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Wanna move to the USA? Here’s what went down in my first 100 days 

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Jason Levin is a born-’n-bred Joburger. As an entrepreneur, he lived and worked in his hometown all his life. He has a partner and a dog, and loves art, coffee and cycling. He is a voraciously patriotic South African-turned-global citizen.

So, what has it been like? Well, firstly some of the expected stuff stands out: the place is huge. Really huge. South Africa feels both far away and quite small. But South Africans do box above their weight class here.

Airport tears followed frantic packing, selling and disposing of what felt like our lives 100 days ago. Alongside a meaningful number of our contemporaries, we were off. And we have, now, hit 100 days of being resident in the USA. 

It was a long lead-up to this point. The journey took over five years, and was fascinating and frustrating for us, but also for our friends and families. So much South African attention swirls around “living somewhere else”, that if you’re doing it, have done it or are contemplating doing it, you will be overcome with opinions, input and questions. 

We had undertaken a number of recce trips leading up to moving to the US more permanently, but started the adventure in early 2024 with a five-week, 5,000-mile (8,000km) road trip to see parts of the country we hadn’t yet visited. We have now settled in booming south Florida. The US sunbelt is attracting masses of the country’s northerners with its good weather, beaches, lower taxes, “affordable” cost of living and Eastern time zone. 

So, what has it been like? Well, firstly some of the expected stuff stands out: the place is huge. Really huge. The long road trip we did hardly scratched the surface: the US is almost three times larger than Europe. And most aspects of life are large too: museums, conferences, farmers’ markets, “sidewalks” and highways are all oversized compared to most of the world.

And – as a direct benefit of being the leading industrialised nation in the world I guess – most of these are also very, very good. The museums are vast, well-resourced and sparkly. The markets have 260 stalls, not 60. Highways are four lanes each way, and in a great state of repair.

South Africa feels both far away and quite small. But South Africans do box above their weight class here. One comes across them for sure, and they have, generally, achieved a good degree of success. They also seem quite well liked. 

The US also has a distinct feeling of industriousness. Building, activity, humming and buzzing go on everywhere, almost all the time. Sometimes it’s roadworks, sometimes it’s an 80-storey skyscraper going up, sometimes it’s just large-scale leaf blowing. But there is a definite sense that things are getting done. In my South African microcosm, I worked hard and created things, but we were aware that outside of that, a lot of the “doing” had slowed to a trickle. 

In the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa, we grew up surrounded by American TV and pop culture. And it’s been such fun to see that lots of those things are (still) exactly like in cheesy ’80s movies: yellow school buses, pepperoni pizzas, garbage disposals, the ubiquitous one dollar bill, highway patrol cops (CHiPS!), Pop-Tarts, yard signs. All still here! 

Socially, we have found the people friendly. And unfriendly. Many of our friends have asked about this as if there is a blanket answer, but like everywhere else in the world, if you greet everyone you walk past, half will greet you back and half won’t. I’ve tried it, this is literally how it works.

On balance though, I would say this is a more transactional society. Especially for strangers or acquaintances: there is business to get done, and unless you are a close friend, it often feels like “the win comes first, the human second”. And of course, it all happens in different voices. Yes, they do pronounce things funny (read as not-that-correctly), and think that we are the ones who are wrong. “Are you British?” is common. 

Money definitely feels centric. It’s discussed a lot, and almost everything is expensive. Certainly much more expensive than in South Africa. In my estimation, between 50% more and five times more. That is, with the peculiar exceptions of Apple and some other tech products, cheese, bottled water, some seafood, greeting cards, certain brand-name clothing and cars (which are now only a bit cheaper). Oddly.

And air? Yes, that is charged for … if you’re filling your “tires” at a “gas station”, you’ll pay around R40 to do so. 

The scale of wealth is hard to fathom: homes in the $2-million to $10-million range are not at all uncommon. If you see a R190-million home in South Africa, it’s a full-on event, while here it’s just: “that’s nice”. The fact that aid of over $40-billion (roughly R760-billion) has been extended to Ukraine is a case in point.

