A lot of people around the world have ideas of what America is like, possibly thanks to Hollywood, or their local news channels, and maybe from what they’ve heard from families and friends. But then, they came here, to the grand old United States and their minds exploded.
I am originally from Bangladesh and here are a few things that I find hard to explain to peeps back home.
- Fruits and vegetables are way more expensive than meat and poultry.
- That, generally speaking, the poor is more obese than the rich.
- A lot of couples adopt children, sometimes in spite of having their own, and treat them exactly like their own. (To me, this alone is a marker of a great people)
- By and large, people do not carry cash.
- That you address your boss (and some of your professors) by some abbreviated variation of their first name. And that applies to pretty much everyone, regardless of how much older they are than you.
- Parents can get arrested for physically punishing their children.
- Severe poverty, homelessness, etc, no matter how limited, actually exist. Even in America.
- A name as common and as easy to pronounce as mine is almost invariably incomprehensible to most Americans.
- America is literally HUGE. My home country is roughly the size of Florida, one of the fifty states.
- In spite of the society being openly hedonistic and liberal, the social norms and standards still have very strong conservative religious influences.
- People don’t really care about the FIFA World Cup even though USA qualifies.
- The importance of credit rating/ credit score.
- Return policy.
- The history behind Thanksgiving.
- Black Friday and the frenzy associated with it.
- Amazingly friendly, hospitable and helpful people. Yet, a very conveniently private lifestyle.
- That, American foreign policy is a very inaccurate reflector of public consensus.
- Grinding. The dance form.
- That you cannot purchase alcohol unless you are 21 but can purchase a gun if you are 18.
Okay, so I know that there’s loads of answers here, and I couldn’t read all of them, so I’d probably be repeating some points. I’ll mention that I’m from India and that I’m writing from an Indian point of view, and what struck me as unusual based on what notions I’d built up after watching so much Hollywood and TV series.
- Dependence on GPS – I knew people who went to office everyday since the past 5 years and could not tell their way without a GPS. It was amazing! I made some friends there and they were so impressed that I could tell my way back to their home without help from a GPS.
- Cashless Society – Coming from India, where we just need cash because cards are not accepted at most places, I was really surprised by the cashless system in the US. Every place accepts credit cards. Even a small picnic I went to, which had an entry fee, had some sort of mobile app and a device attached to accept credit cards. It was amazing.
- EMIs for everything – It’s like the people there live on EMIs. Cars, phones, everything. And even the lower middle class can afford this stuff. It’s like everyone has an iPhone. Which also reminds me of the extremely bad coverage that AT&T provided. I’m used to better coverage in India. Almost forgot! Worst part was being charged for incoming. Calls and messages! It’s like a nightmare for Indians.
- Baby Car seats, Strollers – The extremely confusing rules and regulations that pervade America were already too much, but the emphasis on car seats and strollers was something new. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a car seat in India. And parents carry their children mostly, most people can’t afford strollers here. Also the cost of childcare in US is astounding because of these things that keep adding up.
- Tipping – Enough has been said about this, but I hated it too, so I’ll include it. Specially for services like a haircut. So I pay you for cutting my hair…..and then I tip you because you were gracious enough to cut my hair?!
- Public Toilets – Indian public toilets are usually in unmentionable conditions, and this was a refreshing change. Specially because half the stuff was automated. I remember thinking at first, that Americans are so lazy, they don’t want to flush their toilets.
- Cashiers talking to you – Every cashier will greet you with “How are you today? You find everything okay?” with a smile, and you’re quite thrown off the first few times. Also, I had this really great cashier at Harris Teeter give me discounts because I always checked out at his counter 🙂 Really nice people! In general also, people were extremely polite, and many just complimented you too!
- The above point reminds me, that Americans find it very odd if people use different words than them, like British English for eg. people looked at me funny when I asked where the “Chemist” is (Drug Store). Biscuit (Cookie), Billing Counter (Cashier), Coriander (Cilantro), Petrol (Gas) are others.
- Awesome Traffic – Coming from India, I found it amazing the way traffic behaved without any intervention from traffic policemen. Just everyone following the rules. It was a bit bad in NYC, but not even comparable to where I live right now (Kanpur, India). People don’t try to cut you off. People let pedestrians cross. Also, the parallel parking is really efficient! The roads are so well maintained, and the scenery is always beautiful.
- Speed limits – The US has really high speed limits for us people following the metric system. The highest speed limits are around 75mph or 121 kmph which seemed like gross overspeeding to me. But it contributed to great drives!
