Ask anyone who is not from the USA what people in their country see as typically American and they’ll likely be able to give you some pointers.
This goes for any country: travelers abroad tend to stand out in one way or another. Not that that’s a bad thing; it would be boring if everyone was/thought/looked the same. So there are certain characteristic things about American tourists that people from other countries may have spotted, and then there is being surrounded by everything American when you live in the USA as a foreigner.
(Of course, this is where I stand out as the “tourist”. Occasionally, I get a tiny sneak peek into what Americans find strange about me – but not often. If anything, they’re very polite, avoiding to make someone feel awkward.)
So what’s it really like to live in the States?
Here are the things that stand out to me, an expat/immigrant with a mixed European background, married to an American guy.
There are a few recurring and tenacious stereotypes, such as how Americans are overweight, have little clue about foreign geography and are always snugly planted in shoes the rest of the world wears to go running.
I’m going to blatantly skip over the first notion because it is a touchy subject with a high potentiality of hurting people’s feelings of self-worth. And I’m not in the business of doing either.
Oh, one more thing: for the sake of simplicity, this is mostly a comparison of both sides of the Atlantic and not so much individual European countries. I have roots in and have lived in different ones. These are all personal observations and experiences.
As far as point two goes, there seems to be some truth to it, though my personal experience with geography goof-ups is limited. Someone once asked me if Sweden is the capital of Amsterdam.
Here is a funny YouTube video showing a line-up of disasters, concluding with one little American who rocks the entire world map. (It’s Jimmy Kimmel Live.)
When you look at the size of the USA on a map, knowing your states is equivalent to knowing your European countries. And I definitely didn’t learn much about US states in school. Let alone about the multitude of island nations in, for example, the South Pacific.
It boggled my mind to find out the names of so many island nations in my late twenties that no one ever taught us about is school.
And how many people from other continents know exactly where Senegal or Botswana are located in relation to for example Togo or Gabon? Didn’t think so.
Not my place to judge how the average American scores on foreign geography. If some are geographically ignorant, many others are quite informed and/or well-traveled, my husband included.
Those Nikes, though.
Sorry guys, there really is no good reason to wear running shoes unless you’re working out or going for a very long walk.
Proper shoes can be just as comfortable, minus the eyesore-factor. There are few situations in which bright white and/or neon-colored accents are not a big style no-no and a fashion faux-pas.
Weird American things I’ll never really get used to.
The weird, the odd, the strange. Not in order of importance or weirdness.
1. Baby names
No, not the names of American babies. The way in which choosing a name is a public affair all throughout the pregnancy.
In more than one European country the parents choose a name for their little one and to the rest of the world (including close family) it’s a surprise.
Inquiring whether an expecting parent has picked a name yet is a very normal question in America and if they have, they’ll gladly tell you.
Not that I’ll ever get used to my mother in law talking baby names with my husband or throwing suggestions in the mix. It’s so strange to me she might as well be popping her head into the room while we’re making one.
With that said, I’ve made the effort to analyze the feelings behind my reluctance to go public with a name before birth.
- Part of it is plain and unsurprising what you’re used to.
- Another part has to do with the spoiling the fun of introducing baby and name together, right when this feels most official. The best comparison I can think of is that it feels like opening Christmas presents ahead of time.
- Lastly, there may be some irritation around having to deal with other people’s opinions. This is where my husband begs to differ; he thinks it’s great to check with close family and hear their thoughts whereas I believe the only opinion that should matter is ours.
We solved it neatly by meeting each other halfway. He gets to talk names with anyone he likes, which he gracefully does when I’m not around, and I get to simmer in my private naming bubble.
2. Best ever!
Using “best ever” to describe something gives my brain the hiccups trying to make sense of it.
What do you mean this was the best birthday party ever? Comparing to everyone who’s ever had one, far and wide, all throughout time? Of which some were without a doubt equally wonderful. Given the sheer number, there’s a fair chance some were better even.