Of course, it all spirals out to an insane level of national debt: a fact that everyone here works pretty hard to ignore. 

A huge premium is placed on convenience. Because most people here work such long hours: anything that provides ease-of-use is sought after. Automatic this, that and the next. Oversized washing machines ensure that laundry doesn’t have to be done unnecessarily frequently. Disposable plates used at dinner reduce washing up. Trash chutes in condo buildings mean you toss it in, and don’t have to haul it down. 

Healthcare is a problem. It’s exceptionally expensive (insurance, medication, doctors, everything) up to 10 times more than even private healthcare in SA … and, on balance, it doesn’t seem better. Many citizens have an ailment or six, and the barrage of TV ads touting remedies bear this out. This is a national concern, and it’s discussed a lot. 

Food is everywhere. Sweet fare is very sweet, savoury stuff is very salty. Good food is easy enough to find if you are orientated with an area, but there is lots of less-than-good fare around.

Portions aren’t as over-sized as they once were, but they’re often large. South Africans are spoilt with above-average quality food offerings (groceries and restaurants) at lower-than-average (by global comparison) prices. But R70 ($3.60) cocktails and R35 ($1.80) coffees are a distant memory here. Enjoy them, my countrypeople! 

Arts and culture are taken at least as seriously as in Europe: galleries, theatre, concerts, historic homes and heritage sites are properly funded and damn good. I have been more surprised by this than maybe I should have been.

Of course, sport is taken even more seriously: football, basketball, ice hockey. Massive. We got to attend a Super Bowl viewing party in early February hosted by a Kansas City Chiefs fan (the victors). It was epic, and you can feel that it is deeply ingrained in the culture. (Of course, the fact that American football is almost impossible for the layman to understand is beside the point.)  

Nature and parks are a real thing: the US boasts more than 3,700 state parks and at least 400 national ones. Even the most avid explorer will only ever get to a tiny percentage of those. And it may be part of the reason that so many Americans never leave their own country. Plus, there are really spectacular beaches: as good as I’ve seen anywhere, including island paradise resorts. 

But of course, it’s not paradise. It has problems and psychoses and crazies; just like anywhere else. And as a foreigner from an African country – getting by on “ZARs” initially – you’re definitely not at the top of any heaps.

But there is liberty, opportunity and really big burgers. So, the first 100 days have been exciting and exhilarating and confounding. And we look forward to settling in and flying the South African flag high 13,000km from home. DM

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  • Eduardo Fernández says:

    As a Latin American who has visited South Africa once (2016), before visiting the US three times (it is much closer), this is an interesting article. I have been to the US only for short periods (10 days, 19 days and one week in April this year 2024). I remember the first time: I wanted to return to my country (Ecuador) as soon as I could. Maybe it was the place (Orlando suburbia), but the environment seemed soulless to me, even though I had had a good time with relatives. My last trip was to New York and this is a city full of life and energy. Lots of people from Latin America live in the US, and many want to emigrate there. The United States of America didn’t surprise me. Almost everything I had seen in movies. But South Africa was a different story and, believe me, I haven’t found until now, friendlier, more helpful and more generous people like those I met in southern tip of Africa. Our countries can be called undeveloped, violent, emerging or whatever way they want, but we are full of life, culture and beauty. I don’t know if Mastercard has in English the same slogan than in Spanish, but I am going to write it here: There are things money can’t buy.

  • Johns No says:

    I’ve been waiting to pull the trigger forever. Your story sounds like a dream. Here’s a tip… when it comes to healthcare it might be cheaper for you to fly to SA and freeload with the others and get free care!
    It sounds like I’m joking but the cost of the flight MIGHT actually be a bargain and you get to visit friends and family!

    I think I have had my fill of SA. I’ve been watching my net income dwindle with interest hikes, increased levies, higher tax, and in general, more aggressive extraction of money from taxpayers at every possible opportunity that my bond has stagnated… I can’t pay it off! I used to pay multiples in advance but now I’m even borrowing!
    All this suffering is in service of a population that does NOT contribute labour OR tax yet every second sentence is “the poor need this, the poor.. the poor”.

