Ah, the Land of the Free! I’ve been dreaming about coming here for so long, but I never expected that I will have 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 to the United States, you’ll have some surprises.
- Arriving in America as an Immigrant
- My Culture Shock in America
- A Final Note
Arriving in America as an Immigrant
I remember my first day in America like it was yesterday. The big arrival area at the LAX airport with people from all corners of the world roaming around.
The multitude of total strangers 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.
My Culture Shock in America
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 scarce. It came either 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 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. 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 over a sincere frown any day!
I think informality is a unique American value. It was one of the things that actually shocked me in a positive way. Calling your elders, teachers and superiors by their first names was something 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 Population
It’s no secret that everything tends to be bigger in America than anywhere else. That includes the average weight of the population. When I arrived in California I was shocked by the gargantuan proportions of those around me.
Coming from a country where food was scarce, I was astound to see people so obese that they were 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.
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.
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. However, their idea of friendship is difficult to understand when you come from another culture. What they call friend, for Europeans is at the most an acquaintance.
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.
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”
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.
The 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.”
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 American 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.
A “Need” to Identify a 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 baffled when being asked where I am from because of my accent. In most circumstances, I find it really hard not to give a rude answer, because this type of question irritates me. Why does a foreign accent immediately invites an inquisition? Especially in a country like America, 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 at all, it will lead to a stiffly and embarrassing silence. It’s a no-win situation!
The Laws in America
American people take the law very seriously and are overcautious about what they do or say. My biggest culture shock in America was to discover that in this country everybody sues everybody over nothing, and the lawyers end up with all the money. 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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