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.


An American paradox

There’s a lot of things I don’t understand about the USA, but one in particular has had me consistently confused over the past few months.

Why is it that the people who are most scared of the US government are the people who are most supportive of its foreign policy?

Why is it that people who believe in small government are the same people who believe in a massive military, controlled by the government?

Why is it that those same people tend to believe in strong policing, massive jails and state-sponsored executions?

Why is it that the people who distrust the government most are the same people who believe every fear-mongering thing that comes out of the government’s lips about Muslims, communists, socialists, terrorists and various other sorts of scary foreign things?

Why is it that the people who don’t believe that the US government can ever do anything good refuse to listen when the rest of the world tells them that the US government is doing something bad?

Why is it that people who are scared of the US government keep large stockpiles of guns to protect themselves, and practice by going to the local shooting range, where they fire their guns at posters of Osama bin Laden, possibly the only person in the world who hated the US government as much as they do?

I’m just waiting till the people working for $7/hr in a company that makes $6bn/yr start complaining that they don’t want anyone to take their hard-earned wealth away. Then I’ll have heard it all!

Three months in America

 So I’ve been in the US a little over three months now, and have hardly managed to write anything. So maybe it’s time for one of those long rambly posts about whatever pops into my head while I write it.

Richmond, Virginia. That’s where we live. You can’t just name a city in the US without also mentioning its state, because it seems that every state is made up of an almost identical collection of cities. It kind of interrupts the flow of a sentence because you can’t just say “Richmond is a nice place.” Instead you have to waste an entire paragraph explaining why you can’t just say “Richmond is a nice place” and then save the place itself for the next one.

So Richmond, Virginia, is a nice place. I didn’t realise immediately just how nice it is, because it doesn’t seem to be anything special compared to some of the other nice places I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the years. But once I learned to compare it not to European villages or Himalayan hillsides, but to the rest of suburban America, I realized that it is a lovely place indeed.

We live right in the centre of Richmond, in an area called “the Fan”, so named because it fans out from Downtown, and the rest of the city fans out from here. The Fan is much loved by its residents for its medium-density housing and walk/cycleability, rare features in this part of America. Within walking distance are a large hardware store, a gross-looking chicken shop, an excellent pizzeria, a wine shop, a small but fancy grocery store, a good Japanese restaurant, the Department of Motor Vehicles and a number of bars and pubs. If we lived a mile further away we’d have to drive to get any of the above.

The DMV, as it’s known, has turned out to be a particular boon. The fact that it’s almost impossible to get around without a car means that licences are  easy to come by, and it took me only two months and $0 to get my full licence, a process that would take over three years and cost several hundred dollars in Australia. Good things come to those who wait.

Our routine here has been pretty well set for the past couple of months. Grace goes to class on Monday and Tuesday, her internship on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and work on Friday and Saturday nights. I spend almost all this time hanging around at home, doing odd jobs, playing with the cat, cooking food, sharing articles on Facebook or playing board games and FIFA with our next-door neighbours.  There was a brief interruption when I got a job, which I’ll get to soon.

On Saturday mornings we go to the local farmers’ market, but we actually buy most of our food from a lady who lives a few blocks from the market and sells homegrown produce in her front yard. For between $20 and $30 we come home with a week’s worth of veggies, from kale to beets to pumpkin to squash to tomatoes to apples to radish and so on.  We stop by the actual market for some local mushrooms, a particularly excellent Menonite glazed donut (if you didn’t know donuts could be religious, THINK AGAIN. This is the USA we’re talking about.), $2 of garlic (don’t forget the garlic) and some fresh milk.

On Sundays I play football (or did until last week, when the season finished) for a team that was clearly in the wrong division and won every game by at least six goals. It was quite fun to take the piss but not that fun to have no real competition.

Sometimes we go to the river, or the pub, or a party, or some other sort of  social event like a “cookout” or “Halloween”.

So, work. I was offered a job by a man from New Jersey who lives in Colorado and has a small business making fancy cheesecakes. One of the conditions of my visa is that I can’t be unemployed for more than three months at a time, and I was running out of time so I eagerly signed on for $8/hr before tax, or what we in Australia call about two and a half times less than minimum wage. This offered me a pretty interesting window into American life, which I would recount in an interesting way if my brain were working a little better right now.

My co-workers were all the type of people you’d describe as “interesting”, and each of them gave me a ride home at some point and spent the twenty minutes expounding (with a little prompting) their theories on American society. They’ve kind of all warped together in my mind but all fit neatly into the subcategory called “confusingly libertarian ideologies of the working poor”.