    I was happy to look the other way but now it’s just a losing predicament. I’m sure even DM journalist reading this feel the pocket pain too… so hopefully my comment survives.

    I’ll be packing in the next 3 months, 6 tops. I fully intend to fly back for free healthcare! My fellow taxpayers can pay for me for a change while I chow their money on easy street! I’ll just pay for the flight.

    • Dee Gasa says:

      Lololol. Please, do come back for the free Healthcare. You can say South Africa atleast did that for you.

    • Bruce Q says:

      Hi John. And here’s a tip for you: The grass is not always greener on the other side.
      I’ve have spent many years (+/- 20) in North America – mainly Canada, but also the US and Mexico. My wife and I are moderately well off, so there was no financial hardship felt while living there.
      HOWEVER, there’s no place like home.
      And I can assure you that the cultural differences eventually become a serious impediment to happiness.
      Far from being “the land of the free”, we found the US to be the most regulated and restricted country we have ever lived in.
      No climbing on rocks!
      No alcohol with picnic!
      Do not impede fellow walkers!
      No this! No that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that…etc.
      Their sense of humour is just weird.
      And never take the “friendly invitation” offered by many to visit their home as being a sincere invitation – it’s not.
      We mistakenly accepted one on face value, and we’re met with a very awkward reception.
      And it’s EXPENSIVE.
      Your idea to travel back to South Africa for medical treatment is just silly.
      No airline takes passengers who have just suffered a heart attack, nor one with life threatening injuries from an accident. You’re just going to have to use the local medical facilities. So you had better budget for that.
      It sounds to me like you spend too much time listening to our local politicians and not enough time interacting with your fellow Saffers.
      This is a beautiful and unique country populated by beautiful and very special people. DON’T GIVE UP ON IT!

      • Stephen Paul says:

        “Don’t do this. Don’t do that”… Welcome to Aussie mate.

      • Lara Pienaar says:

        I lived in the US for almost 20 years. I always felt it’s a country with no soul. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I lived in a few different places too. Anyway I’m so happy to be back in South Africa. Plus, if you believe that part of your reason for being on this planet is to contribute and somehow make a difference to the world, South Africa is perfect for that. I love our people. I missed the mish-mash of cultures most of all. Our heart and our sense of humour. These are things money just can’t buy. So if what you want is safety, predictability and money, then sure go live somewhere in the US but if you want freedom, humour, heart, soul and meaning to your life, stay here instead. People hurt this country a lot by complaining about it so vociferously about it. Hi if you want to go but stop justifying it because it contributes to a culture of fear which leads to disinvestment and a brain drain.

    • Yahya Atiya says:

      People like you annoy me. İf you want to go, please do. That’s your choice. But don’t try to butter your bread in both sides. İt’s high time the SA government clamped down on all those holding their SA passports “just in case”.

  • Norman Sander says:

    I found the East Coast not so friendly, the middle of the country a bit gormless and uninformed and out West, I visited a friend who had a small farm with Pecan Nuts ( which he’d planted himself years before) in New Mexico. He also has property in Texas. His main business was specialist welding on oil rigs (he saves a fortune by rehabilitating drill heads, as opposed to the rig owners having to buy new).
    If you have skills that are in demand, then the opportunities are there. This friend was Captain of the US combat rifle team and South Africa has listed them as well as competing in the USA. We became friendly and on request I arranged a hunting trip for them, on a mates 22,000HA place in the Karoo, where I shoot Springbok for own use.
    Another friend started a plumbing business in LA.
    Saffers can do attitude make the USA a real land of opportunity. But, help yourself and don’t rely on corporates to make life really rewarding. I quadrupled my capital in 5 years working offshore (UK, Europe, West Africa).
    My advise is “hustle and capitalise on your skills” and you will be OK. People spend a lot in the 1st world. Get some of that spend for yourself.
    Saffers are trusted, another mate has an executive car valet service, targetting mostly high nett income individuals. They pick up, service, and re-deliver according to customer needs. They undertake all servicing for car owners, if required.

