What would you see if you looked at America with fresh eyes? I’ve been abroad for 16 months and stopped back in for a few weeks to take care of some stuff and I expected a bit of culture shock, but it wasn’t about what I thought. So what have I learned about the United States by being gone for almost a year and a half?
We can’t cross the road
Have you ever tried to cross a street that doesn’t have a light? Forget about it. My first day in Vietnam I was overwhelmed by the motorbikes – there are approximately 37 MILLION bikes in the country. At one point during the day, I actually went into a corner coffee shop because I was just too scared to cross the road. Then I trusted people when they said to just walk. Cross and keep a normal pace and drivers will watch for you and avoid you. And it works. I personally never had even a close call, nor have I heard of anyone who has. Something that I would never feel confident in saying at home. Which brings up the fact that…
We’re TERRIBLE drivers
I mean, seriously. I’ve always heard people say that Californians can’t drive, or it’s scary to drive in Boston or whatever, but the truth is we all suck. The beauty of having less rules and more chaos on the roads in other countries means you actually have to pay attention instead of dipping your fries while getting a high score on Candy Crush and swiping right on the latest hottie. We need to get our heads out of our apps (and purses and snacks) and just pay attention.
In Sri Lanka I rented a motor-bike and was amazed at how terrifying yet safe it felt to drive around. Amid the madness, at one point a driver reached out the window to wave his arm for me to stop. I was confused at why, until I stopped and saw a pedestrian was crossing and he knew I couldn’t see her. Now THAT’s paying attention.
We like ice, and our drinks COLD
Anyone who asks what I miss most from home gets the same answer, and usually seems pretty surprised that the answer isn’t family or friends or even bacon. It’s ice. Well, also bacon. But ice. At first I wrote it off to being in random parts of Asia where ice machines haven’t even become a twinkle in a street vendor’s eye. But even as I’ve gotten to Europe and gotten one piddly cube when I ask for an iced anything, I realized it’s not them, it’s us.
I got really excited at one stop in Russia because I saw a Cinnabon. Aside from the fact it was Cinnabon, I thought I could finally get an iced coffee, it being an American brand and all. I used Google Translate to order and the lady looked at me like I was crazy, but then had an a-ha moment and rushed off. I was smiling ear-to-ear, elated to get an iced coffee after so long, and on a hot day. But then she came back, grinning with pride, with what she assumed I had meant – a hot latte and a plate with four ice cubes. She was so happy with unlocking my mysterious order that I smiled and took it. Now all I can wonder is what she tells her friends about how weird Americans are.
We tip EVERYONE
We know this, but like, e-v-e-r-y-one. Servers and bartenders, sure. Taxi drivers and sho shiners and the stranger who smiled at you on the street? It’s getting out of control. I mean, let’s not let this turn into a minimum wage discussion, but just know that as much as you’re annoyed to tip your barber every time for fear that he controls the fate of your hipster mustached, visitors from abroad have to add tipping into their budgets to visit us.
We are good hand washers
Good job guys. Just about anything can go down in a public restroom anywhere in the world, but one thing you hardly ever see in the US is someone leaving without hitting the hand sink, with soap, first. Some people are ridiculous and won’t touch the door handle after and that’s a bit much for me, but I’m much happier to have that person preparing my food than the one with a quizzical look when I say soap or rub my hands together as the international hand gesture.
We’re so gosh-darn friendly
Every once in a while stereotypes are positive, and I’m happy for us to have this one. And we can’t compare to Canadians with their niceness, but I have had several people comment to me while I’m abroad, “you’re so American.” What makes them think this? Because I smile at strangers on the street and offer a “hello” or a head nod. This was confirmed when I came back home and again people were saying “bless you” to sneezes and holding doors open. Within hours of being in New York, I was recharged with smiles and helpfulness.
We aren’t very affectionate
We may be friendly, but only if we don’t have to touch each other. One of my favorite things in Asia was noticing how many pairs of friends walk around hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm, regardless of gender. And though I’ve had some very close calls of hitting hello kisses in Europe right on the mouth, you greet people – friends and strangers – with some variant of a hug and kiss(es) on the cheek(s). A departing friend gets the same treatment. But for us, it seems we only reserve the cuddles for romantic relationships and dramatic bon voyages.
