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.

 

The Bill.

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. It’s simply baffling to me.

 

House of Kabob DC

You’re telling me that I have to pay extra for my delicious meal from House of Kabob? NUH-UH. But OK.

 

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!

 

Friendliness

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.

 

Chickybus Lisa

Lisa from Chickybus is one of the friendliest people I’ve EVER met Love this lady!

 

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.

 

Public Transport

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.

 

NYC Grand Central Station

I was a fan of NYC’s public transport. How can you NOT love Grand Central Station?

 

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.

 

Union Station DC

Washington’s public transport was pretty good, too…if a little expensive.

 

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.

 

Accommodation

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.

 

ㅋㅋ

Don’t make me laugh at your hostels, America. My fellow Korean speakers should get that, based on this photo. ㅋㅋ

 

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.

 

The Portions

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.

 

Quincy Market food

Fine, I relent. Cheeseburger mac and cheese, you win.

 

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.

 

My mantra food

My personal mantra, in vandalism form.

 

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.

 

The Diversity

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.

 

hanbok guy

Sadly the hanbok failed to trick Koreans into believing I was born there.

 

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.

 

Multi-cultural cinema, too. Saw From Up On Poppy Hill at the IFC in New York, recommended!

 

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.

52 Responses to Things That Confused Me About The USA

  1. I’m half American and I never got the ridiculous tax thing either. My only explanation is that businesses are afraid their prices would seem higher if the tax were included, but are people really that stupid?
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    • I KNOW. It just really, really annoyed me. I think some people probably are that stupid unfortunately. The price would obviously come out the same, so I don’t know why taxes just aren’t included in the price. Sigh.

    • Antwinette says:

      Our tax rates vary by state.

      • But still, why not include the actual price of something on a menu? You’re never getting as good as a deal as you think you are. For some reason, Americans seem to think they get taxed a lot, but really, they don’t in comparison to the rest of the developed world!

  2. Susan says:

    Part of the tax thing is that meal taxes are often levied by municipalities, which means the rate can vary from city to city rather than even state to state. Since Americans can be super anti-tax, a lot of restaurants find it in their own interests to separate the fees as a sort of first defense in their pricing system. I worked at a brewpub co-op where we actually included tax and service in the menu price and I often had customers request the price breakdown!

    Also, the portions are huge, but it’s absolutely acceptable to take home your leftovers. In Europe I would sneak my leftovers into plastic bags in my purse to take them home!!

    • Oh you crazy Americans and your tax. That’s what I thought it might be but still, it’s extremely annoying if the deal you’re getting isn’t quite as good as you thought it was.

      As for portions being huge, yes we took them home on occasion, but I just thought, why give that much food in the first place?

  3. Ira says:

    Yeah, the tax thing confused me too. Though I am more baffled about them so friendly. People will just come up and say nice things, they’re very helpful. It was shocking but not complaining!

  4. Lauren says:

    Have you ever?
    Ever felt like this?
    When strange things happen,
    ARE YOU GOING ROUND THE TWIST?!

    I hate the tax added on at the end. So many times I’ve gone to buy something and not been able to because SURPRISE! It’s $2 more and I don’t have enough money on me.
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    • But Lauren, surely don’t you want to know how much tax you’re paying separately? No? Me neither! I don’t get it still, agggh America, countries need taxes to function!

  5. Eric S says:

    When you grow up in America, and I grew up right outside of New York City, you just get used to taxes. Each city, state and county adds to the taxes. I do prefer it in Europe where the price on the menu is the price you pay, but the USA isn’t changing its tax code anytime soon.

    I do agree that Americans are friendly and have no problem with pleasantries or helping someone when lost. I also wish our public transportation system was better; but we are the land of cars and a strong oil and car lobby that will make it difficult to build more public transportation.

    It sounds like you enjoyed your time with us strange, overly friendly and overly taxed people!

    • I wouldn’t say Americans are over taxed – visit northern Europe! It always puzzles me when Americans bitch about tax. You need tax for things to function, people!

      I wish the USA would wake up and start building better public transport networks, too, as this whole ‘car is king’ mentality is really just pandering to society’s elite. When India have a better public transport network than your country, you know something is wrong. Very, very wrong.

