America! You’ve seen it on TV, in the movies, you think you know the USA but you really don’t until you live there. I’ve seen a few of these articles floating about but usually written from an American perspective- for example an American might move to a small European country and write about it, or perhaps an American might even visit Australia and write about the strange accents and the wildlife. That kind of makes sense, because after all the USA is a very populous and very vocal country. But I thought it might be interesting to write about what it’s like for a foreigner (in this case an Australian, ie, moi) to live in American society. I’ve lived in the US now in two separate areas, firstly in Delaware (Dela-where?) where I did a research project at the University of Delaware and lived the college life for a while. More recently I’ve worked setting up solar cell production lines in Portland, Oregon on the US West Coast. Believe me when I say that the US is one of the most amazing, diverse and strangest places. Here are the things that surprised me as an Australian living in the USA.
There is a follow up article to this article: My Close Encounters with Australian Wildlife: Part 1- Spiders and Snakes
18. They Still use Cheques
Or as they call it, “checks”. I remember when I was a kid, my dad had a cheque-book. “What are you doing there Dad?” I’d ask. “I’m writing a cheque,” he’d reply. By the time I was old enough to have my own bank account, cheques had gone the way of the dodo. But when I moved to Portland, I was surprised when my property agent told me I had to pay my rent by cheque. “Let me get this straight,” I said. “Every month, I have to put a cheque in an envelope, go to the post office and post it to you?”
“Why can’t I just set up an automatic monthly transfer from my internet banking?”
I was met with a blank stare. “Hmm. I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of such a facility. We always pay our rents with a cheque.”
A couple of times, I got late fees because my rent cheques didn’t arrive on time. I was pretty mad about this. “How am I to know that the post office was going to take so long to get it to you?”
“That’s not our problem, sir. You need to remember to post your cheques well in advance.”
I often would see customers in the supermarket paying for their groceries with cheques. Definitely not something you would see in Oz. Given the US’s technological prowess, I was surprised that their banking was still in the stone age.
17. They Have Loads of Dangerous Animals but Worry About Australia’s Snakes and Spiders
In the US, you can be gored by a grizzly bear, trampled by a bison, torn to shreds by a coyote, bitten by a bobcat, chowed on by a cougar, or disembowelled by a panther… yet they kept asking me how I deal with Australia’s “dangerous wildlife”! Yeah, those kangaroos and koalas are pretty scary…
16.The Internet is Fast… Really Fast
The US has the best internet in the world. And why not, since they invented it. And nobody from the internet company will ever ask you how much you need your download limit to be. It’s always unlimited. Brilliant. I realise though this says more about the shoddiness of Australian internet than anything else…
EDIT: This point has caused some controversy in the comments, not about which country has the fastest internet but about who invented it. If you think the British invented the internet, you’re wrong. Tim Berners Lee, a Brit, “invented” the World Wide Web, while the Internet grew out of a network built by ARPA in the USA. If you don’t know the difference between the web and the internet, how on earth did you manage to be reading this now?
15. People are Super Friendly and Polite
I don’t know why, but I assumed that they might be brash and brusque. When my first American waitress called me “darling” and was nice as pie, I thought she was just angling for a better tip. But then the lady at the supermarket was nice, and so were people at other places where you don’t normally give tips. Then I got in an elevator and a man said “It’s a lovely day isn’t it!” And a bum yelled to me as I walked past on the street, “Hey mister! Your shoelaces are untied! You don’t wanna trip and fall do you?” In Australia, or at least in Sydney, an stranger that talks to people randomly is safely (and sadly) assumed to be insane, or annoying. In America everyone talks to you. It’s the norm. I love that. Americans that I met at work or college would be instantly inviting me to parties or on snowboarding trips. They might sometimes end up being flaky or unreliable in the long term, but at least you have the opportunity to make friends early. Some of those friends have given me more love and support than I ever knew back home in Australia. Also, America is the only place where I’ve sat in a park (in Portland), feeling glum and lonely and depressed, and had a homeless man walk up to me in his rags and say “Don’t worry man. Everything’s gonna work out.” That blew my mind.