My bad for taking it literally. It’s just semantics, right? An expression, even though it sounds so completely over the top to my foreign ears, it means nothing other than that it was loads of fun.
Especially kids clothes, with a special mention for the girls’ aisle. Hues are way too saturated, there is a painful overload of glitter, gold, unicorns, hearts, and Minnie Mouse figures. Why does every top need to have a tacky quote slapped onto it?
The exact colors I tend to avoid at all cost seem to be the most popular. Neon pink, purple, orange, mint green… If you’re lucky, all of those in the same fabric print. Good luck finding neutrals and natural fibers. (Burts Bees Organics is awesome, though.)
4. Strangers are people you can talk to…
…and oversharing is the default setting. If you’re more of a private, introverted person and don’t feel the need to share life stories with strangers, you’ll find yourself listening. A lot.
More times than I can count I’ve found myself tangled in the web of a random person in Walmart, aisle let-me-tell-you-all-about-this. It’s very annoying if you’re on the clock or just not in the mood.
It’s an American phenomenon: people resolutely claiming airtime to catch complete strangers up on what goes on in their life.
Especially if they’re senior(ish) and perhaps a tad lonely, I try my best to give them their few minutes of fame while keeping a firm eye on the first available opening to dig out. (Everyone needs to take a deep breath sooner or later, no?! Uhm, no. Some people don’t.)
Coming from a place with affordable, universal/compulsory healthcare, the American system rocked my world.
What do you mean, pre-existing conditions aren’t covered? What’s the point of buying healthcare if it doesn’t do what you actually need it for?
At some point, I observed a trend among those who politically identify as republican to be against the implementation of what I would call a “good” (*) healthcare system in the US.
I had to ask my husband whether this was accurate and, if so, why. The answer he gave exceeds by far the realm of this article. Lengthy, for one, and it would take us from the tongue-in-cheek-zone to the real-serious-politics-and-numbers-area. So maybe some other time.
(*) Good between quotation marks, because I’m not the expert here. It just seems to me as a total layperson that a good healthcare system would be one that is accessible and there to help the most people by numbers as well as the people who need it most.
6. Blue, green, purple & rainbow-colored pastries
What’s the deal with the obsession to make everything festive look the opposite of edible? To my foreign eyes, the American baked goods aisle looks like a freak show.
And then there’s the taste…
Back “home” (what used to be home, in any case) you could wake me up at night for a sweet treat.
Anything with custard, cream, whip, chocolate, glazed fruit, mocha, almond, you name it. Rice flan or plain flan, apple pie, crumble pie, French macarons… In Europe, all of those taste decadently and dangerously delicious.
Mind you, buttercream is actually butter and not some whip made of hydrogenated palm oil, high fructose corn syrup, synthetic colorants, and polysorbate.
In America, I’ve tried birthday cakes, donuts, bear claws, apple fritters, cream puffs, and probably a few more things. Oh yes, red velvet. Let’s not forget the nationwide obsession with red velvet.
It. all. tastes. the. same.
Like sawdust with too much sugar added in. No actual flavor. The cream fillings are bland and too sweet at the same time, which is quite an accomplishment. Maybe this can be attributed to American baked goods being made with an endless list of artificial and semi-artificial ingredients instead of real butter, real eggs, and real sugar.
Something definitely isn’t right.
The only palatable treat is the almond croissant from Starbucks. At least it has real almonds, identifiably laying on top. On the bright side, the situation saves me from a lot of temptation. Just keep me away from Starbucks during the holiday season!
American things I would no longer want to live without.
Awesome things about living in the States and interacting with Americans. Some purely logistic and practical, others more meaningful.
1. Free parking
In the Netherlands, when even large parking lots by the malls started to charge for parking it felt like the perfect time to leave. When you’re out to get something small, parking easily doubles the spending and the longer you stay, the more you’ll pay.