One was Barbara, a lady in her 40s or 50s who has another full time job but was asked to take some leave and so took the opportunity to earn a few more dollars in the baking industry.

Another was Tony, again in his 40s or thereabouts, who has been working odd jobs his whole life (ranging from accounting to cake decorating and everything else in between), and who went to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, fell in love with Hahn Premium and came back with the Olympic logo tattooed on his arm.

Then there was Jason, an ex-cop who spent lots of time talking about his culinary ability, past sexcapades and suing people.

I’m not sure about the other jobs my co-workers had, but unless they paid a lot more than cheesecaking they were all living in relative poverty. Down with big government and unions and fair working conditions and long live liberty and freedom and God and the USA!

So the job itself was pretty simple: follow orders. As long as the boss man is paying you your $8 you do what he says. And you do it deferentially; this is the USA and a polite “yes sir” never goes astray.

Anyway, after a few days of this (spread over a month) the cheesecake entrepreneur went back to Colorado, and because he couldn’t trust us all to get the job done without him, he told me not to come in for a few weeks. Which is just fine, because I brought home four left-over quince on Monday and spent Tuesday afternoon making quince paste. I’m hoping I was the only one to get put on leave and not one of the others who no doubt need that $8 a little bit more than I do.

I said this post was going to be rambly, and I think I’m living up to my word (and sorry spell checker, I don’t care whether you think it’s a word or not).

Now I’m going to tell you something else I’ve discovered about the US: it’s not their fault they don’t travel.

Seriously. I’ve travelled a lot, and as anyone who has ever travelled a lot can tell you, Americans (of the United Statesian variety) are seriously underrepresented among the travellers of the world. Lots of people (not me, of course!) assume that it’s because Americans are insular, and xenophobic, and don’t care too much for the rest of the world, and there might be some truth to this. But the bigger issue is that American society hates young people. Young people have to take out massive loans to study, they have to move out of town to attend college, they have to get good marks to get good jobs to have good careers to live a decent life down the track, they actually have to attend classes and if they do happen to get a part-time job the chances are it’ll pay $7.25/hr. So it’s not their fault. American young people are the missers-out of the developed world’s young people, just as the American poor are the missers-out of the developed world’s poor. And they do make the most of it, by travelling as much as they can, to far-flung cultural paradises like California and New York and Florida and “the beach”, in that peculiarly American aeroplane with four wheels and half a dozen bumper stickers.

So I’m going to end this post on that note, and with one final, random thought.

You can’t have freedom if you can’t afford a gun.

Some more American things


Technology in the US is a strange mix of ahead-of-the-rest-of-the-world, behind-the-rest-of-the-world and on-another-planet entirely.

Internet: ahead of the world if you can pay for it, a long way behind if you can’t. That’s why companies who sell fast broadband still compare their speeds to dial-up.

Phones: all of the above. The US is on another planet with its strange collection of CDMA networks and small GSM providers that operate on different frequencies to the rest of the world. Phone plans are expensive, dumb phones remain in the ascendancy and mobile data is priced as a luxury add-on and not an essential part of a 21st century phone plan. But at the same time LTE is becoming more available every day.

Internet shopping: not a thing. I’m struggling to get my head around this, but being a long way from Asia, having lots of cheap land and fuel and labor at $7.25/hr means that bricks-and-mortar retail stores are actually cheaper than their online equivalents.

I already wrote about cheques being used for everything, and the not-yet-existence of internet banking. There’s also this.

The environment

What environment?

Recycling is opt-in, biweekly and who knows how much actually gets recycled. People use air conditioners all the time, including the 18 or so hours of each day when it’s actually not hot outside. People dry all their laundry in driers, which provide pretty damning and instant evidence of the existence of anthropogenic climate change (I know this because the drier for our apartment block is right outside our door, in a little sauna).

People drive big cars big distances, burn lots of cheap and nasty fuel, and eat industrially produced foods that travel all around the country in big refrigerated trucks.

Not everyone lives like this, of course, but those that do make me wonder how Australia could possibly emit even more CO2 per capita than the USA. That’s a bit embarrassing.

Also, bizarrely, dual flush toilets don’t exist.

Drive thrus

In most of the world running a morning’s errands means driving or taking public transport to some kind of central location, like a mall or a town square or a main street or a business district, and walking around it. In the US it’s kind of the same but the central location is spread out over several miles and instead of your feet you have a car.

