environment that forces you to focus on survival instead of education, growth, and development — things that help propel people to a better standard of living.
Many members of my own family live in public housing, where the majority of inhabitants are African American. And even though my younger sister and I grew up in the suburbs of San Bernardino, it was a hollow lifestyle. On the outside we were a picture of middle-class affluence. Yet, I have piercing memories of hiding from the landlord and pretending we weren’t home when she came looking for my mother because the rent was due. We had a garage, three bedrooms, and an expensive but useless, high-maintenance small breed dog, yet I would find myself using newspaper to wipe my behind because we didn’t have any toilet paper, or cutting open a flattened tube of toothpaste and scraping out the remnants to brush my teeth. We’d go days without hot water, and sometimes we had tuna sandwiches for dinner because we didn’t have gas to cook in our three bedroom condo on the “nice” side of town. First world problems, yes, but when you consider the story that’s told over and over, that America is where dreams come true, the reality is not so pretty.
Just about every aspect of life in America reeks of commodification. Things that most other countries consider to be basic human rights, such as access to quality health care, low or no-cost education, and social services that don’t use bureaucracy as a deterrent is an omnipresent reality in this country. No country is perfect on this front, however there’s this unspoken rule that in order to have a relatively good quality of life, you have to pay up. It’s more expensive to eat healthy, wholesome food in this country than it is to junk food. Basic medical care and treatment can easily throw someone into debt or bankruptcy, leading many people to forgo necessary and often life-saving preventative care. Welfare is frowned upon, yet there are systemic barriers forged by racism and elitism put in place that make it difficult for black and brown people to pull themselves out of toxic environments.
There’s this underlying feeling of artificiality to everyday life, especially here in New York City. There’s an overwhelming preoccupation with things, status and wealth and very little if any room for the things that really matter. Everything is a pretense. We live in a society where life is a show, a game to be played where the winners are those who put on the better performance. The sad thing is American culture has found it’s way into just about every crevice around the globe. You can go to McDonald’s in Siberia. Vegan restaurants abound in Bali. There’s Walmart in Chile. Ikea is in Malaysia. But at least there is culture. A strong cultural system of codes and conduct that remain unchanged for centuries. Universal truths that are still ingrained, ways of being that don’t buckle under pressure from the West. I want my kids to grow up in a society where people don’t kowtow to popular opinion. Where they don’t feel the need to defend or apologize for their beliefs.
I’m also tired of the cold. My heritage and genetics were made for warm weather. Living in a place like New York City makes it very difficult to be a minimalist. Having seasons requires different sets of clothing and with four kids, it’s a nightmare. Having to deal with four layers of clothes, coats, jackets, scarves, hats, gloves and the necessary footwear makes getting out the house toilsome and easily tacks on another 45 minutes, whereas in the summer months I couldn’t be happier to not even think about socks. I’ve never visited Malaysia except by way of too many YouTube videos. From what I’ve learned there seems to be a constant sense of lightness and ease, a calm even in the metropolis of Kuala Lumpur which admittedly, looks like a southeast Asian version of 42nd street.
Nonetheless, there’s a pull to go there and for the past two years have been making plans to finally get out. This year was supposed to be the year of our departure, but The One in charge had different plans. I hope by next year we’ll finally be able to leave the States. I’m committed to providing a better life for my kids, spiritually, mentally, emotionally. Many immigrants leave their countries in the pursuit of monetary gain, but I’m doing the opposite: I’m seeking simplicity and spiritual comfort. I’m seeking a life where striving for status and the accumulation of things is not an imperative. I want my kids to eat real food.