  6. LOL, I really enjoyed reading this post. Living in Canada for almost 2 years and 3 months in the US it sure make sense what you’ve said.
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  7. We don’t have a sales tax in Portland, so when we visit my family in Seattle, I always forget about the tax. In certain stores, I can just flash my Oregon ID and get the sales tax taken off, but I usually forget and some places won’t do it.

    We also don’t own a car anymore and are lucky to live in a city with decent public transportation and access to a cheap transportation option to Seattle (Bolt Bus). However, the long distance travel options are sad and I wish that taking a train didn’t cost more than flying. It’s ridiculous.
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  8. Jes says:

    Hallo!

    I think you really need to spend some time in real America and not just in American cities. You’re missing out on the best parts of this place! Like the New York State is bigger than many countries. I live in upstate NY where it is lal farm land and cows. The world thinks NY is a city… it isnt!!!

    But, anyway… about taxes. America is freaking huge… did you not notice? :p Its so big that we split it up in to states! ;} heehee and each state has its own rule and laws. They also each have their own tax rates, sometimes even different municipalities inside each state has differing rates. It also changes often.

    Here, this explains it well –

    Sales taxes are not included in marked prices in the U.S. for two reasons:

    - Multiple taxing authorities
    - Central Distribution

    Notice that on a great many products, the price is physically printed on the manufacturers label, rather than being stuck on with a stamp or sticky tag. This reduces the manpower costs associated with individually pricing every object on every shelf in the store.

    In the U.S., however, there are states with no sales tax, states with one sales tax, and states with multiple sales taxes (and even some states with the same rates calculate taxes differently).* In addition, different states with sales taxes have different rules regarding items to be taxed. (Pennsylvania has no sales tax on clothing, I believe, while Ohio has a surcharge on the syrup used in pop (or soda).) This means that it would be an insurmountable problem to place the price on each item at the manufacturer, since they would have to be able to identify the exact store (and taxing authority) that was the destination of each object that was packaged. In addition, any item that was re-routed to a different location would have to be manually re-tagged.

    Stores have found it simpler to place the taxation rules into the cash registers.

    *Examples:
    - Ohio has a 4% tax rate, but each county (and some cities) may add additional rates. So the K-Mart near my home charges 5.5% tax, but the K-Mart 5 miles to the West charges 7.5%.
    - In the days when Michigan had a 4% tax, the merchants complained that they were losing money because five $.05 nuts or bolts could be sold individually at no tax but would wind up costing the store a penny tax since the five sales accumulated $.25 in reported income. To offset that perceived problem, Michigan set the tax rate to go to one cent at $.13, two cents at $.32, three cents at $.57, and four cents at $.72. Any similar 4% state that charged an additional penny at $.25, $.50, $.75, and $1.00 would look very different to any system attempting to calculate the tax.

    Public transportation – I think one reason its so bad is that its so new. Plus this country, again, is huge. Where I live, there is no public transport at all.

    Portions! OMG! How can you complain?? You get lots of food for your money, yo! Enough to bring home!! Most people do NOT finish those giant portions. Thats why doggy bags were invented ;}} This is another reason you should step out and see more of the country… we arent all obese ;}}

    I do agree with you about the hostels, tho. Its just not something people want here. Americans generally frown on sharing. Privacy is really important to people and the thought of sleeping in a room with strangers just isnt appealing. Most people who travel within the country are doing it for vacation/fun reasons and they want to sleep somewhere NICE. Hostels are not exactly cushy. Even if they built them, no one would want to stay at them! :/ But, for poor folks like me, Id love to see more of them. Paying 50-200 for the cheapest of the cheap is just way too much!! :{

    • Those portions are also contributing to America’s morbid obesity epidemic. When two in three adult Americans are overweight, there’s a problem. Plus I find the huge portions simply wasteful. Surely more food could go towards those living on welfare? Sure there are doggy bags, but I don’t want to be carrying half-eaten food around with me.

      Taxes…it still confuses me why it’s not included in the price. Or just put a little note in the menu or something. I still don’t think it makes that much of a difference if you simply include it in the price.

      I’d love to spend more time in America. One month was a great starter, and I’m already itching to go back and explore more places.

