Culture Shock in America (for expats)

Culture Shock in America

It doesn’t matter where you’re from, once you move to the US, you’re bound to find some things a little strange. In fact, the culture shock in America is so widely felt that you’ll find heaps of posts across the internet from expats and travellers, describing the things that made them step back and say “woah”. Culture shock in America doesn’t discriminate either, it doesn’t matter if you’ve come from a western country, or one that’s just come out of communism, culture shock is bound to ensue here in the US.

CULTURE SHOCK IN AMERICA

These are just some of the things that will make you step back and say “woah”. They are the bits and pieces that made me stop and blink for a second when I first moved from Australia to the US. I can write about them here for you, but honestly, there’s no preparing you for just how strange it can feel to be in the US when you first visit or move here. So batten down the hatches and get ready for some rough seas in your first few months in the US.

Specialty Food Stores

US Culture Shock meat
Depending on where you move to, you’ll likely be buying your meat from a supermarket

The lack of butchers, fishmongers, delis and bakeries. There are exactly zero of the first three in at least a 20km radius of me, on the peninsula. If you want meat, fish or fancy cheese, you go to a farmer’s market or pick it up in a styrofoam and plastic-covered container at the supermarket. Which might already be what you’re used to, but I suspect that’s probably not true for the most part.

Most of the countries I’ve lived in or visited have the option of local butchers and delis, fishmongers and bakeries. I know there are some dotted over the San Fransisco Bay Area, but they are few and far between, and really don’t present much competition to the huge supermarket chains. That in itself saddens me, because I love getting to know local grocers and buying things that I know are in season, instead of just guessing at the supermarket. 

All Bread is Sweet Bread 

US culture shock includes the bread in the US.
I can’t even explain what the bread here tastes like. It never goes moldy.

Sliced bread is awful and bread rolls and baguettes are not far behind. I don’t know what flavouring or preservative they add to bread but it has a really unpalatable aftertaste. Come to think of it, that aftertaste might have to do with the massive amounts of sugar added to the bread. The American population is known to have an ultra-sweet tooth, so much so that food processors add copious amounts sugar and corn syrup to their products. 

If you don’t believe me on the preservative-front, I invite you to partake in this totally scientifically-sound experiment. Buy a loaf bread – any loaf, it doesn’t have to be the sliced and packaged kind. Take a couple of slices, make some French toast, or bread pudding (just don’t add any extra sugar). Then leave the rest of that loaf on a kitchen cupboard, on top of the microwave, or on a shelf. Let’s see how long it takes to start growing mould. I guarantee you it’ll be more than three weeks.

On a bright note, it makes it easier to stay away from carbs. But if you live and die by bread, you’ll want to invest in a bread maker when you move here.

There is so Much Food Choice

We may as well continue on the food bandwagon while we’re at it. The first time you venture into an American supermarket, you’re going to be confused. Things aren’t grouped the way you’re used to, and that’s fine. But the sheer amount of differently branded products that are available for you to purchase is mind boggling. You might be used to having a couple of different brands of milk and maybe five or six different brands of sliced bread to choose from. Not in America though. It took me an hour to get through my first shopping trip, and all I was buying was pasta, ricotta cheese and pasta sauce.

Also, some products are packaged in a way you won’t be familiar with. Some grocery stores carry canned bread. I am not even joking, it’s a normal can, like you’d find peas or corn or soup in, but it contains a loaf of bread. WHAT THE HELL? Then there’s all kinds of dough that come in a pop-top cardboard roll – from bread, to croissants, to pizza dough.

Americans (maybe just Californians) Can’t Drive

Driving in America
It’s like moving the steering wheel to the left of the car, also impairs your driving skills.

This is one of those blanket statements that I will defend to my dying breath. Which may be sooner than anticipated, given that I’m taking my life in my own hands and hitting the roads here in the US. Americans, especially Californians, just can’t drive. They don’t grasp the basic tenants of taking a car onto the street, in traffic, with pedestrians around. I believe that so much, that I wrote an entire post detailing every way that Americans are failing my driving test just six months after I’d moved here and joined them on the roads. This was probably one of the biggest bits of culture shock in America that I experienced.


Read More: A Guide to Renting a Car and Driving in the US


Honestly, if you asked a sample group of 100 drivers what a blinker or indicator was, where they can find it in their car, and what it’s used for, 100 of them would shrug. No one uses the damn thing. You’ll be driving (or slowing creeping) along a 5-laned California freeway when, out of nowhere, the car slightly in front and to the side of you, just noses its way into your lane. No warning, no safety taken into consideration, no nothing. You will become great at anticipating when another car or truck might be thinking about making a foray into your lane after a few weeks of driving in this country. This is also the case with making turns into side streets. Your first indication that this is about to happen, are the brake lights in front of you.

You can do Your Groceries & Buy a Gun in the Same Place

ammunition at walmart
Luckily there’s a cut off time for buying ammunition.

A lot of people mention the availability of guns as a big part of their culture shock in America and I can relate. While I was prepared to see around more frequently, I wasn’t ready to find them on sale in department-like stores. I wrote about my very first trip to a Walmart, and how it shocked me that you can buy a bolt of fabric, shampoo, a kayak, an outfit, milk, cereal, cleaning supplies, a pet fish and a gun all in the same place. The mind just boggles.

Are You Over 21?

US ID Card
You might need your passport to buy booze if you don’t have a US driver’s license

Supermarkets have a policy of carding you for alcohol up until you’re 40-years-old. So I have to take my passport down to the bottle-o, which largely cuts down on any spur of the moment alcohol purchases. It’s also makes it much more disconcerting when they don’t card you. “Do I look over 40 today? I should probably wash my hair”.

