Five American culture shocks

A few people have asked me about the culture shock I’ve experienced since moving to the US. I always tell them that obvious things – right-wing opinions, guns, toilets that flush strangely, etc. – aren’t shocking, because we know what to expect. More¬†shocking are the small things that are just as different, but that I could never have seen coming.

So here are five examples of real culture shock. They might not be the best ones, but they’re the ones I can remember right now.

1. The first time someone told me they don’t recycle.

To me this statement was about as weird/surprising/ridiculous as saying “I don’t put my rubbish in the bin, I go down to the river and dump it there instead.”¬†How can people not recycle? Recycling isn’t something you choose to do or not do, it’s just something you do.

Or so I thought. Apparently only 30% of people in America recycle, even though all you have to do (in Richmond at least) is put your paper, plastic and glass in the green bin instead of the black one. Apparently that’s too hard for the majority of the population.

Now that I’ve heard this from quite a few different people it no longer shocks, only saddens.

2. The time someone gave me a mug of cold water and a teabag.

This whole experience was kind of weird. However I should note that I have nothing against the people who this story is about, for they are awesome people, and apparently this is quite a normal thing in America. But for me it was a terrible shock.

We were at a friend’s house and I was walking by the kitchen when our friend offered me tea, and told me to grab a mug from the dishwasher. I picked the most attractive looking mug and she told me to put it back: “That one has metal in it, it can’t go in the microwave.”

Woah. I knew this was a warning sign, but I didn’t quite know what it meant, and I guess I was scared to draw the logical conclusion. I picked another mug and looked around for a kettle – usually a pretty good start, I thought, having made quite a few teas in quite a few foreign kitchens.

There wasn’t one. No matter how many times I scanned the same benchtop, no kettle appeared. My bewilderment was clearly showing, for at this point our friend decided to take control of the situation. She took the mug from me, filled it with cold water from the tap, gave it back to me, and also gave me a teabag.

I was no less lost.

At this point our friend started to laugh. She looked at the microwave, and said something along the lines of “Um, haven’t you ever made a cup of tea before?”

“What do I do here?” I asked, eager to fit in and learn the local ways. “How long do I put it on for?”

Apparently the correct amount of time to boil a mug of water in a microwave is something you’re just supposed to know, because at this point my friend burst out laughing. It was obvious that I had no idea what I was doing. “Do I just put it on and watch until it boils?” I ventured.

More laughter. I decided to take the plunge.

It turns out a mug of water in a microwave takes a long time to boil. I think it was about three minutes, but I don’t think it actually ever boiled. It seemed to take a long time, and I was scared the mug would explode, so at some point I decided to cut my losses.

I put the teabag in and nursed the cup, waiting for my pride to heal. Our friend shook her head, wondering which planet this idiot had just arrived from.

3. The time a referee carded a player for saying “Jesus”.

And then stopped the game to explain that swearing was fine, but blasphemy wasn’t.

4. The time I saw this bumper sticker on a car.

Actually, I can put the image in the post. That would be revolutionary. Here it is:

I knew America was a pretty militaristic place, but nothing could have quite prepared me for the amount of joy some people seem to take in the deaths of others. This particular car (not the one in the picture – the one I saw was red) was covered in anti-Islamic stickers, many of which were similarly offensive.

On a related note, a neighbour interrupted us one day to have a big rant about a Coexist bumper sticker on Grace’s car. “How would you like to coexist with people who walk through your door and throw Molotov cocktails at you?”, he asked.

We didn’t have a good retort, so he kept going, saying something about Muslims and Gaza and eventually offering/threatening to throw a Molotov cocktail through our window so we could see what it was like.

5. The time we heard a chilling scream and my first instinct was to investigate.

I thought that was what you were meant to do when you heard someone who seemed to be in need.

Apparently not in a society with guns.

Grace talked me out of it and made sure I stayed inside. I ended up calling 911 to report what we’d heard, because I wanted to help in some way, and because it made me feel like I was in an American TV show.

Everyone we’ve spoken to since said we did the right thing. Apparently you don’t respond to screams unless you have a gun that you’re not afraid to use.

 

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