15 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to the US
For many of us foreigners, our knowledge of the United States was gleaned growing up watching imported American TV shows ‐‐ more often than not, starring David Hasselhoff. (Although for the record, the global reach shows like Baywatch and Knight Rider have attained really is just as baffling to us.)
And while I moved to the US armed with pop-culture references and a student visa, it turns out that wasn't enough. Here are 15 things even The Hoff, the Fresh Prince, and the cast of Friends couldn’t have prepared me for.
The weird love of non‐perishable foods ‐‐ like mac & cheese, Sriracha, and peanut butter
Found in most American homes, this trio has to be survival food, right? Please tell me these are three of the things Americans stocked in Cold War bomb shelters (along with Spam) in the event the Soviets attacked. This is the only reasonable explanation for mac & cheese making the cut. The product looks and tastes orange. How?
Flu season is legit
So, influenza is no joke. In fact, people should go back to calling it that, because all of the Walgreens and CVS promos about immunization are downplaying how bad getting the flu can actually be ‐‐ it can knock you out. This is not an overstatement. Some of my friends and I grew up in various African countries and contracted malaria periodically ‐‐ many of us maintain that getting the American flu was on par or even worse! Read that again, worse. Than. Malaria. Aches, cough, chills, sweats, fever, fatigue, dizziness ‐‐ sound familiar?
You have to pay to be taken away in an ambulance
This lesson was, unsurprisingly, learned during flu season. This is one of those “The More You Know” tidbits that Americans should be sharing with everyone they know. With rides to the emergency room ranging from $400 to $1,800 a pop depending on your insurance provider and where you live, this is key information. Medics also have the right to request insurance information or intended form of payment BEFORE taking you anywhere, so try to stay conscious, folks!
You don't really need to carry cash. Ever.
Don’t feel too special, you’re not a president or a royal, you just have the option to swipe your credit/debit card everywhere from a taxi to a food truck to a street fair -- yeah, even vendors selling bottle-cap belt buckles have mobile card readers.
Certain French words mean something completely different in American English
Entrée (that's an appetizer en Français, friends). "A la mode" means fashionable in French, but I guess ice cream's always fashionable! (Want to play a fun game? Look up the original meanings for boutique, touché, auteur, and connoisseur -- which I think we francophones stopped spelling that way about a century or two ago.)
You basically always have to tip
Restaurants, bars, cabs, hairdressers, nail salons ‐‐ tipping between 10 and 25% is customary and it can add up. You’re also kindly given the option to tip pretty much everywhere else a service is provided.
There are more TV shows/channels than anyone could imagine
Yes, the entertainment industry is massive, but how are there so many forms of televised entertainment? And who is watching it all? Just look at American Hoggers ‐‐ no, not a three‐part documentary on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic, as one might think, but rather a reality show that follows a family whose mission is to control the feral hog population of Texas by hunting them. That series lasted FOUR SEASONS!!!
You can (and will) be prompted to add bacon and/or avocado to everything
Some holidays are, umm, optional?
It seems employers (and schools) can choose whether or not federal holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents' Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day mean time off. While Christmas and New Year’s Day are also usually given to students and employees, other “religiously affiliated” holidays like Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid al‐Adha, and Eid al‐Fitr are accorded on more of a case-by-case basis. What's up with that?
The East Coast/West Coast rivalry? It’s kind of real.
It’s not Tupac and Notorious B.I.G-gunned‐down‐in‐the‐street real anymore, but verbal shots are fired rather quickly by New Yorkers and Californians, for example, when asked “Which coast is better?” The criteria and categories are largely food‐ and “vibe‐” based, ranging from “bagels versus Mexican food” and “Shake Shack versus In‐N‐Out” to “fast pace versus, well, not‐so‐fast pace.”
How easily medication is prescribed
On any given day, and depending on the level of stress or inattention you’re projecting, an American friend (or stranger) might offer some Xanax, Valium, Ambien, Adderall, or Ritalin to calm what you didn’t know ailed you. You might wonder whatever happened to soothing bath salts and deep breathing, but some of my more pressing questions include, “How is everyone getting these?” and “Are they as easily prescribed as medical marijuana?” Which, honestly, seems pretty easy.
The Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s experience is like no other
Going to one of these stores is an event, really. I recently learned Costco exists in a few other countries, which must mean the world is becoming a better place, because it’s kind of like the Ikea of all of the things Ikea doesn’t sell. But in bulk. What, you don’t think you need 60 rolls of toilet paper?
Seriously, it’s not uncommon to leave the store with cereal, some bath mats, new skis, a pair of eyeglasses, over-the-counter drugs, shockingly low‐priced wine, and all of the meat you could possibly eat at a summer cookout. You’re also likely to treat yourself to a slice of pizza or a hot dog on the way out the door, because you deserve it after all of your cost‐effective shopping. Fill up your car’s tank on the way out too, because, why not?
They get passports at the Post Office
The United States Postal Service -- in addition to delivering letters in the rain on Saturdays -- can accept passport applications and renewal forms on behalf of the government. Which means, Americans can buy stamps, bubble wrap, super-sized envelopes, and get their most important travel documents -- all in one fell swoop.
The practice of being (or trying really hard to be) inoffensive is serious business
And it's easy to fall behind on terms as groups are labeled and relabeled.
American news is crazy hyper-local
Yes, it's implied in the term "local news," but this is the only news many people actually watch, so it can be a little tough for non‐Americans to watch without wondering if any producers had considered an "in other (more global) news" segment.