What Europeans don’t know about America

Since they are very little, Europeans use the term “America” to refer to the country of America, that land across the ocean where surfers ride the waves in California and where the Statue of Liberty stands as a proud symbol in New York. They hear of American political events on TV, or of Hollywood films with their internationally famous actors and of course good ol’ American pop music. To many Europeans, America is a country like any other, just a little bigger perhaps.

Back in America, the citizens also call themselves Americans and also feel they live in a country. Theirs is bigger than a European country but has all the same features as a European country does: A government, a national hymn, schools… It’s the same difference, just that one is larger in size.

But there is a second opinion to consider: that both Europeans and Americans use the word “country” while not exactly meaning the same thing.

In the mind of a European, a country (or a Nation State) is a space in which they expect to belong and to receive certain services. The State organizes and helps citizens navigate through things such as driver’s licenses, marriage certificates, ID cards or schools. There is a dialog that is available with a representative of the State and which can be found in your “mairie” for France, “commune” for Belgium, “local council” for England, or “Rathaus” for Germany. A European may easily go to the local constabulary and file a claim pertaining to a robbery or simply to seek protection.

The State is visible and accessible to a European and a dialog with a real human person can be done by simply waiting in line for your turn. The State also has a say on doctors, dentists, veterinarians, universities and all legal professions. You can comfortably go to either one with the full knowledge that they are State-approved.

There is a feeling of belonging to a State that is palpable and visible. It is not overbearing, but it is available should you need it. The country is unified by the same rules, except for local regulations that have a say in the practicalities of everyday life.

In America however, things are quite different. Because of its size alone, it should perhaps be more rightly defined as a Continent than as a country. Though the 300 million Americans have in common a President, a Constitution and a language, their relationship with the State is far less perceptible or even available. What is, after all, the American State in practical terms?

When I came over as an “alien” to marry my now spouse and seek permanent residency, I was surprised to discover that there was no place to go hand-in-hand as a happy couple to speak to a representative of America. If the situation was reversed, I would go to my local European council and say “This is my American wife, may we have the necessary documents and some advice please?” Instead, we dealt with an elusive organization by the name of USCIS that took many months to process our file while we waited close to two years to finally receive my right to stay.

When at long last I received a social security number through the mail, my wife and I both looked at each other and concluded “I guess this is good news? Perhaps the next step is a Green Card?”

During these two years, there was no conversation, no advice, to updates, no word whatsoever as to what the organization was doing. Worse still, it wasn’t even in our State of Connecticut! It was in Chicago, which is one of the 5 only centers that process immigration documents for the whole of America. It was a waiting game that seemed to go on forever and whose actual process was as mysterious as it was opaque. After all, what warranted such a long waiting time? What were they even doing considering there’s only so much info you can give about yourself: your height, the name of your parents, where you had lived… Two years? Really?

Most remarkable to me is the size of the industry that grafted itself onto this government service. In the absence of a dialog, many professionals sold the service of having had that dialog and of knowing the thoughts of the American State regarding immigration. They were specialized lawyers, immigration websites, Youtube channels, website bloggers… all earning money on the on the nonexistence of a citizen-to-State relationship.

Quite by chance, we used one of them ourselves. As kind as they were, they often admitted to the limitations of their knowledge and the subjective nature of immigration file processing. It is thanks to them that we learned that we had paid the “wrong” immigration organization despite having followed to the letter the instructions on the official State website. We had mistakenly submitted our documents as being “outside” of America instead of “inside”. It seemed that one could apply for a “Change of Status” while not actually being in America, an option we had never considered remotely logical. Was it not like saying “Help I need a life jacket” while not actually being in the lake, but on dry land? Why would a person apply for…? Oh forget it!

More recently, while having my foreign academic credentials verified to work in Connecticut it was not done locally or even by a State-run service. It had to be done through a private Limited Company all the way down in Florida! Compared with England, I received my right to teach in all schools nationally after sending in scans of my foreign academic credentials by email. Only the State of England had the right to decide who was qualified. In this case, the Limited Company in Florida seems to be able to charge whatever they like and take no responsibility if they lose your original diplomas or damage them. Again, there is no recourse, no one to speak to, no dialog with the State.

I could go on for a long while enumerating the differences between the notions of European and American States: relationship with the police, proximity with the State governors, marriage process, weapons policy… though I feel I would come to the same conclusion which is that the European State is a notion that one can easily describe and have access to. The American version of the State would be somewhat more elusive and lost in the magnitude of it all.

Until they’ve experienced it for themselves, Europeans will view America as a larger country comprised of regional territories called States. It is only later that they will understand that the individual State is the country. And even then, they will struggle to find the equivalent relationship with State officials as they have at home.

Naturally, neither case is bad nor good. A small Nation-State of Europe cannot be compared to the vast territory of America, nor to its History. A quick comparison on a map says it all. Could a European-type of State representation even be possible in America? That is a question for more knowledgeable people than myself.

When I go home and Europeans ask me what America is like, I will have to answer their questions with a slightly condescending “restating of the terms”. Just as a seasoned traveler who knows much more of the big City than the simple country folks, I might slowly pack my pipe, sigh, look into the distance and say: “Well, it all depends what you mean by America. Let me explain…”

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