Wednesday, September 28, 2011

America versus NZ: a scorecard

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 27.)

I have been travelling with my wife for the past few weeks in the United States. And along the way, in idle moments, I have been compiling a list.

Well, two lists really. One consists of things the Americans do well; the other of things I think we do better in New Zealand. And as we approach the end of our journey, the scoresheet seems pretty evenly balanced.

No 1 on my list of things the Americans do well is service.
Even in no-frills places like McDonald's and the budget-priced Motel 6 chain, where we have stayed occasionally, there is a consistent commitment to good service. Customers are almost invariably greeted with a welcoming smile and treated with respect.

Waiters and waitresses seem to take genuine pride in doing their job well. You never get the feeling (alas, all too common in New Zealand) that serving other people is below their dignity or too much trouble, or that they're doing the job only because they need the money to pay their university fees or whatever.

Cynics might say this is because staff in American hotels, restaurants and bars depend on tips, but it goes beyond that. It's ingrained in the culture.

Allied to this is the American concern for good manners and civility. In their everyday behaviour Americans display an old-fashioned courtesy that puts most New Zealanders to shame. Even the panhandlers (beggars), who seem to occupy almost every street corner in the larger places, are polite; sometimes extravagantly so.

Americans are great initiators of conversation too. New Zealanders tend to be crippled by their British reserve but Americans don't hesitate to strike up a conversation with a total stranger, or to offer assistance if they sense that you need it. This holds true whether you're in a big, brash city like Chicago - where I'm writing this - or one of those small rural towns that look as if they've just materialised out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

Public toilets are also high on my list of things America does much better than New Zealand. Whether they're in parks, bars, gas stations, public buildings or roadside rest areas, they are almost always impeccably clean and well-maintained - although I'm not sure I approve of the lack of privacy in some men's dunnies, where the almost non-existent partitions between cubicles are presumably intended to deter anti- social activity.

Speaking of bars reminds me of beer, which also warrants a mention here. American beer was once nigh undrinkable, but in the past decade there has been a proliferation of regional boutique or "craft" breweries that offer excellent alternatives to ghastly mainstream labels such as Budweiser and Miller.

Better than the craft beers made in New Zealand? Certainly as good as, and probably more varied.

Now, some of the things that, in my view, we do better in New Zealand. Top of my list are coffee and food. The Americans may have caught up where beer is concerned but it's almost impossible to get a half-decent cup of coffee anywhere in the US, which is odd when you consider coffee is in some respects the quintessential American beverage. As for tea, don't even think about it.

Food? Dear me. The Americans do a few things superbly (even a run-of-the-mill US steak house could teach our most illustrious chefs a few things about cooking a fillet of angus beef) but they are arguably the world's least adventurous eaters.

American restaurants and cafes offer endless variations of the same limited and tiresome culinary repertoire: burgers, chicken, fries, hot dogs, steak and pizza. It's stodgy, fatty, flavourless and served in such grossly excessive amounts that the "to-go box" (or doggy bag, as we would call it) is an almost mandatory requirement at the end of every meal.

There's only so much you can do with a bun and a ground beef patty, yet massive freeway billboards advertise this or that restaurant chain's burgers as if they were the last word in gastronomic accomplishment. In my notion of hell, this is what the damned would be forced to eat day after day.

And as it is for food, so it is with motor vehicles. The Americans still haven't ended their love affair with the noisy, primitive, thirsty Detroit V8 - the automotive equivalent of the double cheeseburger with fries. In the south and west in particular, V8 pickup trucks almost outnumber cars.

What else? American plumbing fixtures are downright perverse, the sales taxes are diabolical (oh, for the simplicity and transparency of GST) and the depressing number of social casualties on the streets is proof that the American dream has a nightmarish flipside.

And how I long to get back home and tune into a radio network that offers something other than 24/7 political rants, incomprehensible sports chatter, fundamentalist evangelism and all-night sessions on the paranormal - including an interview with a Kiwi who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Now how did the New Zealand media miss that story?


Lindsay Mitchell said...

Thanks Karl. Many years since I have been there and an update from a sharped-eyed observer is most welcome.

Do you get any feel for the stories behind the "social casualties"?

Illegal immigrants, homeless by choice (of our variety), drug/alcohol addicts?

One thing I noticed in California, back in the mid-eighties, is even when people were pushing their belongings about in a shopping trolley, some proudly displayed a Stars and Stripes. Still exhibiting patriotism despite being outside of what Kiwis might call "inclusive society".

Karl du Fresne said...

I wish I could answer your question about the reason for the high number of US homeless, Lindsay, because I've wondered about it too.
I somehow doubt that illegal immigration is a cause, though the other factors you mention may well be (if not in all cases). You could add mental illness to the list.
Most of the down-and-outs, sadly, are African-American, though there are plenty of whites among them too, of both sexes (and a surprisingly number who looked like middle-class college kids).
I saw no Hispanics - by far the largest group of illegals - begging in the streets. That would obviously be risky because it would invite official attention, but there may be other factors at work: a strong work ethic, perhaps, or cohesive family and community ties. But that's purely guesswork on my part.
You're certainly right about patriotism cutting across socio-economic borders. There are as many US flags flying in deprived areas as in the swankier suburbs.

Dean said...

You're in danger of becoming a radio man, Karl!