May 22, 2013
Things That Confused Me About The USA
As a twenty-something Brit, American culture played a big part in my growing up. OK, so Australian culture had a large effect on people my age, which causes a lot of young(ish) Brits’ intonation to go up at the end of a sentence – thanks for that, Neighbours, Home and Away, and Round the Twist.
Anyway, American television shows and music were omnipresent when I was a teen. Friends and The Simpsons were my favourite shows. British music and cinema went through a pretty bad period in the late nineties, with American artists dominating the UK charts and box office. Naturally as someone growing up in that time period, the USA had quite an influence on me growing up, without my actually having ever gone there until earlier this year.
But do you know what? There are still some things that, despite being exposed to so many influences from the USA, still confuse the hell out of me about America.
Tipping doesn’t confuse me. It’s not as big a part of restaurant culture in the UK, and tipping in Korea is unheard of, but if a culture dictates that I pay a tip, then I pay a tip. I have no problem with that. What I don’t get is tax, something that, as someone with an international bank account, is baffling to me.
I’m not a US resident, so tax confuses the hell out of me in the USA. It’s included in the price in the UK and I’d venture to say most other countries around the world. I don’t get why it isn’t included in the price in the USA. Maybe it’s because some people are like, “I want to know what my hard-earned money is paying for!” I don’t really know. But it annoys me. Getting a bill and, oh, there’s the tax! Why isn’t it just included in the price? Or, on the menu, couldn’t it simply be written underneath the item? For a non-American who is only used to seeing anything tax-related on his monthly paycheck, then it seems rather odd not to include it within the price. If I lived in the USA, I’d probably have to set up an offshore savings account just to keep a bit set aside because all that tax would come back and bite me. I forgot about it each and every time I ordered something!
This is a good kind of confusing. I was baffled by how friendly everyone was in the USA. Sure, there were some dodgy looking people or some crazies that I crossed the street to avoid, but for the most part, everyone was super friendly. People would come up to you if you looked lost and ask if you needed help with directions. They’d great you on the street when they were out walking their dog. There were no scowls or averted glances.
Not that I’m saying that Brits aren’t friendly. We are. But we’re just a more reserved kind of friendly, the kind that you have to get to know first. Ditto Koreans, who tend to be super shy at first, but are among the nicest people once you actually talk to them. Americans are more upfront, and while it took a bit of getting used to, I actually appreciated this.
This isn’t the good type of confusing. It’s the frustrating kind. For a country of its size and power, America’s public transport system, as a whole, is woeful. I’ve seen better transport in Malaysia, Colombia, and Poland. Even India’s transportation system is reputed to be better than that of the United States.
Some cities, like New York, have great public transportation. Getting from A to B is easy and efficient. Other cities, not so much. Miami’s airport shuttle bus was absolutely atrocious – they give you no change, and there’s nowhere to put any bags that you have. Given that it’s an airport shuttle bus, you’d think that some kind of luggage rack would be a given, but no. And getting from city to city? Not so easy. I was pretty much forced to take three flights during my time in the USA for lack of an affordable or cost-effective alternative. My options for getting from Charleston to Atlanta were limited to a train with two changes, costing over $200, a direct flight costing over $300 for less than one hour, or a bus trip of at least nine hours. I opted for the bus in the end.
I get that in the USA, the car is king, but surely it would just make everyone happier to have some kind of high-speed train system that can connect the country together in a more cohesive manner? One has been proposed, but whether or not it will come to fruition, well I have no idea, but I hope so.
Attention, America! You need more hostels. Seriously. Through my partnership with HostelBookers, I was able to stay in fantastic hostels in Washington D.C., Miami and San Francisco. Yet, outside the major cities, the hostel scene is pretty woeful. New York’s hostels are mind-bogglingly expensive. Charleston only had one option, and I’m pretty sure that Richmond had zero, with seedy looking motels being the only real budget choices available.
Hostelling has so much potential in the USA, and with the straight up friendliness of American folk that I mentioned before, they would be naturals at it. Hopefully the trend of hostels starting to spring up in recent years will continue, making the country more accessible and affordable for those not using their black AMEX card to fund their trip.
In Europe, we have a stereotype of the overweight American, thanks to the obesity epidemic that currently has a vice-like and flabby grip on the country. After visiting the country for a month, I can understand a little bit of the reason. The portions are huge. Heck, even for me, and I eat a lot – I can shovel down Korean barbecue like nobody’s business and aim to hunt down the best food in every city that I visit. But American portions? Now they had me stumped.
I couldn’t finish the mac and cheese that I got in Boston‘s Quincy Market. The fried chicken from Jestine’s Kitchen almost bettered me. The aftermath of a meal at Harvard Square’s Border Cafe left me fearing that food would just fall out of my mouth if I simply coughed.
Even for me, the portions could be hard to deal with and, in just a month, they had a noticeable effect on my waistline. For the first time in my life, I was wishing that I had less food on my plate, rather than wishing that I could get seconds after a roast dinner.
I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before that my hometown of Harrogate is known as the whitest town of a significant size in the United Kingdom. That is to say, there’s not much racial or ethnic diversity. I could count the non-white kids in my entire school of 1700, and I’d only slightly be over single digits. Sridhar, Bianca, Hiu Yi, Dane, Elaine, and a few others. Korea is a famously homogeneous society, where I attracted attention in the streets simply for being an obvious non-Korean.
Imagine my surprise and delight, then, to find that the American melting pot that I learned about in A-Level history class was a reality. People of every colour calling themselves American, going about their daily lives without people staring. Well, unless they decide to do something worthy of infamy a la People Of Walmart.
I’m not just talking about multiculturalism, either. Every city had its own unique vibe, from the laidback atmosphere of Providence to the, erm, laidback atmosphere of Richmond. But they were laidback in totally different ways. Each city we went to had its own unique food, its own accent, its own charms and peculiarities. This kind of diversity was confusing to me, but in a truly wonderful way.
So there you have it, folks! Now, I want to hear from you! What things confuse you about the USA? Can you explain any of the things on this list to me so that I’m not quite as puzzled? Do you have anything to add? Let us know in the comments below, or shout out on Facebook or Twitter.