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. Tic, tic, tic…. I was in finally in America, my new home! But little did I know in that moment what a culture shock coming to America was going to be.
Moving from one culture to another is exciting, but can be 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 States. 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 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.
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.
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. That includes 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.
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, 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.
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 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.
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 in America
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.
I must confess that I still have a hard time getting used to some of these things. And yet, effects of culture shock in America shaped me up in a good way. They increased my self-confidence and creativity, my knowledge of different types of people and their values. They helped me be more acceptant and understand that our differences don’t define us. There will always be contrasts between different cultures, but they shouldn’t affect people’s relationships.