Perplexed by America: the Culture Shock of an European Immigrant

    Perplexed by America: the Culture Shock of an European Immigrant

    My first day in America …. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in the LAX airport, surrounded by total strangers, not sure if I was awake or just dreaming. I could hear my pulse in my ears. I was in finally in America!

    A while ago, when I wrote an article about the customs, practices and cultural values of the Romanians, some of you asked me about my culture shock in America as an European immigrant. It has been now almost 30 years since I first set foot on this vast and diverse continent. It may be a little late for first impressions now,  but I can still remember some of the things that surprised me as a newcomer.

    Moving from one culture to another can be very exciting, but it’s definitely a stressful experience. Transitioning from all the familiar things in your own culture to new cultural stimuli which have little or no meaning to you, 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 the United States. But to better understand what follows 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 through ‘illegal’ radio stations like BBC and Voice of America, or through foreign magazines and films that managed to get smuggled into the country. 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 that’s for another story. Now back to my culture shock and the things that perplexed me when I first landed in America.


    The 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 smile all the time, as if they are plugged in.

    The American smile (CanStock Photo)

    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. It’s the American way of silently greeting a stranger in an elevator, in line at the bank, or in a train compartment. Many people criticize the American smile because it’s ‘fake’ and ‘it means nothing,’ but I’ll take a fake smile any day over a sincere frown.


    The Informality

    I think informality is a unique American value. It was one of the things that I found quite unique. Calling your elders, teachers and superiors by their first names was unheard of in Romania and it still is in most cultures I know. But the Americans’ informality doesn’t diminish the respect they 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.


    The Weight of the Nation

    It’s no secret that everything tends to be bigger in America than anywhere else, but unfortunately so does the average weight of the population. When I first came to the States I was shocked by the gargantuan proportions of those around me. Coming from a country where we had barely enough food to survive, I was astound to see people so obese that they were bound to an electric wheelchair to carry them around.

    Obesity in America

    Sadly, obesity is not only condoned in this country, but rigorously defended through anti-discrimination laws.


    The Friendliness and Politeness

    Americans are shockingly polite; they will hold the door open for those walking behind them, wait in line patiently, excuse themselves for being late, or for bumping into you accidentally. They don’t scream, they don’t yell and they don’t gesticulate.

    Politeness (CanStock photo)

    Even when they are rude or they complain, they will cleverly deliver their words in a very polite manner. For me it’s still a very refreshing feeling to hear people say “you are welcome.”


    The Sense of Privacy and Personal Space

    Americans do not like their personal space invaded. They find it uncomfortable when others stand too close and will unconsciously move away. They don’t hug and kiss each other like the Europeans do. Americans don’t like to be asked about their age, weight, or salary and do not like to express their emotions. America was built on self-reliance and individualism – the idea that one should only rely on oneself and family to succeed – so 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.


    The Language Shock

    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 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.

    Culture shock in America


    At another time I asked for a couple of  buns at a bakery in Los Angeles. The old woman behind the counter smiled and handed me to cakes with frosting on top, but said softly:  “Honey, these are called rolls here, the buns are the ones you are sitting on.”


    The “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. That’s just a greeting phrase and it stops right there. So the conversation goes something like: “How are you?” “Good, and you?” “Pretty good!” “That’s good.” To this day this style of greeting strikes me because in Romania, 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.


    The Humor

    I used to crack little jokes and make puns when I first came here, but got tired of people not getting my jokes. What’s hilarious in Romania will barely raise an eyebrow in the States. In my turn, I found nothing funny about the “Knock Knock” kind of jokes. Going to standup comedy in the US made me feel totally isolated. People around me were crying with laughter while I found nothing funny at all.


    My Foreign Accent

    A foreign accent in America can trigger a whole conversation about your country of origin, politics, family and relatives. I used to be very annoyed about the “where are you from?” question. Even after 30 years I’m still being asked where I am from. In most circumstances, I find it really hard not to be rude, because I perceive the question as personally invasive. Why does a foreign accent always invite an inquisition in a country where everybody is from somewhere else? 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, it will lead to a stiffly and embarrassing silence. It’s a no-win situation.


    The Law

    American people take the law very seriously and are overcautious about what they do or say. If there is a lawsuit to be filed, someone will file it. When I came here I was appalled by the medical commercials I saw on TV.  They were talking more about the negative effects of the medicines than what they are good for. And then there were the ads encouraging patients to sue for bad outcomes, which often happen despite the doctors’ best and most competent efforts. No wonder that physicians and nurses in this country spend more time writing reports to cover their behinds than treating patients.



    In Conclusion

    I must confess that even today I haven’t been able to reconcile myself to some of these things. And yet in the end the effects of culture shock in America helped increase my self-confidence and creativity, my knowledge of different types of people and their values.  Even though there will always be big differences between different cultures, they shouldn’t be an impediment in establishing effective relationships between people of different nations.