- General Safety – I was travelling in Manhattan, late night Subway, when a group of loud, drunk people entered, and we were kinda scared. Immediately at the next stop, two NYPD officers entered, and stood at the doors until they were in the car. It was awesome! I felt pretty safe overall, which I didn’t even expect to.
- Quality of chocolate – It’s just not as good. Sorry folks, but a Hershey bar is the most overrated thing I ever tried. And the Kit Kat was horrible. The chocolate was oily. Yes, oily. I have no idea why. (This reminds of my trip to Walmart. I knew it was big. I just didn’t imagine it would be this big! The astounding variety of pretty much everything is just overwhelming)
- Incredible wastefulness – I was aghast at the amount of stuff people wasted every single day. Food, electricity, water, paper…in India, we reuse stuff until it can only be thrown away. But on the positive side, recycling is big there, so I guess it is mitigated in part.
- Obsession with fitness – I saw loads of people running/jogging on the sidewalks. A lot of people I knew cycled or ran marathons for 50 miles plus. This was a stark contrast though, to the average person I saw who was usually overweight. (I attributed it to insane portion sizes, as mentioned in an answer. I always ate the same sandwich for lunch and dinner)
- McDonald’s not upto the mark – This was a shocker for me. McDonald’s is like one of the best known brands of America, and the quality was arguably worse than what I get here. And I’m non-vegetarian. The burger doesn’t resemble it’s pictures at all. One (really bad) choice for vegetarians, and that was it. I went there once, and didn’t want to go again. On the other hand, Starbucks seemed totally worth the hype for me. They have great coffee.
- Patriotism – The flag was everywhere. Literally. I came to know students are supposed to pledge allegiance to their flag since Kindergarten.! (I can’t fathom how they pronounce allegiance). On the other hand, they are blissfully unaware of the rest of the world (A high school kid thought Taj Mahal is in Washington DC). But I loved how all students were involved in some sort of extra curricular activities or the other.
- The awkward public transport experience – It’s just so bad I can’t even say anything. (Not the big cities) My outings were severely cut short due to this. Cabs were insanely expensive. And I could kill cab drivers who asked for tips on top of that.
- Monotonous Cities, Cookie-Cutter Homes – This is my personal view, but the Downtown areas of almost all cities looked similar. Give or take a few things. The suburbs all looked the same. I was so weirded out by the Cookie Cutter Homes, which all looked like the same person had built it. Also, it was amusing to know that all the construction was wooden. Sound traveled too much. And I hated the weird landscaping. It seemed the whole country is sloped. Even apartments were built on slopes. I found it very funny. In India, each city looks different. Vastly different!
- Street Performers – The street performers around Union Square, Times Square were really entertaining. And I was amazed how much money they collected. I saw people give 20s. I doubt Indian street performers would ever see that kind of money.
- Religion – I always thought that America must be very laid-back about religion, like Europe, but that was not true. And one of the weirdest things I encountered was a Jewish person (in the black suit) preaching to us on the subway to believe in God, and Apocalypse or something, and giving us “Trillion dollar” notes with this stuff written on it.
I am American but my family immigrated here from Guyana during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Here are some things they are surprised by:
- Treatment of dogs. At least until the 1980s in Guyana, dog food was not a thing that existed. Dogs got table scraps and mostly were outside. They are surprised by how in America, people actually avoid feeding their dog “people food”.
- The amount of food Americans waste. My grandma to this day remembers a story about when she came to teach in California in the 1970s. The students used to get apples along with their lunch. Nobody ate them, so they’d just throw them away or leave them at the tables. My grandma was shocked at how they were able to just throw out good food like that, and that no other teachers cared.
My mom just gave me some interesting ones.
- Dessert. Not dessert as in sweet foods, but as in the specific course eaten after dinner. It doesn’t exist. Guyanese people eat dinner and then that’s it. I remember going to my American friend’s house and being shocked that people in real life actually ate dessert.
- The fact that Americans don’t stay with relatives when visiting them. Many Americans would rather stay in a hotel, or at least the Americans we know. Guyanese people (or at least my family) think it’s strange that you would pay money when you have relatives to stay with, even if you can afford it. I remember when we had a family reunion, nobody paid for a hotel, so there were 3 people in my bed, 2 people on the floor in my room, 2 people in the master bedroom, 2 people in the guest room, 1 person on the couch, and 2 people on the floor in the living room. That was considered totally acceptable, whereas my American stepdad thought we were crazy.
