What the U.S. Can Learn From Europe, Asia, and South America

Here’s a summary of my lessons learned living in Europe, Asia, and South America over 5 years as an American.

Asian cities like Seoul, Singapore, and Tokyo are way more advanced than us. Doesn’t even come close. People take pride in their work, no matter how menial. These cities are by far the cleanest and safest. Trains leave exactly when scheduled. Things just work. People have high standards, as reflected in tasteful interior designs in cafes. I see more technological innovation and automation here than anywhere. Governments are able to mobilize and get things done (eg. Korea developed COVID tests in only 1 week, whereas the U.S needed another 5 weeks). More cheap, delicious, healthy food options available at any time of the day/night than anywhere in the world. Greatest density of things to do, with commercial establishments literally stacked on top of each other like a mall (I wish the rest of the world would borrow this). Highest concentration of public work cafes of anywhere. The downside is that countries like Korea and Japan have the worst work cultures (eg. long hours even if you’re doing nothing, little vacation), are overly obsessed with prestige, overly conformist, have weak entrepreneurial cultures, and governments are more prone to authoritarianism.

Europeans have the healthiest perspective on work/life balance (1-3 months vacation, fewer work hours, people recognize that life is more than just your job), the sanest governments, and public transportation so good you don’t need a car (you can travel the whole continent by rail and bus). In most European countries basic human services like education and healthcare are free or practically free (in Denmark students even get paid a stipend to go to university). Government systems tend to be parliamentary multi-party systems that greater represent the will of the people. Switzerland has the best government system in the world with its referendum system. Homelessness although greater than in east Asia is very rare, unlike the U.S where there’s so much endlessly increasing rampant homelessness you feel like the apocalypse is imminent. Generous welfare systems means that in many countries you don’t have to wage slave and stress about destitution, and worker protection laws means that you can’t get fired unless you really do something terrible. Everyone is well-traveled, cultured, and speaks multiple languages. I was shocked to learn that in countries like Denmark and Germany it is the norm to take a gap year after high school to travel the world. I’ve found that European people (which is a huge generalization since Europe has 44 countries) seem to have the highest level of intelligence and independent thinking, and tend to be much more honest and straightforward than Americans.

The downside of Europe is that it’s not the most modern or advanced (Asia wins there), tech salaries suck, there’s less of a culture of entrepreneurship, and there are few proper megacities. Stores are open less hours, especially in countries like Italy and Spain where they have siesta. Some countries have very high tax rates, though as an American who lived in a state with one of the highest tax rates (NYC), I was shocked to learn that my tax rate in the U.S was higher than in countries like Switzerland that actually have functional government systems (eg. healthcare, welfare). Also there’s a massive difference between European countries. Switzerland for example has automated checkout machines in grocery stores, whereas I never saw that nearby in Rome, Italy. Whereas countries like Switzerland and Estonia are highly efficient, Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece are notorious for having awful bureaucracies, and their economies are not exactly thriving.

The U.S is money-obsessed, workaholic, cutthroat, completely lacking in public transportation (outside of NYC you pretty much need a car everywhere), lacking in proper cities with most of the country looking like a giant strip mall / parking lot, outrageous levels of poverty and homelessness, dysfunctional ultra-polarized failing two-party government system where no one feels represented, failing government that can’t handle taking care of basic services like healthcare and education, and rampant guns and mass neverending shootings. Most Americans are not well traveled (63% of Americans do not have a valid passport). Perhaps the biggest achilles heal of America is that Americans delude themselves into believing that America is the greatest country on the planet, and due to this arrogance make no effort to learn from other countries even when America’s inferiority is completely and objectively obvious (eg. America’s healthcare system).

The U.S is very diverse with people of every ethnicity. Everyone (except for Native Americans) is an immigrant, it’s just a question of how far back your ancestors immigrated. This diversity is probably party responsible for the lack of empathy people have for one another as reflected in the lack of universal healthcare and welfare. The positive however is that racism is less rampant in the U.S, and anybody can choose to become an American (whereas no matter how long you live in Japan, you will never be considered Japanese).

American people do tend to be friendly, warm, and outgoing. I also find Americans more likely to be entrepreneurial and ambitious, particularly in cities like NYC and SF. The downside is that Americans tend to be significantly faker (eg. the stereotype of two American girls pretending to be so excited to see each other and talking about needing to make plans, but then never talk to each other again), and overly afraid to talk about “controversial” (ie. interesting) topics like politics. I find it significantly easier to talk about politics and other divisive topics with Europeans, whereas Americans are often completely uncomfortable to talk about those things, whether due to fear of offending other people or a strange emotional attachment to their beliefs. Also I think that Americans are more likely to be arrogant, lacking in empathy, and crazy (though crazy can sometimes be a good thing). In Europe and Asia you tend to have less of the extremes.

South American people are the warmest, most outgoing, most laidback, most physical, and most sexual. There is more gender polarity in South America than in western Europe or the U.S – where some feminists will go as far as to cry oppression when a man opens a door for them. South Americans are by far the best dancers, with Latina women having an incredible natural ability to move their hips. The nightlife in South America is the best. If Americans live to work and Europeans work to live, then South Americans are further on the “work to live” spectrum than the Europeans. Unlike with Germans or the Swiss, punctuality is not an expectation.

The downside is that this greater warmth also comes with greater fakeness. Colombian women are notorious for flaking because they try so hard to be polite that they’ll accept dates even when they don’t have any intention of showing up. My friend who lived in Medellin was frustrated when he’d repeatedly arrange meetings with this neighbor (to discuss a complaint) only to find the neighbor wouldn’t show up. The prioritization of life and fun means that intelligence levels seem to be lower on average. There’s a stereotype of men being more prone to commitment issues.

It’s hard to generalize South American countries because there is such enormous variation between cities like Sao Paulo and Bogota. But overall I was very impressed with cities like Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires, with parts of Sao Paulo often looking nicer than NYC. Bogota on the other hand is an objectively ugly and dangerous city. Overall however, South American countries have the highest poverty (eg. favelas), highest crime, and most corrupt governments.

I’ve found that poorer “third world” countries are often just as developed as first world countries, just cheaper and with lower salaries so imports are more expensive (eg. electronics). Cities like Kyiv and Belgrade look just as good if not better than many cities in the U.S and western Europe, just with prices at a fraction of the cost (again I prefer European cities to American cities because you don’t need a car in European cities due to walkability and public transportation). Despite salaries being significantly less in Kyiv and Belgrade, you will see few homeless people whereas in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and NYC you will see homeless people everywhere and sidewalks lined with tents. I think Americans would be shocked to see how well the rest of the world lives.

I think there’s a lot that countries can learn from each other. As an American, I hope that America will borrow the walkability and public transportation of Europe and Asia, the technological advancement, innovation, and high standards of Asia, the government competency, empathy, and healthy perspective on work/life balance freedom of Europe, and the warmth and fun of South America. America’s diversity, inclusion, culture of entrepreneurship, and friendliness are definitely strengths that would benefit from borrowing from the strengths of other cultures.

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