14. People Want to Know Your Political Opinion Right Away
As the old saying goes, “opinions are like anuses- everyone’s got one”. But Americans are REALLY opinionated. And they want to know what you think about the government, about politics, about current issues. A typical conversation might go like this:”Hi I’m Matt. Nice to meet you.”
“The name’s Bob. Where you from Matt?”
“Oh I see. You’ve come a long way. So what’s your take on Obamacare?”
During my driving test to get my Oregon licence, the examiner said “There’s a lot of bums in Portland huh. Obama wants to give ‘em all a handout.” I sat there in silence, not knowing quite how to reply. “I don’t think some people in this country understand just what socialism really means,” he continued. Oh no. Now I really had to bite my tongue lest I jeopardise my test outcome. “Anyway,” he said finally, “I’m not supposed to have an opinion. Congratulations, you passed.”
In Australia, I’ve known blokes for years and been shocked when they mentioned something about voting for John Howard at a previous election. “You voted for Howard?” I’d ask incredulously. “I thought you were progressive?”
“Yeah but I dunno, he seemed like a good politician.”
Needless to say there are many things that come into conversation long before politics in Australia….. beer, the surf conditions, the football results, girls (not necessarily in that order!)
13. People Think Owning Guns is Normal
I worked for a solar company. You might think that people that work for a solar company might lean slightly to the left on most issues. But I never caused such an office brouhaha as the day I brought up the issue of gun control at work. Half the office argued in favour of greater controls, the other half wanted to wring my neck for even mentioning that better controls might be a good idea. There was one guy at work who had a screensaver on his computer with beautiful photos of ducks. Beautiful colours, beautiful feathers, ducks in the pond, in the air, ducks in different settings. How nice, I thought, this guy must love ducks. He probably has some as pets or something. No, it turned out he loved to SHOOT ducks! Nothing thrilled him as much as seeing a beautiful duck in the air, as seeing that same duck lying motionless on the ground minutes later. Oh, and going back to my driving test- I read the test manual and was amused to see the sentence “No firearms are permitted in the car during the test.” How funny, I thought, that’s something you wouldn’t see on an Australian test manual. As it turned out my car broke down on the day of the test and I was forced to borrow my colleague Dan’s car. I was backing out of the parking lot at work when I noticed some rags in the door pocket. I looked underneath to find two pistols and a load of bullets rolling around! I went back inside the office and dragged Dan out. “Don’t worry”, he said, packing four or five rifles into the back of the car and covering them with a towel. “Just don’t let the examiner look under the towel.”
“What if they go off?” I asked.
“Gee relax!” he said, “None of them are loaded! You Aussies are so up-tight!”
12. The Toilets are Full of Water
I know everyone notices this but it’s really quite strange and I’ve never seen this type of toilet anywhere else. A veritable swimming pool of water greets you when you open the toilet lid and when you flush, it all goes down the drain in a huge rotating whirlpool. For all the guys out there, who try to find the “silent spot” on the bowl in the middle of the night, you can forget it in the US. When you get up in the middle of the night it will sound like Niagara Falls and ALL of your roommates will know you’re having a slash. My Uncle Rob swears that in his older age his undercarriage hangs low enough to get a wash when he flushes in the US. I’m not sure whether to believe him.
