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Reverse Culture Shock: Politics

Political discussions

We’ve watched a volcano erupt, rode camels through the hot Gobi Desert, and weathered a Force-12 storm in the unpredictable Drake Passage, but none of that prepared us for our scariest adventure yet:

Returning to the US at election time.

We’ve been asked repeatedly since our return to the US about reverse culture shock, and no topic is more requested than what we think of the election.

We’ve been watching from afar these past 2 years, reading US news sources but also international ones, and of course listening to the opinions and ideas of people around the world about our country. In our travels we’ve seen programs and initiatives that really work, and we’ve seen horrible failures. We can learn from both.


We can’t imagine how those of you who live in the US have been able to stand the months of negativity and “the world will end if you vote for that candidate” hysteria. We had forgotten just how crazy it gets.

Many countries have more than 2 political parties. Candidates know they have to work together at some point because they will  rarely have a majority. It forces them to play well together, or at least appear to play well together.

In the United Kingdom, election dates are set by the Parliament, which then “dissolves” for a few weeks until the election. It gives the candidates time to state their platforms, run on their records, and otherwise entice votes. After the election, Parliament is quickly reestablished and life goes back to normal.

Can you imagine just a few weeks of photo ops, dramatic commercials, and name-calling? It would be almost bearable. As it is now, some people are perpetually running for office, and those who are elected start thinking of their next campaign almost immediately. It makes you wonder how they ever get anything else done.

Politics doesn’t have to be hateful. Officials can disagree and still respect each other. Negotiation and bipartisanship means giving a little and getting a little, which would be easier to accomplish if we had more than 2 parties vying for majority.

It’s not about an individual official ‘winning’ or taking something away from the other side; it’s about achieving more for our country as a whole.

Civil rights

Did you know gay people can legally marry in Colombia? It’s a pretty macho culture, and despite this they have recognized the right of consenting adults to create homes and lives together with the same benefits as heterosexual couples.

Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Spain, South Africa, Mexico, Portugal, England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Ireland also have some form of legally recognized marriage for gay adults.

My heterosexual marriage has never caused my gay friends to question their sexuality, so I have no doubt the reverse will also be true.

Gay people will love, fight, raise children, cheat, celebrate milestone anniversaries and divorce in the same percentages as heterosexual people do. This already happens in other countries with hardly a flutter of notice. As a melting pot country proclaiming freedom and personal liberty, we’re not walking the talk when it comes to the rights of our gay citizens. I hope we correct that soon.

Healthcare and Insurance

By far, this is the single biggest issue people from other countries discuss with us. They can’t imagine how the richest country in the world can leave its citizens without access to affordable healthcare. One memorable quote is “I don’t understand why your people aren’t rioting in the streets over this!” They are also surprised to find out our health insurance is generally tied to our jobs, and changing jobs could leave you in the lurch medically due to lapses in coverage and pre-existing conditions. They don’t understand what your job has to do with your healthcare.

We were pretty insulated in our view of healthcare before we left. Like most people, we just accepted it as the way things were. After seeing – and using – healthcare systems around the world, our eyes have been opened. We’ve never waited as long to see a doctor in other countries as we did in the US. We’ve never gotten lab results or test back as quickly as we have outside the US. And in all instances, we’ve had good, quality care from practitioners who spend time with us, even emailing us after appointments to make sure we understand our results and medications. We’ve paid cash for every affordable medical and dental visit.

We’ve questioned our new friends and people we meet on our travels about healthcare in their countries, and they are generally positive. Not a single person we’ve talked to wants to convert to the US system of healthcare. In fact, many people are discouraged from even traveling here because of the high cost of travel insurance and healthcare for the US.

(Warren and I pay more for 2 months of coverage visiting the US than we do for 10 months’ combined coverage for every other country in the world.)

I don’t understand putting politics ahead of the basic health of your citizens, especially when it impacts everything in a society: the ability to work, pay taxes, and raise families, not to mention the strain on our hospital resources from uninsured patients and the high cost of reimbursing those hospitals.

Women in the World

Women have excellent healthcare in Western Europe, and their healthcare decisions are their own. They have lower infant mortality rates than us (we rank #34 in the world, just behind Cuba) and longer lifespans (82.76 years in the EU vs. 80.9 in the US). Prostitutes in The Netherlands even have a formal health plan.

We’ve seen in Ecuador  and other emerging economies what happens when women aren’t able to control their bodies. These typically indigenous women don’t have family planning options, so they have more children than they want or can afford and live shorter lives.

In terms of politics, women hold more political offices in Europe and in many places in the world than in the US. We currently rank 80th place in percentage of elected offices held by women, tied with Morocco and Venezuela at 17%. We lag behind countries like Rwanda, Cuba, and Uzbekistan.

In our own travels, we watched a woman run for president in Peru. We twice visited Germany, which has been led since 2005 by Chancellor Angela Merkel. President Cristina Kirchner has led Argentina since 2007. The Prime Minister of Thailand is Yingluck Shinawatra, who had to jump in right after the 2011 election to manage the intense flooding damage in Bangkok. The Prime Minister of Denmark, a country routinely topping the quality of life lists, is Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

If women are trusted to run entire economies, I’m fairly certain they can manage their own body parts without government oversight.


Until you’ve had to chew your air, you won’t appreciate the benefit of government oversight of precious assets in our environment. We were in China for 3 months, and we can count on one hand the clear days with no visible air pollution. People wear face masks on a regular basis, and there are days when children and old people are advised to stay indoors due to poor air quality.

My eyes burned every day we were there, and I had a nagging cough until we reached Mongolia.

In Thailand and Laos, rice farmers are allowed to burn their fields in the spring, polluting the air so bad for miles around that children can’t play outside for recess.

In Peru, trash is piled high along gorgeous rivers and mountains because there are few adequate trash disposal systems in rural areas.

Access to clean water is a challenge in many countries, with animals allowed to graze in the same water humans drink. The water in some areas of China is a fluorescent green from all the chemicals dumped without restriction from factories.

These are the kind of assets you can’t easily regain once gone. There is plenty of room to make money and build business without wrecking the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the beautiful landscape of our country.

Being #1

This trip has made us even more patriotic than we were before we left. The US does a lot of things really well. But like a big family, we are not blind to each other’s faults, and where the US can do better, we should.

Just saying we’re #1 won’t make it true, especially when we rank so far from #1 on important issues like infant mortality but top the list on annual per capita healthcare costs.

We can learn from other countries, both by what works for them and where they fail. But if we’re not paying attention to them, even on issues that don’t directly impact us, we’ll never pick up these lessons. We can’t be #1 by only thinking about ourselves.

You may not be gay, female, of childbearing age, poor, sick, or lack health insurance. But you are human, and I know that by reading this site you want more out of your life.

I’m probably preaching to the choir, but on the off chance you aren’t planning to vote so other people can have the same opportunity for health and happiness you do, I urge you to reconsider.

You can’t fulfill your own dreams while at the same time denying others the right to pursue theirs.

We’re Married with Luggage, and we approve this message.

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About Betsy

Betsy Talbot can't live without a Moleskine notebook, her passport, and happy hour. She sold everything she owned to travel the world with her husband Warren in 2010, and she's been enjoying her midlife crisis ever since. Betsy writes about creating the life you want from the life you already have in her books and on the Married with Luggage website. Drop her an email at btalbot (at) marriedwithluggage (dot) com and check out her Google+ page.


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