  • Agf Agf says:

    What an interesting and entertaining read in a Monday morning. A refreshing change from elections ad nauseum.

  • Temba Morewa says:

    I often visit the US for long periods and get the same feelings and have the same views. This article is so honest and accurate that I have to congratulate the writer. Thanks for the honesty. (Not often I see this in newspapers!)

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    Probably nothing wrong with America. Just keep America in America though, and if you’ve made the leap, fly their flag. Not ours. You’ve made a choice for whatever reasons suit your personal needs. No criticism, but adopt their policies, lifestyle and culture. The ones you chose over ours.

  • Kevan O'Donnell says:

    I was struck by the honesty of the article. No bitterness, no regrets. Makes a pleasant change from all the bile in which we swim at present.

  • Bill Gild says:

    Given the number of major conflicts worldwide, the parlous state of South Africa’s economy and the potential for civil unrest, and looming (if not already upon us) climate disasters that threaten humankind, I fail to appreciate the news-worthiness of one person’s account of his new life in the United States.

  • Samar Samar says:

    The US would be last in the list of countries I would consider emigrating to. I would not want to live in a country that is responsible for annexation, overthrow of sovereign governments, direct involvement or complicity in mass
    murder and genocides in various
    Countries. The debt to GDP ratio is the highest in the world, dedollarisation is happening exponentially, freedom of speech is a joke.
    Wtf were you thinking.

    • Charl Engelbrecht says:

      I’m guessing Samar don’t wanna.

    • Bill Gild says:

      Immigrate to. Emigrate from.

    • Johan Buys says:

      Samar: Do yourself a favor and look at the asset side of the balance sheet. US companies generate about 70% of global corporate profits. Americans own by far most of US sovereign debt.

      Obviously if you took your stance in investments this century, you would at this point be worth half as much as if you put half your retirement savings into NASDAQ, and that probably informs your rant.

      • Samar Samar says:

        American wealth is limited to a few oligarchs and technocrats. Most of the world sees that the American economy is in deep shit and all selling treasury bonds in a hurry, particularly China. American infrastructure is crumbling, it’s manufacturing capacity non-existent. You can listen to any prominent economist today and you will hear it- America is a falling empire. All the global south countries recognize this- they can get better loans from China. America is fuct. Europe is fuct. You can whinge about it all you like, but it won’t change the facts.

      • Samar Samar says:

        Brics contributes the highest GDP to the world economy. The US and it’s allies i.e the G7 are not the dominant economic force, the BRICS are. And lots of countries have joined BRICS and intend on doing so. 29% GDP- G7 and 33% GDP- BRICS.
        What will the West do..bomb the BRICS. That’s all they have, but guess what Russia and China have more nuclear weapons Vs. G7.
        What will America do?
        Sorry my blue eyed friends.
        Karma is a biatch.

      • Samar Samar says:

        Today the world’s central banks own only 58.41% of currency in dollars Vs 80-90% about 20 years ago. And the dedollarisation now is happening rapidly..as world sentiment goes against the dollar. The fact is most of the world is just sick of America’s bullying, and they have found a friend in China, where they get favourable loans and deals. America is hated everywhere but in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Unfortunately the global south is the majority.

  • Samar Samar says:

    Have a good life in the police state.
    Consider home schooling for the children. Some deranged punk may enter the classroom with a gift.

    • Tony Gomes says:

      Homicide rates: SA = 42 while USA = 6.4 murders per 100,000. Feel free to provide your own objective stats Samar, as opinions are cheap.

      • Samar Samar says:

        Mainly black on black crime. You won’t be affected as much in your cosy suburb. Most whites enjoy a highly privileged life in SA. That’s why you still here. You can beef up your security. You not a woman living in a shack in Alex. Stop playing victim.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    The word “wanna” just puts me off entirely without needing to move beyond the headline. Shades of Jim Cary.