11. They Eat and Drink Like There’s No Tomorrow
In the USA, with every second TV show having the word “food” in the title, it’s not hard to tell that eating is a national obsession. It seems like every restaurant, diner and fast food place is competing to have the biggest portions and the biggest of everything. This is in stark contrast to Australia where going out to dinner seems to involve a huge almost empty plate with two mouthfuls of food on it. And in the US you never run out of iced tea or coke because the waitress dutifully fills it up again if she notices it less than half full. Again not something you’d see in Australia- if you want another (usually tiny) glassful, you’d be expected to pay for a second one. Not that you really need a second glass in the US, because the sizes of soft drink/soda are HUUUUGGE! What the rest of the world would call “large”, is the smallest possible size in the US. And the large has to been seen to be believed. I would consider it more a bucket than a cup. But people do buy it, and they do consume the lot – I would see work colleagues slurping back the cups of Coke or 7Up or Mountain Dew at work. They’d slurp and slurp for maybe an hour, but they’d finish it. I shudder to think of the calories ingested. If you order a soft drink the US, do not order anything larger than the smallest size! The massive amounts of food and drink is both refreshing and horrifying- the value is great, but the scary thing is that after some months you realise that you’re managing to finish everything that’s put in front of you… you’re becoming American!!
10. The Food is Actually Good!
I realise this one might be a little controversial. But it’s true. Yes they have every form of artery-clogging fast-food fare known to mankind. But there’s so many levels of eating out in the US.There are three main “food groups” I miss when I’m back home in Oz. The hamburger, for one thing, is a national artform and you can get it everywhere from the crappiest cornerstore to the highest end restaurant. But you will never have such a good burger as you can get in the US. The crispiest bacon, the freshest ingredients, cooked exactly how you like it, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. I also miss American style barbeque. If you’ve ever been to a Buffalo Wild Wings you’ll know what I mean. Ribs, wings and fries with barbeque sauce. And celery sticks and ice tea. Yes, yes, you can get this sort of food anywhere in the Western world but again, you can’t get it as good anywhere as the US has it. (And this is coming from a guy from a country with a strong barbeque tradition.) Lastly, I miss the Mexican food. Ok ok, this is not by definition a US food item, but it’s so bloody good. Especially when you can go and get a bunch of fish tacos at just about any bar during happy hour for a few bucks. In the US I nearly always have an empty fridge because eating out is so cheap and good. Oh and if you want to eat healthy….. it is possible. And they even have some good beers…. I swear!
9. They Call Flatmates “Roommates”, Main Courses “Entrees” and Regular Pasta Sauce “Marinara”…
Ok everyone knows that America has invented its own version of English but these are the doozies for me. In regular English, a “room-mate” is someone who lives in the same ROOM as you. Hence the name. Entree is French for “entrance” or “starter” so how the Americans have managed to confuse it for the main course is beyond me. And as for Marinara… it needs to have seafood in it. I’m sorry- but containing the sub-word “marine” is a BIG clue. “Oh- I never thought of it that way before!” The cute blonde waitress giggled after I helpfully brought this to her attention. Ok, ok, I must admit there are a million Aussie words that nobody understands… I got blank looks whenever I talked about my fair-dinkum mates having smoko at the servo..
UPDATE: There is some argument in the comments about the origin of “marinara” from people who sound somewhat credibly Italian. Since I’m still not quite ready to admit I was wrong, maybe it’s best to read the comments and make your own mind up!
8. The Girls do Like Aussie Guys, but…
I was so excited about this one. Loads of people said this to me when I was going to the States for the first time. “You’re gonna have the best time there mate.” When I met American guys, they said “You’re gonna have the best time here dude.” Even American girls I met would say that to me! The reality of course is somewhat different. Thankfully, American girls ARE curious about Aussie guys. However it’s more of a curious fascination as if you were a bad biker dude or a venomous snake or something. They’re afraid you’re going to bite. Or maybe just fly across the world once they’ve fallen for you. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it’s very helpful if you know something about their hometown when you speak to them. Eg, the local baseball/football/basketball team is a good one. Then they feel more comfortable about you instead of just eyeing you from a distance. Remember this tip guys!
