Ah, the Land of the Free! I’ve been dreaming about coming here for so long, but I never expected that I will have such a culture shock in America. You may think you’ll get to know the American life by watching movies and TV shows, but when you actually come here you are in for big surprises!
Table of Contents
- The Culture Shock of a European Immigrant in America
- 10 Things That Were a Big Culture Shock for Me in America
- A Final Note
The Culture Shock of a European Immigrant in America
I remember my first day in America like it was yesterday. The large arrival area at the LAX airport filled with people from all corners of the world looked so intimidating! There were strangers all around me, each speaking in another language, made feel like I was in a dream. I could hear my pulse in my ears: tic, tic, tic…. I was in finally in Los Angeles, my new home!
Moving from one culture to another is exciting, but it’s also a very stressful experience. Transitioning from your own culture, from everything that is familiar to completely new cultural stimuli will always result in a culture shock.
Culture shock were words that I’ve never heard before or knew the meaning of until coming to California. But to better understand what I mean, I’ll have to give you a little background about my upbringing.
Growing up in a communist country where everything ‘foreign’ or non-communist was banned, I had very little concept of the outside world. The only information about the Western civilization that penetrated the Iron Curtain was either from ‘illegal’ radio stations like BBC, or Voice of America, or from foreign magazines and films that managed to get smuggled into the country.
10 Things That Were a Big Culture Shock for Me in America
For me, America was this blessed land of plenty, a place of unparalleled opportunity, where the limit was only my imagination or my willingness to work hard. But moving to America I had a big culture shock and my fair share of surprises.
1. The ‘Fake’ American Smile
Americans have huge smiles on their faces, did you notice that? At first I thought they smile because they are happy. And why wouldn’t they be? Compared to where I came from they lived in Paradise. But then I realized they don’t smile only when they are happy. They actually smile all the time, as if they are plugged in.
It took me a while to realize that an American smile has very little to do with emotions and a lot to do with being polite.
Smiling the American way of silently greeting a stranger in an elevator, in line at the bank, or in a train compartment. It’s a sign of politeness. Many people consider the American smile fake and insincere, but I’ll take a put-on smile over a sincere frown any day!
2. The Informality
I think informality is a unique American value. For me it was one of the positive cultural shocks in America. Calling your elders, teachers and superiors by their first names was something unheard of in Romanian culture and it still is in most cultures I know.
But the most shocking thing for me was that American informality doesn’t diminish the respect people have for other people. Calling someone by their first name is usually a sign of friendliness or acceptance, not a way to making one feel unimportant.
3. The ‘Heavy’ Weight of the Population
It’s no secret that everything seems to be bigger in America than anywhere else in the world. Streets, buildings, cars, food portions, everything is bigger in America. Unfortunately, that the average weight of the population is also bigger!
When I arrived in California I was shocked by the monstrous proportions of those around me. Coming from a country where food was scarce, I was astound to see people so obese that they could barely walk. Some were men bound to an electric wheelchair to carry them around.
Sadly, obesity is not only condoned in this country, but rigorously defended through anti-discrimination laws.
4. The Shocking Politeness
Americans are shockingly polite: they will hold the door open for those walking behind them, wait patiently in line, excuse themselves for being late, or for bumping into you accidentally. They don’t scream, they don’t yell and they don’t gesticulate. Coming from a culture where people argue loudly and can be very rude, this was a real culture shock!
Americans are polite even when they are rude or complain. They can cleverly deliver harsh words in a very polite manner, but generally they try to avoid conflict and confrontation. For me it’s still a very refreshing feeling to hear people say “you are welcome.”
5. The Sense of Personal Space
Americans do not like their personal space invaded. They find it uncomfortable when others stand too close to them and will unconsciously move away.
They don’t hug and kiss each other like the Europeans do. Americans don’t like personal questions and consider it very rude if they are asked about their age, weight, or salary.
They also don’t like to express their emotions. America was built on self-reliance and individualism – the idea that one should only rely on oneself and family in order to succeed. Therefore, they generally avoid getting too close to others.
Americans call everybody a ‘friend’ which makes you feel included, but their idea of friendship is difficult to understand when you come from another culture. What they call a friend, in European culture is rather an acquaintance.
6. The Language Barriers
I was pretty fluent in English when I came to the States, but little did I know that the same word can mean two very different things, depending on what side of the Atlantic you are.
On my first day on the job I asked a colleague for a rubber and in an instant everybody in the office looked at each other and burst into laughter. The innocent pencil eraser – the rubber– as the British call it, is actually a condom in America.
At another time I asked the baker for a couple of buns at a bakery in Los Angeles. The old man behind the counter smiled and handed me the two cakes that I was pointing at, but said softly: “Honey, these are called rolls here. Buns are the ones you are sitting on.”
7. The ‘How Are You’
Perhaps my biggest culture shock in America was the colloquial ‘how are you.’ It took me a long time to realize that when the Americans say ‘how are you‘ they are not actually asking how you are. It doesn’t imply they are interested in your personal life.
How-are-you is just a greeting phrase and it stops right there. So the conversation goes something like this: “How are you? Good, and you? Pretty good! That’s good.”
This style of greeting was really confusing for me. Back in Europe when somebody asks you how you are, they are genuinely interested in knowing if you are well or have some issue you want to share.
8. The American Sense of Humor
When I first moved to the U.S. I used to crack little jokes and make puns, but nobody seemed to be getting them. What was hilarious back in Europe would barely raise an eyebrow in America.
In my turn, I found nothing funny about the “Knock Knock” kind of jokes. Going to standup comedy made me feel totally isolated. Everybody around me was cracking up, but for me their jokes were not funny at all.
While there is a lot of humor that transcends borders, certain kinds of humor is deeply rooted in our nationhood. Many jokes can only be understood in a certain political or cultural context.
9. The Need to Identify a Foreign Accent
One of the things that constituted a big culture shock for me in America was the ‘where-are-you-from‘ question. I didn’t expect that a foreign accent could trigger a whole conversation about your country of origin, politics, family and relatives. Why does a foreign accent immediately invites an inquisition in a country that was built on immigrants?
Even after 30 years I’m still being asked where I am from because of my accent, which is really annoying. For me the where-are-you-from is a loaded question. It assumes foreignness and it disguises curiosity about my ethnic background based on which I can be judged.
If answered sincerely, the question will lead to a series of subsequent questions that are only meant to intrude even further into my personal life. If not answered at all, it will lead to a stiffly and embarrassing silence. It’s a no-win situation!
10. The Respect for the Rule of Law
American people take the rule of law very seriously and are overcautious about what they do or say. My biggest culture shock in America was to discover how easily you can be sued in this country over nothing. If there is a lawsuit to be filed, someone will file it.
When I first saw TV commercials encouraging people to sue their doctors for bad outcomes, which often happen despite the doctors’ best and most competent efforts, I simply couldn’t believe my ears.
No wonder that physicians and nurses in this country spend more time documenting their procedures, than treating the patients themselves!
A Final Note
I must confess that I still have a hard time getting used to some of these things. And yet, the effect of my culture shock in America shaped me up in a good way. It increased my self-confidence and creativity, helped me identify the many different types of people and their values.
And most importantly, it helped me become more acceptant and understanding towards other people. I realized that our differences don’t define us and shouldn’t divide us. There will always be contrasts between cultures, but they shouldn’t affect people’s relationships.
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