You can drive thru at the bank, the drug store, the coffee shop, the bread shop, the post office, the restaurant, the liquor store, and the supermarket (though I believe you have to order ahead for that one). When you’re not driving thru you drive right up to the store, swap your car for a trolley (called a cart, so it still feels like you’re driving a car), and then proceed to drive it around collecting consumables. It’s like the Game of Life.

Thrift stores, antique malls and yard sales

Cheap retail means even cheaper second-hand retail, and on this point America definitely wins. Which reminds me, I need to buy some coffee for that nice little espresso maker I bought!

Some American things

I’ve been in America for almost a month and it’s time to put down some of my first thoughts about the place, in the form of some of things that have been unexpectedly weird. Of course I expected all the things we know to expect, like guns and Walmarts and stupid people (and also highly intelligent people) and fast food and the like, but here are a few things that have surprised me.


With the amount of wars the USA fights to ensure its control of the world’s oil, you’d expect fuel here to be rather cheap. And it is: most fuel I’ve seen is around $3.50/gallon, a bit under $1/litre. That’s about 50% cheaper than in Australia and half the price of European petrol.

What I didn’t expect is for it to be of such low quality. Most pumps here in Virginia offer “standard” petrol at 87 octane, “premium” at 89 or 90″ and “super-premium” or “ultra-premium” at 92 or 93. That’s pretty much on par with what we were getting in India a few years ago, and nothing like what you’d see at the pump in Australia, East Asia or Europe.

While low prices make fuel economy less important than elsewhere in the world, low-octane petrol limits the advantages car owners could get from newer economy-conscious cars. The result is roads full of larger and older cars than most of the developed world.


In the 24 years and 360 days I’ve been alive I’ve dealt with one cheque (or check, in American). I got it as a prize at a high school speech night, lost it under a pile of clothes, found it a year later, took it to the bank and ended up paying a $40 fee for trying to cash an expired check. For everything else there’s Mastercard (and Visa, and EFTPOS, and online banking, and direct debit, and ATMs on every corner).

In the USA cheques are still very much a part of the everyday economy. Grace gets paid by cheque, people pay bills by cheque, and more than once I’ve had to wait patiently at the supermarket checkout while the person in front of me carefully writes out the full amount and signs on the dotted line. Included in the daily pile of junk mail that arrives at the front door are three or four different ads for “personalised checks”, replete with little rabbits, cats, pirate ships or whatever else you might want.

When I was looking at opening a bank account recently, Grace asked me, “I suppose in Australia you don’t have think about location when you choose your bank.” She was right: my money sits (virtually) in a Credit Union that I’m told has one branch and one ATM in the state, neither of which I’ve seen.

Trucks and Buses

This one’s kind of weird, but lots of buses in the US look like trucks. I see them as some kind of ode to the great American ideal of having anything you want trucked across the country for you on demand. Look, you can even truck humans!

You can see the might of American trucks on full display on any highway, or innerstate as they are known (the word is actually interstate, if you’re writing it). They act just like any other car, changing lanes at will, tailgating cars and driving in whichever lane they like. It’s so rare to see a truck in the slow lane that three-lane innerstates seem to function like two-lane highways with tremendously broad shoulders (it doesn’t help that there are entrances and exists every few miles, as the innerstates have to fill the gaps in local road networks).


America is meant to be anti-tax, anti-big-government, anti-all-those-kinds-of-things, right? Well, let’s see. Last year in famously high-taxing Australia I earnt around $25000, and paid less than $1500 in tax (if the Coalition is elected I would end up paying a whole lot more, as they’ll move the tax-free threshold from $18000 down to $6000, but that’s another story). An American who earns the same amount pays over $4000 in state and federal income taxes and social security payments, a huge amount of money for a low-income earner.

Tax also leads to a baffling experience at the supermarket, where nothing is as it seems. Just yesterday I paid $3.06 for a $2.99 box of spinach. Maybe someone should come up with the terribly sensible and almost universally practiced idea of including tax in the price!

Another thing that I find interesting is the way tax is talked about, which is always in a “what are we getting for it?” kind of way. There’s less agreement on the need for taxation, the need for public services and wealth redistrobution and all those other warm and fuzzy things the can provide than just about anywhere else I’ve been. It’s replaced by a sense that the government might just be ripping everyone off, and is probably going to steal our free speech while it’s at it.


Coming soon 😉