      • OCDemon says:

        Yes, the portions are making us huge. Unfortunately it’s the type of problem that won’t go away anytime soon, since people think they’re getting their money’s worth, and if a restaurant starts serving reasonably-sized portions of healthy food, people will go hungry and think they’re getting ripped off. So they just spend extra money going to the gym trying to burn away the fat they got from dinner. It’s like…a cycle…or something…
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  9. Gigi says:

    Soo agreed!

    Even though I grew up in the US, I’m still frustrated by the tax thing. Americans like to think Europe is more expensive, but I’ve found that for the most part it all comes out the same. Europe is just including everything (taxes, fair wages for their employees) up front. It’s soooo much simpler!
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  10. George says:

    Oh god the portions! Normally i moan that i dont have enough food, but never in america
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  11. ChinaMatt says:

    I live here and I’m confused by most of this too. Public transportation just sucks around here (and I’m in the NYC area).
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  12. Beth says:

    I’m originally from America and the points you make are so true! Tax is frustrating because when traveling you really don’t know how much tax you’re going to be charged in other cities.

    Transportation is also horrible. So many friends of mine growing up couldn’t afford a car, but without one how we’re they supposed to get to work? And city to city transportation is worse. It makes me sad that from Hong Kong I can get to Singapore for $50 USD round trip, yet to go from Chicago to LA you could be looking at $300 USD round trip. Insane!

    Hope you enjoyed your time nonetheless, I like to think Americans are more friendly than most people give us credit for!
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    • Hey Beth! Oh, I LOVED my time in the USA, I really want to go back again and re-visit some places (NYC, San Francisco) as well as see places that I didn’t on my month in the country.

      The city-to-city transportation was so bad, unless Megabus, Bolt or Greyhound were offering cheap deals. I wish the USA would make it easier for their citizens to get around their own country, not just travellers!

      • Sean says:

        If you want to see the comparison of how much bigger the US is then western europe (UK is smaller than the state of Oregon) then you can realise why public transportation is a lot more difficult in the states. Not that I dont complain, but its easy to knock things when you obviously dont have a clue of how big our country is.

        • I’m well aware of how big the USA is thank you very much, not sure why you think I’ve never looked at a map before. Yet, other countries that rank in the top 10 in the world for size – China, India – have MUCH better public transport than the USA. So does Russia, the biggest country in the world. Size isn’t an excuse to not provide good public transit to your citizens.

  13. Heather says:

    Some of these things confuse me too – and I’m an American! The tax thing is really annoying. I can still remember my first trip to London as a teenager and being amazed at the cash register when the price stayed the same as the one on the tag. So easy!

    What’s really sad is that train travel used to be a lot more prominent in the U.S., but when everyone started getting cars in the 50s, they removed a lot of the tracks. I grew up in a small VA town about an hour away from DC. When my aunts were growing up they could take the train into the city, but the tracks are gone now. I bet today’s commuters would sure like to have the option!

    And the portion sizes really are appalling. I used to eat just half the serving and have the rest packaged up to enjoy the next day. Just be glad you didn’t visit one of those all-you-can-eat-buffets. Those places are horrifying!
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    • Haha England IS amazing, isn’t it? ;)

      That’s sad that they removed the tracks! I had no idea that that used to be the case. Sheesh, talk about going backwards, America!

  14. Mike says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that the public transportation in the US is terrible. There are slow trains that connect large cities and little transit within cities, except a few. I understand the “car is king” mentality and the thought that the car gives you “freedom,” but what happens when your car breaks down, you can no longer afford a car, you develop a medical issue where you are unable to drive, or you simply get old and can’t safely drive anymore. How is that “freedom?” It’s a question tha puzzles me.
    A city where I have the option to walk, bike, take public transit, or drive is a city with an equal, effective, and sustainable transportation system. Plus, if there are more public transportation options available, then less people will be driving so for those that are driving, the roads will be less congested with traffic jams. To me, it’s common sense to design a city for people, not cars. Then again, this is coming from a car owner who tries to walk, bike, or take the bus everywhere even though the bus comes every 30 minutes.
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  15. Argh don’t even get me started on the tax thing! Having an American boyfriend, I try and question him about these absurdities and he has no explanation, simply that he’s just used to it because that’s how it is there! It drives me mad when I get out the exact money to pay for something and they ring it up at the till and tell me it’s a dollar more.
    But I do agree that they do much better than us on the hospitality and friendliness thing – something that actually scared me a bit the first time I visited the US haha.

