“How different can life in America really be?” I thought before I moved to the United States.
As much as I love living in America, there are some things I will probably never get used to. Some experiences and observations just leave me confused. Being an expat means trying to fit in with a completely different culture and getting used to a new way of life. Nobody prepares you for the cultural differences that in your eyes don’t make any sense.
Here is a little selection of the things I keep shaking my head at and that amaze me the most:
Finding a parking spot at your local grocery store can be quite difficult sometimes, despite the huge size of the parking lot. Many people leave their shopping carts in the same spot where they loaded the groceries from the cart into their cars. Lots of stores actually have an extra employee working outside and their job is to collect shopping carts from the parking lot and put them back where they belong – only for the next customers to leave them out in the parking lot again.
In most grocery stores you feel almost forced to use the plastic bags they give you. I always bring my own reusable bags when I go to the store, but just having it out does not do the job. You literally have to tell the cashier that you do NOT want any plastic bags. Of course they will still wrap your packaged chicken and meat products in extra plastic, to make sure your other packaged groceries don’t get in too much contact with them…
Sales tax is not included in the price mentioned on the label. When you go shopping you will never really know what price you will have to pay until you’ve actually made it to the cash register.
In grocery stores you can pay even the smallest amounts with your credit card. No need to get cash.
Stores are almost always open. You can go shopping late at night, on Sundays and even on some holidays – enjoy!
In restaurants you always get free water with your food. I love this! In Germany you’re supposed to buy your water and the waiters look at you funny when you ask for a glass of tap water. Here in the US the waiters make sure you never run out of water, they fill up your glass regularly.
Waiters and restaurants in America expect you to leave a tip of 15 to 20% of your pre-tax bill. You should always consider this before you enter a restaurant, because even a seemingly affordable dinner can become quite expensive. Waiters generally earn a pretty low hourly pay and are dependent on the tip they receive from their guests to make a living.
The food portions in most American restaurants are ridiculously huge. They can easily last for two meals.
In order to earn their tip, waiters usually take very good care of their guests and are exceptionally friendly. They will come to your table to ask how you are doing several times throughout your meal. This sometimes makes it hard to have a serious conversation without getting interrupted.
In Europe it is pretty normal to spend several hours in a restaurant, eat dinner slowly, have a few drinks afterwards and have a relaxed time. This is a little different in the US. Once you are done eating, the waiter will usually clean up your dishes immediately. Even if the other guests of your party are still eating. Once you are done, they will make sure to bring you the bill very quickly. Hanging out and “blocking” the table is not appreciated very much.
In my home country pedestrians take traffic lights very seriously. This is not the case in the US. Especially in big cities like New York, jaywalking is a very common practice. It makes sense though since nobody has time to wait for a traffic light to turn “green” every other block.
The “green” light for pedestrians is white in many places in America!
Even though there are rules for people to drive in the right lane on highways unless they need to pass, these rules are not followed. It took me some time to get used to the way of driving here. It seems quite unorganized and sometimes even dangerous.
In my short 1 ½ years in New Jersey, I had to get two tires fixed and one time I had to get my tire completely replaced. Can somebody please stop throwing nails on the streets??
In general there’s a lot of trash in the streets. I guess some people didn’t grow up with the awareness of nature and don’t feel responsible for keeping the environment clean. It looks like it’s pretty common to throw trash out of the car window while driving. Otherwise I can’t explain how some streets and highways get so dirty and trashy.
Americans are the masters of small talk. In general they are very open and friendly and it’s pretty easy to start a little chat. Talking about politics and religion should be avoided though, as most people are very passionate and emotionally invested in their opinion. Political and religious discussions can end up in big fights and even break up families – unfortunately I’m not exaggerating here.
When Americans want you to do something they often make it sound like a suggestion. To a German ear an American instruction can quickly sound like an optional task.
“How are you?” is just another way to say “Hello”. Random people usually don’t care about your well-being and do not expect you to answer this question. The best way to answer is as follows: “How are you?”
You’re not allowed to drink outdoors in public in most American states. Walking around with your open beer bottle can cause you to get a ticket and pay a fine if the police stop you. You can only drink outdoors if you’re at a permitted party, bar or restaurant with outdoor seating.
The US is a huge country and not all states are the same – I live in New Jersey and most of my impressions are from the East Coast. If you live on the West Coast, in the Mid West or the South, you might have a completely different idea about life in America.
I’m very happy to live in the USA, but I also hope that citizens and politicians become more aware about their influence on the environment. Some states are already introducing new laws to change things. California, for example, has a single-use plastic bag ban in place and grocery stores are no longer allowed to use them – way to go America!
What are the things you notice to be the most different in your state? I can’t wait to read about your impressions in the comments below!
Check out 5 good reasons to move to America here!