I always say the biggest culture shock I experience is when visiting the USA. My American sister (we share a Father and were raised in different countries by different Mothers) does not understand this. Honestly, I don’t really understand it either. There is much I love about the United States whose culture I have been exposed to via films, television and music since as early as I can remember.
I can still recite several songs from Sesame Street which are forever engrained in my memory, and will leave this Earth believing Seinfeld to be the best television show ever made, perhaps with the exception of Breaking Bad. Then, there is the food. Let’s not even talk about that except to say that if I lived in the states, I think I would have a serious problem with overeating (more than I already do, that is).
As a kid I used to imagine eating out of these boxes, just like they did on the movies. Tyrhone wasn’t the only one following dreams in the USA, people!
Though I have visited the US several times, I am met with the same feeling every time I go there, the feeling that this is not my world.
Me on a wet San Francisco morning during our visit to the city…
A rather strange concept for an English speaking person in an English speaking country, let alone a country whose culture I have been exposed to my whole life.
As an Australian who has also lived in the UK and most recently Mexico, the thing I find most confronting about the US is the high level of customer service. I feel like this may actually be at the crux of my culture shock.
I am simply not used to people in the service industry (which I myself worked in for many years) being extremely polite and exceptionally attentive.
It creeps me out a little.
What do you mean you are going to refill my soda without me having to ask apologetically? And why do you not seem bothered by that?
And, what do mean it’s FREE REFILLS????!!! Is this Pizza Hut in the 1990’s???
Of course there is also this tendency I have to not want to speak when I visit the states. For some reason it is there that I feel the least eloquent, what with my funny Aussie/English hybrid accent and all.
I feel like a fool when I open my mouth, unsure of whether to say toe-mar-toe or toe-may-toe, soda or soft-drink, war-ter or wah-ter (water). Most of the time people don’t understand me, whilst I understand them perfectly (after developing an ear for their accent via 33 years of dedicated television viewing).
I blame Neighbours for never taking off in the US. It may have been the necessary bridge between cultures which would make ordering at a Starbucks drive-through SO MUCH EASIER for everyone.
Add Tyrhone into the mix, a South African who has lived in the UK, Australia and Mexico, and you have one very confused cashier who is too polite to break it to us that she cannot for the life of her understand what we are saying and just gives us the coffee for free, because it is easier than deciphering our drawn-out vowels.
In Valley Springs, California, the small town we stayed at during Tyrhone’s paramotor training, two hours from San Francisco, they don’t get a whole lot of international visitors. At ‘Hawg Dawgs’ the local (and very lovely) hot dog restaurant (yes, they exist, don’t knock ’em til you try ’em), the friendly waitress told us about a guy from New Zealand who passed through recently, as though we might know him.
It was really sweet.
Actual wild turkeys, running around just outside of town.
One of the reasons I travel is because I quite like being the odd one out. Perhaps because I’ve always felt different on the inside, when I travel, I feel like my external circumstances match my internal ones and therefore I feel more at peace. But for some reason, in the US I can’t help feeling like everyone knows the rules except me, like the dream you have where you walk on to a stage and forget your lines, and everyone is staring at you, waiting for you to take your cue.
I feel exposed and well, different.
There’s that word again.
A feeling which doesn’t often bother me in places like China, India, Indonesia or Mexico, so why the hell does it unsettle me there?
Perhaps it is a weird desire to fit in to a culture which looks similar to mine on the outside, but is actually vastly different. Perhaps it’s the fact that I look like everyone else, but know that I’m not.
I DON’T KNOW.
What I do know, is that it is not a bad thing. It is the beauty of exploring places different to the one I was raised in, and it makes for some interesting encounters when people ask us, “Where ya from?”
Cue weird Australian/British/Americanized accent:
“Well, I’m Australian and he is South African and we met in London but have been living in Mexico for the last year.”
At ‘Eddie’s Grill’ in Valley Springs, CA, a place which serves the best BBQ ribs and banana cream pie I am ever likely to eat, the polite, sweet waitress backs away slowly, smiling, but confused. Suddenly her face lights up and she breaks into a huge grin.
“We had a guy from New Zealand in here a few weeks ago,” she tell us proudly.
“Yes, yes, we heard about him!” we reply knowingly, finding our common ground. It’s amazing to me how the world can feel so small and so big at the same time.
And if you happen to know a guy from New Zealand who has been to Valley Springs, California, please let him know he is the talk of the town.
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