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Coming Back to America: Observations After Eight Years Abroad

The United States has become more like the rest of the world; that's not a good thing.

In December, Amazon released a sequel to the 1988 hit comedy Coming to America. Eddie Murphy plays an African prince named Akeem who returns to America after 30 years. The film is centered on nostalgia for the original, so when Prince Akeem comes back to the borough of Queens in New York he finds little has changed.

I, too, have recently returned to America after an extended stay abroad. Unlike Prince Akeem, however, I see many changes. I’m American but I’ve been living abroad since late 2012—most recently in Brazil and South Africa. Since my return, I’ve been noticing aspects of each of these countries appearing in America today.

One example of this I’ve noticed is a sharp decrease in the quality of customer service in America. Public institutions that did not function well even before the pandemic appear to have short circuited. That’s no surprise. What is more disappointing, however, is the performance of private companies. Products are out of stock, deliveries are delayed without explanation or apology, and inaccurate information is provided. COVID-19 is the perfect catchall excuse. If you complain, that must mean you don’t care if people catch the virus. After a particularly frustrating phone call with Ikea customer service about delays to the delivery of beds for our children, I yelled at my husband, “I feel like I’m back in South Africa!”

I’ve also noticed how much of every day is waiting in lines. In South Africa in particular, lines for all sorts of things are a normal and significant part of life. Since returning to America, I’ve been surprised at how much time I’m spending in long lines due to capacity limitations for COVID-19.

Another aspect of South Africa and Brazil that I’m noticing in America is lots of people employed to do pointless jobs. Once, while waiting in line at my bank in South Africa, I spent nearly half an hour watching five women sitting around a table, slowly and meticulously tearing up old financial documents. Apparently, my bank did not own a paper shredder. I was amazed. But how different is that from an employee in America whose full-time job is to tell people to pull their masks up over their noses? There were pointless jobs in America prior to the pandemic, but this now seems to have become nearly as widespread as it is in South Africa and Brazil.

Last year, French writer Michel Houellebecq said that the post-pandemic world would be the same, “but a bit worse.” He may be right. This is also an apt description of my life in South Africa and Brazil. It was very similar to my life in America, except “a bit worse.”

I very quickly adapted to life in South Africa and Brazil. Things that were utterly bizarre to me when I first arrived soon became perfectly normal. Thus, I worry that as Americans adapt to lower standards, we may not fully return to our pre-pandemic norms. The adjustments might not be very painful but that doesn’t make them any less undesirable.

There are also areas where South Africa and Brazil are ahead on trends where America may soon follow. I’m surprised at the amount of mail I receive here. The U.S. Postal Service has been a mess for years but seems to have reached new levels of disfunction during the pandemic. In South Africa and Brazil, mail is obsolete. The post offices in those countries have been too terrible for too long. People don’t send greeting cards. Anything important that can’t be delivered electronically comes via special delivery service.

Similarly, in South Africa and Brazil, police have been as good as non-existent for decades and crime rates are astronomical. Thus, everyone middle class and upward pays for private security. Guards, electric fences, and CCTV are essential to daily life and became normal for me. In fact, the lack of them in America feels naive. The activists behind the movement to defund the police are working relentlessly to make local police departments less effective and, as a result, crime rates are rising. How long will it be before electric fences go up around American houses?

When I moved out of America in 2012, I wasn’t a parent yet. I returned this year with three small children in tow. This has opened my eyes to another side of American life. I am amazed that most of the families we meet still enroll their kids in public schools—even schools that have been virtual for over a year now. How many more stories do they need to read about left-wing indoctrination or dismal learning outcomes? In Sao Paulo, I did not know a single family whose children attended public school. Bringing a child into the world is understood to be a commitment to paying private school tuition, which is not any less expensive there than here. (Home schooling is not legal in Brazil but growing rapidly anyway.) How long before American parents catch up to their Brazilian counterparts?

This willful ignorance about public schools is an example of the “anarcho-tyranny” of mainstream American parenting. I observe parents micromanaging their children’s behaviour during the relatively short periods of time they spend with them. They relentlessly remind their kids to say “please” and keep yelling “be careful!” or “slow down!” At the same time, these parents show an almost shocking level of disinterest in the most important influences in their children’s lives. If a public school has a good rating, then it must be fine. After all, the parents went to public school themselves and they turned out okay. If a day-care center is affordable and keeps your kid from running under a car, then that’s good enough.

I’ve noticed many changes in America that surprise or disappoint me. But there is one in particular that makes me feel quite sad: America has lost its self-confidence. As I gave my old friends the news that I was returning, they kept saying things like, “Why would you want to come back here?” This shift happened quickly. Even when I left in 2012, I think most Americans would have considered it self-evident that I would want to come home to the greatest country in the world.

I also notice that no one can say anything positive about America without tacking on a qualification, such as, “But we also have many problems here.” This reminds me of Brazil. There is a famous saying “Brazil is the country of the future,” to which Brazilians themselves like to add, “and it always will be.”

Whatever Americans may say about themselves, I think this is a wonderful country. The standard of living here is still so much better than other places, including western Europe. Houses are bigger and better quality. The prices, quality, and selection of products in stores is vastly better, even during the pandemic. I’ve sourced much of the furniture for our new house from local thrift stores and the quality of what I found there is much higher than what I could have bought new in other countries.

I’m particularly encouraged to observe masks are controversial in America. In Sao Paulo, where I lived until January of this year, everyone wears them all the time, even outdoors. Seemingly overnight, without any discussion, the entire city of 12 million people put them on. Even the homeless drug addicts who slept at the end of our street wore them. In America, the fact that someone—anyone!—is pushing back against masks is a healthy sign.

I recall the hubris of the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency, when we got entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan. People thought America could do anything. We’re much better off without that, but America’s current crisis of confidence feels like an overcorrection.

Emma Freire is a freelance writer who has been published in the Federalist, Human Events, and others. Over the past decade, she has lived with her husband and three children in Brazil, South Africa, and Europe, but she identifies as American.