We have such a sad state of ground transportation
I write this post on a b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l German train, with Wi-Fi, heading across the country from Berlin to Munich. One of several trains that will make this trip today. With thousands of passengers who are happy to move quickly and comfortably across the country. When I get there, there will be an integrated and cheap rail and bus network to get anywhere I want in the city. Meanwhile, back home one trip on the light rail that only kind of gets me close to where I’m going is $4.50 (aka the total I spent for an unlimited rail and bus pass for three days in Moscow).
Some cities are exceptions to this (thank you very much New York and Boston), but can we stop blocking government efforts to establish a high-speed rail network, and make the systems connect with each other? Pretty please? I won’t be back for a few years, so you guys have some time.
We count differently
At least as far as buildings go. What would you call the floor above the ground floor of a building? I’d call it the second floor, but in many countries in Europe and Asia, it’s the first. Not only is this confusing on elevators, but even more disappointing when someone tells you that you have to go up the stairs to the fifth floor, because really, you’re going to the sixth.
We like variety
American food = international variety. When I got home and had satisfied my ice, iced tea and biscuit cravings, I really struggled when people wanted to meet me for a meal. They were all so gracious to let me pick, assuming I was missing something American. But the truth of it is, what I love about our food options is the variety. So the first place I picked was pho, then Mexican. Then more Mexican, because let’s be honest world, you haven’t gotten their food mastered yet.
We eat and drink on the go
I’m not just talking drive-thrus. Grabbing a snack and eating on the run is such a commonplace thing. Sure I’ll grab a coffee while on my way somewhere, enjoy it in transit and finish it wherever I arrive. But that is so much less common around the world – if you’re grabbing a coffee or a snack, you sit down and enjoy it right there. I’ve been challenging myself to stop snacking and running and have really appreciated taking the time to actually enjoy my meal or treat, rather than it being one of 10 things I’m multi-tasking on at the same time.
We know what “included” means
“Nothing is free here. This isn’t America.” Said the delightful treat of a woman working the McDonald’s in the Amsterdam train station at 4:00 am. I had a series of follies leading to me catching a 5:00 am train and I decided that I should start the day with something in my stomach other than frustration, so I grabbed breakfast at the only place that sees 4:00 am without serving alcohol and grabbed an Egg McMuffin. She handed it to me and when I looked around for ketchup, she disdainfully told me it would be another 50 cents, implying I was looking to expand my freebie racket to include ketchup packets.
Sorry lady, but you’re right, ketchup shouldn’t be free. But what kind of
commie human eats an Egg McMuffin without ketchup? That’s not free. That’s included. Because it’s a necessary part of the “meal.”
We like unlimited
In the same vein, we like to pay one price for things, and skip the limits. A few amusement parks I’ve visited around the world seem so cheap to get in, but then surprise! You have to pay for each ride. What? I’m sorry, if I’m dealing with the crowds at Disneyland, I am definitely riding Space Mountain at least four times, so this pay-per-ride just isn’t going to work.
We are getting hosed on cell service and Wi-Fi
“Is that in US dollars????” I asked when I got back to the States and was checking out sim card costs. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we are getting absolutely screwed when it comes to how much we are paying for internet and cell service. Like, really screwed. I typically end up grabbing a sim card in each new country because it’s so reasonable, but I didn’t expect it to be so cheap. How cheap you ask? Well, I thought Vietnam was great at 9 GB of data for $4, but Kazakhstan came in with 15 GB for $3 and then Kyrgyzstan crushed that with 30 GB for $2. I’ll let that sink in.
We also overcharge for convenience
We’ve all bought a beer at a baseball game or thought about taking a second mortgage on our house to get a snack on plane. The prices are absolutely ridiculous. And I thought that was just standard around the world – if you are at an event or in some form of transportation, food and beverage is 10 times the price, right?
No. Not at all. I had to break myself of the urge to pack a day’s worth of food on a 24 hour Trans-Siberian train to avoid the costs, realizing that the food on the train is both priced regularly and delicious. You can get a meal at Oktoberfest for under $5. Let’s get it together.
We use clothes dryers and it’s glorious
Clothes dryers, I miss you. When I got back and could do a load of laundry, start to finish in under two hours, I just wanted to wash everything over and over. I have a new appreciation for hang drying, but when you’re on the move, it sure is hard to plan to get your clothes clean when it takes days to dry.
What surprises you about the United States versus other countries? What do you miss when you leave home?