America Week 2015

20 Things You Only Understand About America After Living Abroad


Sometimes all it takes to appreciate the good (and the bad) in something is a little time apart, said your parents when they dropped you off at camp. Well, the same holds true for countries. While obviously there's no place in the world like the United States, you don't necessarily realize just how unique a country it -- and its red-white-and-blue-clad citizens -- is until you live abroad. That's why we’ve rounded up a list of things (both positive and negative) about this great land that you can only appreciate by leaving.

The US is pretty terrible at coffee

There are a lot of things America is good at, but coffee is not one of them. It may be difficult to fathom that there is a better order than your Starbucks sugar-free vanilla double latte, but coffee is 10 times tastier in other countries. Luckily, more cities across the US are catching on to what good coffee tastes like, so you don’t have to travel too far for a good cup.

America is terrific at portions and pours

Excess is our specialty. We tout a reputation for being obese, but that’s only because we’re wonderful at giant burgers and free pours of booze. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than watching a foreign bartender measure out exactly a 1oz shot for your $20 cocktail. In the US, you learn what an “American pour” (land of the free pour?) really means. Bottoms up.

American credit cards are downright medieval

I never expected to feel embarrassed when swiping my credit card, but it turns out that American banks are waaay behind the times when it comes to paying for stuff. In fact, some foreign cities have gone as far as to BAN our classic signature receipts altogether, entering a brave new world where customers simply tap their credit cards and walk out. Meanwhile, I’m relegated to “taking it old school” if I ever dare use my American card. 

The US is massive... like really big

You truly don’t understand how vast the US is until you leave behind the amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties. A quick flight from New York to Miami or Chicago to San Francisco may be an easy trip for most Americans, but the sheer enormity of the country overwhelms most foreigners. 

American public transit sucks

As a proud Chicagoan, I used to boast about the city’s "L" train. Looking back on all the times I credulously waited on a platform with no indication of when or which train was coming next, I’ve grown to realize just how behind we are in transit. Places like Hong Kong and Japan put the rest of the world to shame, and it’s baffling to comprehend why the rest of the world hasn’t caught on. Miss your train? Don’t sweat it, the next train is coming ONE MINUTE LATER.

Halloween is an American holiday

Halloween is strictly an American creation that continues to haunt expats abroad, although I did once attend a Halloween party themed, “Dress like a slutty American.” So yeah, while there are plenty of foreign fetes that hinge on themed dressing (hen parties, anyone?), I'm not sure there's another country where the people dedicate such an inordinate amount of time or money to planning costumes.

While we’re at it, so is St. Patrick’s Day

While St. Patrick’s Day may have its origins in Ireland, the sloppy traditions of mid-morning, green-beer guzzling are as American as the iPhone.

Airport security is like Gitmo

Fact: there are airports in other countries where you can saunter through security without so much as an ID, let alone a full body scan, copy of your dental records, and requirement that you turn over your first-born child.

Red Solo cups are quintessentially American

Perhaps we’ve exported one too many frat flicks or '80s John Hughes films, but the iconic plastic cup is strictly associated with American parties. Next time you’re abroad, bring a sleeve and watch as fascinated foreigners gather around. You’ll be the life of the party.

And with that, so is the college experience

The quintessential college life is taken for granted in the US. We move halfway across the country, live with strangers, hang cliché Radiohead posters on our dorm room walls, and endure ridiculous pledging activities in an attempt to don a few Greek letters and attend themed parties. Greek life is a myth to most foreigners, who treat each of your beer-soaked memories as tall tales.

You can’t escape the metric system. Except in the US.

Okay, the measurement debate may be contentious, but when you’re the only one left in the world using it, the movement towards a uniform global system makes a little more sense. Constantly converting inches and pounds to meters and kilos is especially tiring when you’re just trying to tell someone how tall you are.

Customer and restaurant service is amazing in America. But so is not tipping.

Customer service in the US is the best in the business. They actually want to help you. But is it worth adding at least 15% extra to the price tag, or a few extra dollars at the bar? It’s a toss up. Growing accustomed to life outside the US without tipping is heavenly. But so is friendly staff that treats each of your requests like that of a sheikh.

Unlimited breadsticks -- and free refills -- are totally underrated 

Never forget the American commitment to complimentary bread baskets and free refills. When you order a Coke for $2, you take comfort in knowing that you’re really paying to never see the bottom of your cup until you finish your order of fries. As for bread baskets, they might as well be a God-given right in the US.

Veiled price tags

Sure, that $2 bottomless Coke was tasty, but you’re still paying an average 7% tax (plus tip) at the end of that meal, so the $5 in your pocket won’t cut it. Most foreigners complain about how we leave tax off our price tags, and I empathize. There’s something to be said about being upfront and honest about what you’re going to pay.

Sarah Anderson/Thrillist

Bagels and donuts are strictly American

"America runs on Dunkin’"is not just a tagline, it’s a fact. While we shouldn’t let the world off the hook on breakfast pastries (you all eat buttered croissants), donuts and bagels are truly an American tradition. Breakfast of champions.

Americans love wearing active sportswear

Have you ever noticed most of your friends look like they’re about to set off for a hike up the Rockies or raft down the Colorado River? How many fleeces do you own? Our penchant for comfortable clothing has morphed into a love for outdoor apparel and active wear (don’t get me started on yoga pants).

We have a tendency to use excessive positivity

Everything is super awesome! I plead guilty to being a bit hyperbolic about how great I’m doing, or how super cool something may be. It’s a defining characteristic often complemented with a flash of a glittering white, toothy American smile.

There are more than just four sports

This may seem obvious, and as an avid fan of America's big four (football, baseball, basketball, and hockey), this is difficult to admit. Arguably, soccer is gaining ground in the US, so let’s put that aside. For us to label baseball’s championship as the “World Series” while other sports like cricket actually does involve global participation, perhaps it’s time we extend our attention to sports beyond our borders.

Perry Santanachote/Thrillist

Our comfort food is better

Speaking of cheese, American macaroni & cheese is a force to be reckoned with. Canada has poutine, Australia has meat pies, the UK has bangers and mash, but America reigns with its crowning comfort food. Sure, the dish may have its origins in Italy, but Kraft transformed this dish into an American classic that's equally welcomed with lobster and béchamel sauce, box-concocted, or bread-crumbed. Without a doubt, there is no other place where mac & cheese is more celebrated.

Some of our worst TV shows are the best options in other countries

It’s no secret that Hollywood is the epicenter for the movie industry, which gives us a leg up on film and television. While the UK’s shows are quickly becoming American favorites, there are some places in the world where Friends, Becker, and Everybody Loves Raymond are not only in syndication, but taking up valuable prime-time slots. Read that again: Becker is still running in prime time. American television should never be taken for granted.