  • Stephen Paul says:

    “Don’t do this. Don’t do that”.. Welcome to Aussie mate.

    • A Rosebank Ratepayer says:

      All depends on one’s character and how one was brought up; yearning for a nice, structured, protective environment, which most whites enjoyed before 1994, or a 1st principles, self reliant, self responsible attitude. My niece has moved back to Zim, loves the intense, highly social, can do lifestyle and one can make money – it’s all just very unstructured and requires different thinking, and not necessarily crooked. A very old school friend with huge resources who emigrated to Portugal – is begging us to come over for a visit because, “no one here knows our history”…
      The Brazilians say, “ let your money live in the snow while you live in the sun. “
      “State proofing”, see David Ansara, is a great way of thinking!
      2 kids are staying here, both in own businesses they started from scratch. The 3rd left the day she graduated to the UK.
      It all depends…

  • Samar Samar says:

    Alas! America. The falling empire. It looks like a village now as China flourishes.
    China can do anything, and it can do anything better than America today. And with not a drop of blood on their hands. That’s true civilisation.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Spot on! The Americans are often like Capetonians. Nice to chat to, but you will never get an invite for a braai at their homes. It’s not like Jhb, where you can crack an invite on the same day as meeting someone for the first time. Although, mid-Western States are more friendly and practical, LA is the superficial centre of the universe! Well put; the win first, humans second.

  • michael james says:

    Its not home or Africa

  • Graeme Bird says:

    My take out from a recent trip to LA is that despite the challenges we face in South Africa, life is way better in my hood on the north coast of Durban. Besides the likes of Beverly Hills or other uber weathly areas its pretty tacky on the whole and focus seems to be on each others homes rather than public spaces and infrastructure. Property (in fact everything) is also so ridiculously expensive that expecting to own or rent a home anywhere near the ocean is a pipe dream for all but the super rich. So don’t expect to move from South Africa and live anywhere near the lifestyle you’re used to. It’s also so huge with so many people that you’re nothing but a number, which leaves you feeling insignificant, claustrophobic and hemmed in by concrete. Although it offers much more culturally, it also has little of the beauty, nature and open space that comes with life on the east coast of Africa.

  • Johan Buys says:

    We lived there a few years and much resonates. My summary:

    1. If you thought you were well-off, go to US and you realize where you REALLY are in pecking order.

    2. The top ½ % of Americans are phenomenal. Then there is a very large, very below-average middle class and 5% at the bottom that have only misery ahead until they die. The economy runs on that top 1/2% making money every day from the other 99.5%. Most of SA top 10% do very well there.

    3. Customer Service is very good, but only where there is competition. Their public service is marginally better than here (driver licenses, IRS, INS, etc)

    4. The rule of law is absolute. Wish we had that here. Most people inherently do the right thing because, well, it is the LAW.

    5. You are right about food. Most of it is terrible, you will with few exceptions do much better at home because you CAN buy good ingredients. But that is the next thing – we host visitors at home for meals far more than most Americans. We had weird things. Loin tjops were unaffordable but leg of lamb was a bargain.

    “You’re welcome” will drive you nuts 😉

    Spare a thought for the emotions of your parents / grand parents / friends here – they will miss you and you WILL miss them at weird moments. Nothing is permanent, sort your plan B and see what happens next. You took a brave step that some idiots here are fast to underestimate and for that your family will be happy and proud of.

    • Samar Samar says:

      You took a brave step indeed..to be moving to a country on the verge of economic collapse. Give it 5 years. You took a brave step to be moving to a country that’s murdered millions in Cambodia, Vietnam, Iraq, Syria…the list is endless…
      Johan Buys get you TSH levels checked. You have Hashimoto’s encephalopathy.

  • Willem van Niekerk says:

    I came to the United States almost a decade ago. First Boston, then New York City (lived in Brooklyn, worked in Midtown Manhattan), and now Washington DC.

    My thoughts and comments certainly resonate with most folks in this comment section.

