This summer will mark five years since I hopped on a plane and moved from England to America. (Actually, if you want to get technical, it will only be four years of really living here—I returned home for a year to finish my B.A.—but I figure by the time I’m an old lady with a British-Southern accent, I will forget about that one anomaly.)
My knowledge of American culture has been informed by a combination of formal education and personal experiences. I’ve lived in North Carolina, Mississippi and South Carolina, I have degrees in American Studies and Southern Studies, I’ve traveled to 28 states, and this fall (/autumn) I will marry my long-term American boyfriend.
All this is to say, I’m no longer mystified and amused by the most everyday American occurrences. But this was not always the case. So in celebration of my five (four?) year Americaversary, and the many years to come of being a Brit living in America, I am sharing all of the things I remember making me laugh, making me crazy, or just confusing the hell out of me when I first moved to the States.
1. Casual Friendliness
This is a major stereotype of Americans, but I think it’s at least somewhat truthful. Whereas Brits like to eye you warily in greeting, Americans smile, chat, and—God forbid—hug you immediately. They act like you are their new best friend and want to learn your vocabulary. I am still taken aback by the hug, but I have completely adopted the American way to greet passers-by, by asking, “How are you?” without either of you bothering to actually give an answer.
Relatedly, Americans love to add everyone Facebook, even those that they met once and have no interest in ever seeing again. This makes Facebook stalking a much easier practice. Yay!
2. Everything Is Loud
When I first moved to the U.S., I was told every single day that I was speaking too quietly for anyone to hear me. This wasn’t just me—it happened to all my British friends. I’ve adapted now, but it’s bizarre to suddenly have to adjust the volume which you have spoken at for your whole life.
Because I am bitter about this, let me tell you that AMERICA IS LOUD. People discuss their personal matters in public, without any concern that you can hear everything from the next table over. Many unexpected spaces such as coffee bars, gyms and stores absolutely blast their music, and (at least in a college town) it is often the same few tracks being played over and over again, so much so that I wanted to yell I AM GOING CRAZY HERE. But, my yell would have just sounded like a mumble to Americans.
Eating out is a regular practice for Americans, and even though my wallet and waistline don’t thank me for it, I can’t pretend I don’t love it. You can find something for every meal! There is so much variety! Everything is open so late! SUSHI!
On the flip side, this doesn’t exactly encourage young people to learn to cook. When my American friends witnessed me roasting a whole chicken in the oven, they looked at me like I had raised and killed it myself. It seems like Americans get more into cooking post-college. But whatever, dining out for brunch is not a thing at home, so America-1, Britain-0 in this case.
4. Grocery Shopping
When I lived in England, I would write a detailed shopping list, take the bus to the supermarket once or twice a month, and store lots of food in the freezer. To keep me going in between the big hauls, I went to the corner shops or market to stock up on fruit and vegetables every week or so.
American grocery shopping is another beast entirely—at least, in places that are not major cities. It’s not that the store itself is necessarily that much larger (unless you are at a Super Target), but that there is such a huge variety of everything.* For example, when I was growing up, I knew of exactly four different flavors of Poptarts, and one kind of Fanta. I’ll pause while the Americans laugh.
Also, grocery stores here actually help you bag your items, which is AWESOME. Except, if you don’t bring your own bags (sometimes a weirdo thing here depending on where you are), they will put maybe three items in each one so you have a giant amount of plastic bags and feel guilty all the way home.
*And yet, no lamb. How am I supposed to make Shepherd’s Pie the right way?
American universities usually include gym memberships as part of the tuition, which means I was hitting up the group fitness classes as often as my schedule allowed. College students also live in their gym clothes, which inspired me to write a remix to a Taylor Swift song, “I Knew You Were Foreign When You Walked In” because internationals were so easy to pick out by their non-gym-clothing attire. Nobody is taking my British high street style away from me.
On a more serious note, I think America is doing it right with the approach to women and fitness. In Britain, women are more self-conscious about exercise, and many don’t feel welcome to participate in public. I am much more comfortable running outside or looking like a hot mess at the gym after my time in the States. Thanks, Title IX!
Here are the two ways that I would describe American universities, according to my own limited experience at large state schools:
- College is like boarding school, in which parents are really involved and visit a lot, not much student cooking/cleaning happens, many people still hang out with their high school friends, there are a lot of extracurriculars going on (e.g. sports), and the living arrangements tend to be sex-segregated.
- College is like a corporation, in which everyone keeps crazy busy schedules, works all the time and blows off steam HARD, networks daily, drops a lot of money on the regular, and does some serious multi-tasking such as reading while on treadmills.
I have never pulled so many all-nighters in my life as the first year I spent in the U.S.
7. State Pride (and Superiority)
As patriotic as America is as a whole, I was astounded by how much people feel a kinship with their home state specifically—and how much they like to shit on other parts of the country.
I am an American Studies nerd, and therefore I like to visit new places in the States. I don’t care if it’s a non-tourist destination if there’s something that intrigues me. I can’t even tell you how many times an American has warned me away from a particular state with the phrase, “There is nothing there.” Alternatively, if I am traveling somewhere, I get, “Why would you choose to live there?”
When I’m at home I like a good banter with a northerner as much as the next person, but I don’t seriously think I’m superior because I grew up in the southeast of England. If you haven’t visited the place personally maybe don’t shit on it so much?! Also, I can tell you that you’re missing out if you don’t like a little adventure around your own beautiful country.
Did I just make you clench your buttocks? Most Americans are uncomfortable when it comes to talking about race, yet they are also unable to stop mentioning it. I was honestly surprised by how much people identified someone by their race—“African American,” “Asian American,” what have you—when in Britain we hardly have the language to categorize non-white Britons.
I’m not saying one country is necessarily handling racial disparity better than the other, since I don’t think there is a moral superiority to ignoring race, but before living here, I was unaware just how different it is.
I’m really heading into dicey territory now… OK, so. I knew plenty of church-going people in England. I’m sure that we have issues we disagree on sometimes. But it was not really talked about that much, whereas in America (or maybe this is South-specific), people went out of their way to tell me that they were a Christian, how this influenced their thoughts on gay rights/women/abortion/guns, and to ask me whether I went to church or not.
You guys, that’s cool and all, but if America is such a Christian country, why don’t you celebrate Easter properly? Why no Shrove Tuesday (aka Pancake Day)? Why no Hot Cross Buns? Why do I never get Maundy Thursday and Good Friday off?!
10. Driving Versus Walking
For Brits, long walks are NBD, but staying in the car for more than two hours is an Epic Journey. Bill Bryson said it best in “Notes From A Small Island:”
“If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order.’”
I know that I’ve become partially Americanized, because now when I hear that a place is four hours away, I think, “Huh. That’s not so far.” Americans think nothing of driving great distances, but ask them to walk more than a mile and they will no longer want to be friends. But at least they are always happy to offer you a ride.
Thanks for having me, America!
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I feel like the one on religion and driving are not really universal in America. I live in California and I can’t imagine someone telling you out of hand about their religion. And in terms of driving, I think that really depends on whether you live in somewhere dense. Living in the Bay Area, I can & do walk to run most errands (…even several miles away). There is always traffic & parking is often difficult around here so walking / public transit when possible is really nice! Even some of my family in LA (which has a reputation as being super car-centric) take the subway regularly! Everything else I would say is basically accurate all over! (;