If you’re still in the throes of getting American ID, such as a driver’s licence (here you can find step-by-step guides to passing the written test and driving test), you’ll sometimes need to use your passport as ID. But if you get lucky, your supermarket check out person, or pub bouncer might take your driver’s license from another country as proof of age. Just be prepared to point out where your birth date is on the card. And if you’re from Australia, prepare to answer questions on your state flower.

Start Writing Cheques

Writing cheques (also known as checks)
If it wasn’t for my mum, I never would have seen a cheque before moving to the US

It’s still 1970 here and everyone writes cheques for everything. Want to buy a car? You need a cheque (spelled check here). Handing over your apartment bond? Get yourself a cheque. You pay for the privilege of electronically paying your rent. Probably the biggest mistake that I made here was declining a personal cheque book when I opened my bank accounts. But it’s archaic and confusing.

Pleasantries & Words You Won’t Quite Understand

Everyone tells you to “have a good one”. A good one what? For the record, I prefer “take it easy”. I didn’t think that I’d have much trouble understanding the American form of English, considering we all get bombarded with it on TV and in Hollywood movies from the time we’re born. But there are actually some words that mean more than I knew them to, or are just plain different. You can find my growing list of American words for expats here. This is especially true of foods like coriander (cilantro), peppers (capsicum), cotton candy (fairy floss), and fish sticks (fish fingers).

Then there are the little things, like a trailer actually being a caravan that you pull behind your vehicle, not a little box trailer that you transport big things in, like your three-wheeler or your dirt bikes. A truck anything resembling a ute, and take out is what you pick up from a restaurant to take home. It’s not take away anymore people.

Orange Cheese

American Cheddar
Orange Cheese (aka American Cheddar)

The colour of the cheese here, is just diabolical. Please note that it is most commonly described as ‘yellow’ cheese in this country, but I assure you, to our expat/traveler eyes, it will be somewhat fluorescent orange. Look at it! It’s clearly not yellow by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t care what your cows eat (even if it’s corn), cheese should not be that colour. Prepare to get your US culture shock on, because cheese in this country comes in many different forms, but my absolute least favourite to think about, is cheese from a spray can. That’s right, now you can spray your cheese onto whatever you’re eating.  

Work Culture

An office setting

Work is extremely hierarchical. The vice president of the department won’t look at me, much less speak to me. And if he has a task for me, he will speak directly to my manager, even though I sit right next to said manager. This might be a universal thing though considering I worked in journalism prior to this job.

The Homeless

A homeless man
The number of homeless people in San Francisco can be confronting

It feels like there are many more homeless people on the streets here than there are in Sydney. Maybe I just stuck to parts of the city that didn’t have a lot of people living rough. In San Francisco there are tents pitched along railway line fences, under bridges and on footpaths. I get the feeling there isn’t a great support system in place here.

The #CultureShock that expats and travellers experience in America

6 thoughts on “Culture Shock in America (for expats)

  1. I hear you on nearly all of those things. I know that I found the bread very strange. We couldn't believe how long the bread lasted – clearly the preservatives are great over there !!!!!
    And the cheese – not only the colour but the cheese in a can !!! Who goes to the shop and buys cheese in a can ???????
    K still cannot get used to the archaic banking system and how far behind Australia it is – I think I have written a total of 5 cheques since we got here in Jan 2000 – and they were to RCI because I worked there and knew what their banking system was like and we could be either not charged or charged 5 times for our membership and then it would take 2 months to get a refund except they would only refund 1 instead of 4 times – and so it goes on. Good luck with your assimilation !!! xox

  2. There are situations where checks are still commonly used and even expected: Person to person payments, rent and certain other bills. (Why? There have not until relatively recently been free, ubiquitous p2p payment service. The other option, cards run thru the credit card network, involve a 3-4% fee on the party getting paid. This has changed with services like Square.) Elsewhere, you will be judged silently for paying with a check (grocery store), and finally many more places will not accept a check as payment. It’s a hodgepodge.

    On the color of cheese: Yellow ‘American cheese’ doesn’t really refer to cheddae. It’s pre-sliced cheese-like substance most popularly made by “Velveeta.” And it’s yellow. And it’s not cheese. But you would be served cheddar if you asked for American cheese, instead of the Velveeta, somewhere where they have only the better options.

    ‘Have a good one’ is hilarious. You get to fill in what in means in context, which at least acknowledges the inherent insincerity of this statement (this is called ‘thatic communication’.) ‘One’ usually means ‘day’. It could mean ‘week’. It can even stand in for ‘life’ if it’s ending a particularly final interaction and said with a certain tone!

  3. I can imagine how strange all that must be! Especially the guns in the super market. Being in California sounds like a dream 🙂 It’s funny I lived in Australia and I’m Canadian. It’s different but I feel like if I moved to the US I would notice more of a difference than Canada and Aus!

  4. It’s so interesting reading this as an American who has lived in Europe for 3 years! I’m not sure about Australia, but something I love about the US that I missed in Europe was being able to buy things at all hours of any day. In Germany grocery stores closed at 8pm, and weren’t open on Sunday, but in America most grocery stores are open late and definitely open every day of the week. It makes it so much easier to get things done when you work full time!
    The saddest one for me is the homeless population. I certainly notice how many more homeless people there are in the US (in many cities I’ve been to) versus Europe.

  5. This is so interesting to read as an American! I often experience the opposite types of culture shock when I go places. For example, when you are used to shopping at a grocery store where you can get anything, it is quite an adjustment to have to go to so many different stores to get your things. There are specialty stores in America but it is much less common for people to shop there because they are generally more expensive. As for cheese in a can, most Americans (that I know) do not enjoy the idea of that either.

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