Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is the grass really greener?

Whenever I meet someone new here in Flanders and they find out where I'm from, they inevitably ask me if I'm planning to stay in Belgium. And then they're surprised when I say “Yes.” With few exceptions, most Belgians seem puzzled that an American would choose to live here. Given a choice, why would someone choose Belgium over the U.S.?

I've had many people here tell me that they would love to emigrate to the United States and their dream is to live in New York, or Los Angeles. I look at them like they're crazy... But I suspect that they're not crazy, they're just missing some key information. Maybe all they know about life in America is what they see on TV or in the movies. Maybe they've traveled a bit in the States and had a great time—at Disneyland or on the beach in Florida or gambling in Las Vegas.

The Happiest Place on Earth

While I'll readily admit that the U.S. has some advantages over Belgium, especially in the areas of entrepreneurship, customer service, friendliness and cultural diversity—not to mention the incredible landscape and natural resources—there are many aspects of life in the States that are not so wonderful, and that Belgian acquaintances are usually surprised to hear about.

Belgians are always complaining about taxes, and it's true that the tax rate is very high here. They have this idea that people in the U.S. are wealthier because they get to keep more of their income. Well, that may be true for the very wealthy, who pay a lot less in taxes than their counterparts in Belgium, but it doesn't really work out that way for the average worker.

He gets to keep more of his paycheck but he also has to pay for more things himself--things that are provided free or at a low cost by the Belgian government, like education, child care and health care. Belgians are surprised when I tell them that a lot of Americans can't afford health insurance, or that even with health insurance they might still have to pay thousands, or tens of thousands, for medical care.

Belgians are surprised to learn that Americans don't enjoy the same government-provided services and benefits because they're used to taking these things for granted. Like most Europeans, they assume that the government will take care of its citizens and that everyone has the same basic rights to education, healthcare, decent housing, etc. In the United States, these rights are open to debate.

For instance, Europeans take it for granted that a mother is entitled to paid maternity leave even though the length of time may vary. Here in Belgium, a mother can take 15 weeks at 75-82% pay and the father can take 2 weeks. While individual American companies may provide paid parental leave, there is no legal requirement for them to do so, and most do not. California is the exception, requiring companies to offer 6 months at half pay.

I could go on and on, but I'll spare you the boring figures and statistics. I guess what I'm trying to say is: Don't believe everything you see on TV.

Not everyone in America has a perfect life, a fabulous wardrobe, a fast car and a natural tan. Those attractive 20-somethings in the latest Hollywood blockbuster couldn't possibly afford their spacious renovated loft in Brooklyn, or San Francisco. The friendly waiter who served you your hamburger and fries doesn't have health insurance and can't afford to go to the doctor.

Maybe the reason I love living in Belgium so much is that I know that the American Dream isn't all it's cracked up to be. Belgians have no such illusions about their own country, and yet they don't realize how good they've got it, in so many ways.

(A version of this post appears on the website for Fans of Flanders, a new English-language TV program aimed at expats living in Belgium. I'm honored to be one of their regular guest bloggers!)

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