What if I was born in America?

Last updated 11:06 16/03/2012

I've been playing this game with myself recently, projecting how my life might have been different had I been born in America.

My father was a teacher, spending a long stint as a deputy headmaster at a large private boys' school in Otahuhu in Auckland, followed up with a decade as a headmaster at a well-regarded boys' private prep school in Havelock North.

My mother had the horrible job of looking after four children born within seven years. Having children in this country is much more expensive than it is in New Zealand. Without health insurance the birth alone costs around $10,000.

Private school headmasters in the USA is compensated at a much higher rate than their New Zealand equivalents. So this could have worked handsomely in our family's favour. But the private school headmaster in the USA is considered to be more of an executive, and the jobs are comparatively scarce and harder to get to. 

If my father never became a headmaster, the road might have been more perilous as a teacher. The OECD says that the American teacher works more teaching hours than any other country, on a pay scale that increases at a slower rate than many other places. The profession has a high rate of burnout here and teachers face demoralising budget cuts across the country.

So who knows if my father would have found the same income security and job satisfaction that he did? Or maybe, faced with the demands of providing for a family in a country without the same safety nets,he might have chosen a more lucrative field that he was not so passionate about.

So there's less certainty, here. Which puts more importance on to where we were physically raised. I spent the first seven years of my life in Otahuhu, a suburb of our country's largest city with its own problems with crime and gangs. The closest American equivalent would be Harlem or Compton, but that's probably not a fair comparison.

I moved to Havelock North when I was seven and lived there until I was 17. It is as prosperous as it is largely because of its natural resources and its proximities to Wellington and Auckland, but in American terms it could really be small town X, situated anywhere between Oregon and North Carolina that could support vineyards.

I wonder too, whether in this alternate reality my parents would have still been able to send their four children to private schools, which over here have exorbitant tuition costs. Private schools are also more exclusive in the USA. We might've been collectively thrown into the large public schools system and in the wrong circumstances, slipped through the cracks.

So already, by the time I'm 17, in this alternative American reality there are several greyer areas and risks, and I would've had to work much harder than I did, in order to overcome potential geographic and economic disadvantages.

Universities are much more hierarchical in the USA: there're the Ivy Leagues, a level of more elite private and state schools, the large party schools, the tech schools, community colleges, and so on. I didn't work that hard in my last year at school, because in retrospect I knew that I only had to limp over a certain marker and I would have automatic entry into whatever Bachelor of Arts program I fancied. New Zealand's five major universities have different strengths and emphases, but they're considered to be of the same grade and quality.

If I didn't work harder in the USA, and get into a better school, this would then harm my chances in the job market. I'd probably be repaying a much steeper student loan too, upon graduation. American tertiary education is exponentially more expensive, I know this from experience. I worked out recently that I could fund my child to live and study and travel to New Zealand for their entire undergraduate education for about the same price as a single year at a private American school.

I also had two surgeries when I was 17, which would have placed a much harder financial burden on my parents. But we've already tackled health insurance.

Who knows where I would then be upon graduation? Would I have been so financially burdened that further postgraduate study would've been completely out of the question? Would I have surrendered myself at this point to the American predilection for spending considerably beyond my means? Given the smaller percentage of Americans that have a passport, would I have still travelled as I did? It would probably be just as unrealistic in either world for me to be a homeowner by the time I was 27, but might I have given into the flood of cheap mortgages and now be facing foreclosure?

A little bit of fantasy projection for you today, but I think it raises a good point. The potential for geographic, economic and systemic disadvantage grows disproportionately as you move down the totem pole of privilege in the US. In New Zealand, this is definitely not so pronounced. We're a little more egalitarian by design. 

So how might your life have been different?         

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P   #1   11:35 am Mar 16 2012

I almost certainly wouldn't have done a PhD if I lived in the US. Firstly, extra coursework is required that can stretch the time it takes to complete by a few extra years. Secondly, the fees would be hard to contend with. Thirdly, the student/supervisor hierachy seems to be harsher than in NZ.

These are probably reasons why I've met heaps of American's doing their post-grad study in New Zealand.

fishboy   #2   11:37 am Mar 16 2012

Trust me, Otahuhu is nothing like Harlem or Compton. A good little white boy like you would not have survived in either of them! Auckland does not equate with L.A. and certainly doesn't equate with NY.