Of course, in inner cities or prime retail locations parking in the United States costs money too. But in general, parking to go shopping is free. Needless to say, I love being able to pull up to a mall and not worry about time ticking away.
2. Free restrooms
In stores, malls, restaurants, and especially along the highway. As far as I know, in most European countries public restrooms are available only for a small fee.
If you use cards for literally everything and rarely carry cash (like me), you’re bound to be stuck sooner or later, facing either an electronic gate or (how retro) a toilet lady with chronic PMS. (Can’t blame her, not really a childhood dream come true kind of gig.)
3. Customer service & the rights to air your grievances
In the US, when customer service is good it’s very professional (and occasionally sincere). When it’s forced, it’s beyond fake. When it’s bad you need to work your way up those in charge but you have rights and you can use them.
In the Netherlands, when is good it’s perhaps more sincere but when it’s bad it may take a lot more effort to get what you need. That’s if you even deem your attempts to a successful resolve worthwhile and not drop the case altogether.
The joys of shopping minus the worries to overspend, get the wrong size/shape/color/brand or second-guess yourself once back home. How is this not a thing in the rest of the world? Unbelievable.
There are stores in Europe with a great return policy. Clothing usually isn’t a problem, with attached tags proving the unworn state of a piece. Ikea rocks for taking returns in whatever state you present it.
But supermarkets, small mom and pop shops, basically most other stores? Not so easy.
Chances are you’ll get the stinkeye and will be made to feel as though you’re asking for the moon instead of returning something unopened. In America, accepting returns and giving hassle-free refunds is the default setting. It’s fantastic.
5. Medical & dental pain management
Even as someone who is not afraid of going to the dentist at all, there’s no way around admitting the first pokes are awful. Once the numbing kicks in, and that’s after feeling the needle drill into your gums millimeter for millimeter during the first three or four pokes, the rest is usually smooth sailing.
Imagine my surprise when having an old filling replaced by an American dentist. They put some numbing substance on the area before poking around with the actual (deep) numbing agent.
First thought: How nice, this is like going to the spa.
Second thought: Why are we made to suffer through those excruciating moments across the pond when there’s a perfectly fine solution?
That’s just aggravating!
6. Getting the tab
At first, the rushed way in which tabs are given out midway through dinner may seem unpleasant; as if they’re trying to whisk you out of the establishment as quickly as possible.
But it isn’t so much that the waiting personnel is focused on freeing up that restaurant table asap, as more of a combo deal. Efficiency is probably part of it but also, and no less importantly, respect for the customers’ time.
Try getting the waiter’s/waitress’s attention on a busy night across the Atlantic. When all you need to get going is that tab, it can still easily add twenty, thirty minutes to a dinner out, if not more, and it’s quite annoying.
I’ll take my tab American style, mid-lasagna, any time. At least that way you’re all set. Also, it’s never a problem to have something added to it.
Ah, America, land of the free, home of the brave. Or in Borat‘s words: the US and A.
Overall, I very much love living here and while some things will never stop feeling unnatural, the good stuff by far outweighs the bad. Except for the health insurance, that’s a really uncomfortable situation.
Certain things crack me up, such as how Americans(*) seem to have this idea of France as the Holy Land of Elegance, Style and Hot Women when everyone else in the world is glued to their screens watching American-made beauties.
There are pockets of – ahem – weirdos in all countries and sure, the US has some interesting ones too. But Americans are some of the most friendly, kind and polite people I know.
Volunteering is basically a national sport. I like how they’re militant and put their money where their mouth is. They genuinely believe that it’s okay to be different, they compliment each other freely and never fail to voice appreciation and praise for a fellow human’s unique talents.
Do any of these points recognizable, surprising, something else…? Let us know in the comments!
(*) I’ve tried to stay away from grotesque generalizations but it’s a tough topic to discuss without the occasional generalizing observation. Please excuse this one and other ones that may have weaseled their way into the story.