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  17. Valeri says:

    As an American all this confusing stuff just makes sense because it’s how we’re raised and what we know. It wasn’t until I traveled the rest of the world that I questioned any of these “confusing things.” I agree public transport lacks majorly. Born and raised in Los Angeles I’m sure more than a quarter of my life has been spent in a car stuck in traffic. Having tax included in your prices does make it so much easier when using foreign currency but I’m clueless how tax works in the rest of the world. I didn’t even know the US had hostels (this is how naive we are to travel) until I met people while traveling who told me about their US travels. As for the portions…I miss this!!! Lucky for me I have a decent metabolism and am pretty active but I’d being lying if I didn’t say I was still hungry after many meals abroad (not all but many). Living abroad has definitely made me look at America in a new light. Many things I took for granted i now appreciate and then there are those that make me glad I got out of my liberty bubble and lived just a little bit more

    • Thanks for your comment, Valeri! You know, I’m not sure how tax works in the UK to be precise, but I’m glad that I don’t have to figure it out after a meal – splitting the bill between, say, seven people is difficult enough without factoring in tax haha!

  18. Brian Newton says:

    In many places in the United States, there is a negative social stigma associated with public transportation. If you see someone on a bus, it is because they are homeless, or have been prosecuted for drinking while driving.

    NYC and other densely populated areas are exceptions to the rule above.

    When I traveled in Spain and Italy, I was amazed at how easy it was to get around town, and from city to city.

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hey Brian, thanks for stopping by! That’s what I’ve heard about public transport in the USA. I do wish more people would use it, though, rather than racing around in giant gas-guzzling monstrosities. At least, local governments should provide some incentives to use public transport.

      Europe is great when it comes to moving about. Colombia, Turkey and South Korea also have great systems for moving from place to place/

  19. alex m says:

    as an american I agree completley about tax! why isn’t it there! one place in boston had a funny sign when taxes went up: ‘prices have incresed by #% due to the mayor’. their written prices included tax so I guess they didn’t want to update it again just for taxes to go up again.

    as for public transpo…most ameircans I know see trains and buses as a bad way to travel…almost cheap and its going to be dirty and smell bad, etc

    I love huge portions! my dinner becomes my lunch and dinner the next day (so just hope what you order is good)

    • I was surprised at the attitude towards the buses and trains in the USA – seems to be a social stigma attached to it.

      Oh, tax. I’m back in Europe now, and don’t have to deal with that anymore, fortunately!

  20. molly a says:

    Where I live in Ohio there isn’t any tax on food. Granted, everything else has tax, but I guess after living with it for so long it doesn’t bother me.

    As for public transportation, I agree with everything you said about how horrible it is in the city. I live in a suburban area, with a small population, so most things are walking or biking distance, therefore public transportation doesn’t effect me. I assume it all depends on where you go in America, but I prefer the suburbs over the city.

    The portions are large, but I guess it’s just getting your money worth. I don’t mind it, because I ALWAYS have leftovers, which makes the next night’s dinner extremely easy to cook (all it requires is to be warmed up!). I can understand your dissatisfaction with it of course, but I enjoy it.

    Really, it all depends on where you are visiting. There aren’t many exciting places to visit in the suburbs or the rural areas, so as an European tourist it may be harder to appreciate America because of where you’ve visited. Where I am, which is where I plan to stay, I enjoy my life here. But when I hear news about large cities, I often am troubled by it as well (e.g. horrible public transportation).

  21. Jeska says:

    This was an awesome insight into the US from someone who lives here. I have many international friends and a common topic I’ve heard is the portions of all of the food as well. As for tax, I’m sure they just figured its easier to have everything at one price then include the tax after the fact since every state has their own tax rate. Its neat to hear how you read about the US being a melting pot and then getting to visually see it. I’m so use to it that I don’t ever think about the opposite.
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