Pacific Londonder   #3   12:26 pm Mar 16 2012

I think you're painting a slightly distorted picture of NZ, especially when you conclude that "we're more egalitarian by design". It smacks of some of that self-congratulating sentiment us expats are often guilty of.

The gap between rich and poor in recent decades is not something NZ can be particularly proud of. NZ has taken the market economy to places that American and European economists could only dream of and alongside many of the very real economic successes that have been achived sits a social mobility climate that for some is hardly egalitarian at all.

I've lived in both NZ and the USA and there are of course some huge differences between the two. But NZ is no egalitarian cake walk, despite what we like to tell ourselves. My family are from south Auckland too (Otahuhu in fact) and perhaps a more interesting exercise would be asking the question, "What if my life opportunities remained the same as the majority of kids raised in Otahuhu, Onehunga or Mangare, kids whose worlds are the part of the country that doesn't feature in the 100% Pure NZ ads?" http://pacificlondoner.blogspot.com/

Howard   #4   12:27 pm Mar 16 2012

First time I've ever heard Kings' College referred to as a "large private boys' school in Otahuhu"!

Mikey   #5   12:27 pm Mar 16 2012

Your values system might be different too James. I recently read a review of a book that sounds fascinating. It is called "Fairness and Freedom" by David Hackett Fischer and discusses the difference in the values of New Zealanders (we apparently value fairness very highly) and Americans (who apparently value freedom more highly) and the possible reasons why those differences in values exist. It sounds a brilliant read, and I plan to buy a copy as soon as it becomes available on this side of the Pacific. Tyler Cowan has named it his non-fiction book of the year, and the Washington Post also praised it:


Charlotte   #6   12:36 pm Mar 16 2012

My parents (and therefore myself and older sister) lived in the US when I was 2 for a year. I actually don't remember it (except for Disneyland) but as my Dad worked in a hospital I don't think health insurance would have been an issue. We moved back to NZ as my mother did not want to give birth to my brother in the US. University-wise it would have taken me a lot longer do get a degree in my chosen profession as I am pretty sure it is a post-graduate degree, much like medicine and law in the US.

Missed opportunity...   #7   12:59 pm Mar 16 2012

My parents lived in the states on and off until I was 5. I'm fairly certain I'd be a professional baseball player by now if they'd stayed.

That would've been cool.

Trish   #8   01:33 pm Mar 16 2012

Pacificlondoner, until you've really experienced the American psyche you can't understand how un- egalatarian they are. It's like when I'd only ever been to Australia and NZ (Australian, with a Kiwi Mum) I thought that commenting on how friendly everyone is was just something travellers said to everyone. But it turns out we really are a whole lot more friendly than most other countries.

Now, on the topic of American schools, the vast majority of them are horrified at the thought of school funding being on a state level so that all kids get the same funding. They ( largely) want their tax money to be spent on their kids, not on those other poor people's children. They really truly link money with worth. It's sickening. Of course, not all of them are like that - I live there and surround myself with Americans who are as disgusted by that attitude as I am, but they are a minority.

kiwi in cal   #9   02:27 pm Mar 16 2012

otahuhu vs compton is a bogus comparison. even the brothers in compton know better than to walk on the wrong block day or night....let alone a white guy. they do drivebys all the time. do you know how many guns are in those towns.

we had a baseball game that went into extra innings in compton so we were there after dark, plus we won so we had to come back there several times (we were mostly white kids) dude, i rolled through every stop sign, timed every light, never came to a complete stop, kept my head on a swivel until i hit the freeway. there were thugs on nearly every street corner. real ones.

my folks owned a grocery store in south akld. it was never that bad.

plus the racial mix is different. if you are saying otahuhu is predominately full of islanders/maoris/poor white folk, well compton and harlem is mostly black and hispanic. there are more islanders in long beach, carson, san diego, and sf.

if its not a fair comparison, then why make it. i guess you get props for not saying oakland. i think you owe otahuhu an apology.

@fishboy #2   #10   02:56 pm Mar 16 2012

I've just finished reading a book by a white man studying the poor in East Harlem. He lived there for about 5 years and spent most his time studying a group of drug dealers he made friends with. He actually say's in the book that he was at an advantage being white because people left him alone assuming he was either an undercover cop or a crack addict with no money. The people who harrassed him the most were actually the police who again assumed he was a crack addict.

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