    As Johan Buys said, think again if you believe you are well off. My apartment in Brooklyn was 37 square meters for R 37,700 (based on the average 14.50 to the USD exchange rate in 2017).

    That is but one example. I was far ‘wealthier’ living in Johannesburg than here. When people see ‘America’ on T.V., it is the 1%, and I often tell Americans that we have far more luxury cars on the road than they do.

    The only places where you regularly see Bentleys, Ferraris, Rolls Royces, and the like are out west in L.A. or Florida, which have similar ‘nouveau riche’ cultures as we do in South Africa.

    Your average American drives a Ford F-Series, followed by a Chevrolet Silverado and the Toyota RAV4. Hyundai, Kia, and Mazda are also very popular.

    Yes, there are German brands, but on your average drive in South Africa, you will see far more luxury brands than on your average drive in a U.S. city or interstate highway.

  • Willem van Niekerk says:

    The USA has its problems like everyone. The government is slow (it is not just us in South Africa; governments are a grindstone that turns slowly EVERYWHERE).

    Corruption also exists, yet I came to realize that in the U.S., you’ll get a tender for $100 million to resurface a highway, and you’ll ‘chow’ perhaps $2 million and do the work for $98 million. You chow the 98 in South Africa and build the road for 2.

    Healthcare here is a market, not a system. I had a routine minor surgery and was under for less than 30 minutes and left the hospital immediately afterward, resulting in a total bill of R 722,890. I still had to ‘co-pay’ almost R 20,000 because my insurance didn’t cover it.

    I appreciate the rule of law for the most part. Despite what you see in the media, the police are courteous and really do arrive within minutes when you call 911.

    I had my first real encounter with them two weeks ago when an aggressive beggar thought that I was just another American guy, and we got into an altercation.

    Needless to say, he lacked the courage of his convictions and severely underestimated his hand-to-hand combat abilities. As people called 911 and he cried for an umbrella as the RPKs were raining down on him, the D.C. P.D. arrived in three minutes and arrested the mugu promptly.

  • Willem van Niekerk says:

    The American government’s vastness and defense spending continues to impress me, especially since I moved to D.C.

    Friends and family often ask me if I fear living in D.C. as it’s the Federal Capital and a target for foreign aggressors. There will always be the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist scenario and the crazy public shootings. Still, most people have no idea how well-equipped and managed the American industrial-military complex is.

    On June 4, 2023, a wayward and unresponsive Cessna aircraft flew over D.C. The city is a no-fly zone except for authorized and military aircraft. I remember sitting at my desk, hearing a loud bang, and wondering what it was.

    Once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) confirmed the plane was unresponsive and headed straight for D.C., the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) contacted the U.S. Air Force and, within less than 4 minutes, scrambled a fighter jet from Andrews Airforce Base (the military equivalent of Waterkloof Airforce Base) outside the city to shoot the aircraft down if necessary.

    At the same time, the D.C. and Virginia National Guards were put on high alert, ready to roll into the city within the hour if this was a possible attack.

    There were also unconfirmed sightings of SAM (surface-to-air missile) sites deploying on top of the buildings surrounding the White House. I’m still in awe of the coordination and infrastructure of the U.S. Military, needless to say.

  • Willem van Niekerk says:

    Stories aside, it’s a vast and complex country with its own problems. What you see on T.V. is mostly New York, LA, and Miami. The country is a collection of immigrants (as much as they don’t want to acknowledge it), and it’s genuinely unique from region to region or even state to state.

    It has become home, but a fair warning to everyone, unless you completely assimilate and spend 50 years here, you’ll always be a bit of an ‘inside-outsider,’ never entirely fitting in.

    It is not easy, especially the first year, and you’ll feel you are re-learning EVERYTHING in your life: where to go for this, where to get this, where this road leads to… It can be exceptionally frustrating.

    I’ve been fortunate to have lived in the UK, France, and India before coming to the U.S. My grounding argument will always be: “People are people, governments are governments, we are more alike than different, and everyone tries their best to pursue life, liberty, happiness, and a future for the next generation,” no matter where you go.

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