7. They Attend University on the Other Side of the Country
Many students you meet at US universities are from other parts of the country. It seems something of an American tradition to broaden ones horizons by applying to study in a different state. This is handy because it allows you to meet people from all over the country in a short period of time. But at the same time, I met many Americans who, once their studies were done, were happy to settle somewhere and not travel again, despite having never left the country. In contrast, Australians tend to go to uni in their home city, and embark on an international trip during a gap year or over summer or once studies are finished. I seem to run into Australians wherever I go in the world. Many of them have never travelled outside their home state within Australia though!
6. College Football is HUGE and Cheerleading is a Sport
In Australia, college rugby or soccer would entail a local grassy field with maybe 20 curious spectators standing around on the sidelines. I’ll never forget rocking up to my first college football event in the US and the stadium was full of about 40,000 screaming fans. The whole town was there. Not only that but there were brass bands, baton twirlers, and cheerleaders. Now these cheerleaders are not your run of the mill pom-pom shaking girls you might find at half-time in Australia- they are bona-fide expert acrobats packaged up as lithe freshmen. I gasped as they were flung high into the air by beefy cheerleading dudes (yes, males), flipping and spinning. I thought of all the things that might go wrong and honestly some of these girls were better than your average circus performer. Another tradition that deserves a mention is tailgating before the game. This involves drinking beer out of the back of trucks in the parking lot. It’s a total party, until the game starts and security comes to move everyone into the stadium. Speaking of partying, it goes without saying that football team or cheerleader parties are well worth attending…
5. They form Fraternities and Sororities
Excuse the pun but this tradition was all Greek to me… until I got invited to a frat party and then I realised it was all a cover for getting wasted and laid with the help of a bunch of elite friends who you’ll contact for jobs or legal advice years later.
4. They have Drive-Thru ATMs
This is not a joke. The country that brought you the drive-thru fast food restaurant now brings you the drive-thru ATM. After all, it’s a drag to actually have to get out of your car and walk up to the hole in the wall! I took some German work colleagues on a little tour around Portland and this was the thing they took the most photos of.
3. They have the Most Stunning Coastline
Now being Australian I have to admit that I still don’t believe anywhere really beats the Australian coast, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that America’s coastline matches it. You probably think that the dreariness of the Jersey Coast or the boring sandy expanse of Huntington Beach is all they have, but that’s because you haven’t seen the stunning scenery down Oregon highway 101, or Big Sur in California, or the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s epic. And they have a truckload of other epic scenery too from beautiful forests to rocky desert wilderness to thermal supervolcanoes.
2. They Build some of the Ugliest Towns in the Most Beautiful Locations
I was surprised that the country that brought us such beauties as Boston and New York and Portland and Savannah, Georgia would desecrate some of their loveliest natural areas with some of the most hideous man-made affronts to Planet Earth. A rubbish dump here, a bunch of overhead freeways here, some derelict buildings, parking lots, toxic factories, smokestacks, drainpipes… I could be in awe in the morning driving through a charming little place and then choking on my pretzels in the afternoon at the concrete jungle I was negotiating. The same extreme diversity in attractiveness occurs within cities too. One block an urban paradise with art galleries and quaint houses and cafes, the next a disaster of vacant lots with crack heads sitting around. I don’t want to single any smaller places out (that would be just plain mean) but I’d nominate Los Angeles as the mother of all ugly US cities (though it does have small nice pockets and a thriving cultural scene).
1. They are DIVERSE
If you’ve never been to the USA then you probably believe some of the cliches about them being loud, obnoxious, ignorant, religious nuts. I’m not going to say that these type of Americans don’t exist, but for every religious nut there’s a religious moderate or an informed atheist, for every ignorant radio jock there’s a scientist performing world-leading research, for every suburban hick there’s a dude that has travelled every continent and learnt 5 languages on his own. For every army of right-wing crackers there’s an equally vocal army of left-wing pinkos. There’s a wealth of of cultures from all corners of the globe. Many of the largest cultural movements had their start in the USA, particularly in music and film. Living in the US I often feel like I’m at the centre of the world, and I miss that feeling whenever I’m elsewhere on the planet.