I’m from Russia. Below are a few things I almost always have to explain or discuss with visitors from Russia.
- Why individual houses are so large? We always get into discussion that house is not just a shelter, but also a manifestation of one’s financial achievements.
- Philanthropy. There is no culture of philanthropy in Russia and many view American philanthropy either as a waste of money or as some intricate plot to get some additional benefits.
- People don’t walk places. They go everywhere by a car.
- There is almost no public transportation except in a few large cities. People actually have to have cars to get places. Cars are necessity, not luxury.
- Majority of high and middle schools have sport facilities of very high, almost professional quality.
- Many schools have orchestras, bands, theaters of a very high, almost professional quality. Free.
- Every state has a lot of autonomy.
- President’s salary is comparable with the one of a plastic surgeon.
- President doesn’t automatically become the richest person in the country.
- Majority of things in the US aren’t controlled or regulated by the government.
- Children are expected to leave home when they are 18.
- Students prefer and are expected to live in a dorm and not with parents.
- When relatives visit they often stay in the hotel.
- Many children, even in well to do families, work in fast food, car washes and do a lot of other things to get money and it is not an embarrassment.
- Parents have their babies sleeping in separate rooms almost from the day of their birth. (Russians find #11-15 are particularly absurd, offensive, and egotistical.)
- Many Russians believe that American system of primary and secondary education is very inefficient. As a mother, I have to explain that it is very diverse and essentially even in the poorest districts there are tons of resources available for children who are willing to use them. There are also an opportunity for kids to take advanced and extra advanced classes providing they are willing and able to do the work. And this differentiation is available as early as elementary school.
- How well elderly live, even those on SSI and Medicaid. How many services are available to them.
- How open Americans are about their shortcomings and always ready for self-criticism.
- Millions of people don’t have medical insurance.
- Some hospitals look like five-star hotels.
- Budgets of some hospitals are equal to h/c budgets of small countries.
- Doctors tell their patients everything.
- Return policies and free refill.
- Idea of a liberal art education. In Russia, after high school graduation, a student should decide on vocation: engineer, doctor, teacher, lawyer, accountant, etc. It seems inconceivable to attend a university and then to graduate without a solid specialty. I often have to explain that not knowing what one wants to do after high school is an acceptable norm in US. A student can still acquire marketable skills, expand his or horizons, get a job after graduation, and, what is even more surprising, obtain an advance degree in a totally different field later. Yes, accountant can attend a med school and become a doctor and musician can go for a master degree in computer science.
When my husband moved here (to Canada) he was a Chilean living in Spain. When he first arrived, he couldn’t believe how little we had to work for such money, and how we had the audacity to complain about being “overworked.” He was surprised that he could make enough to pay bills, buy groceries, pay rent, and still afford a social life and luxuries like our xbox while working as a pizza chef. Back home, he was working 12-16 hour days 6 days a week, with an extra 6 hour shift on Sundays, and he was making half as much. He had to work 8 months (while living with his mother) to afford the ~$4000 that constituted his plane tickets and first two months living expenses.
Now, he is lazy and entitled like the rest of us.
When I taught overseas for a couple years (South Pacific island nation), this is what my close friends expressed disbelief over:
- That I have never, ever, ever seen anyone firing a gun from a moving vehicle. They think this is happening constantly.
- I wasn’t from Chicago, New York, or Hollywood. Or Sacramento. That’s all there is in America, according to movies/I-dont-know-what. They also assumed that you could run into ultra famous people, like, in the open market or on the bus; that you wouldn’t was unimaginable. The real problem was a lack of understanding about the enormity of the country itself, and the vast numbers of people here. America. It’s big.
- That our bathrooms include the toilet *and* the sink.
- Clothes washing machines. That I’d never washed clothes by hand before going there was comical to them.
- That our showers are hot water. Always. Boggles the minds.
- Turkeys. They’re huge, and must be a chicken-y explosion of wonder. Actually, no.
- We think beef is better — a “higher” quality of food — than chicken.
- Wall-to-wall carpeting. The absolutely needless luxury is both profoundly wasteful and absurd. Not to mention hard to clean. I couldn’t agree more.
My Russian in-laws were shocked when they found out that we get packages left on our doorstep and no one steals them.
They were also shocked by buffets. My father-in-law told everyone back in Moscow, “No, really! You just pay to enter!”
I’ve had many long talks with refugees, recent immigrants and international students. Each had a personal perspective (individuals from same town still have unique perceptions), as well as a culturally driven perspective (different countries but similar socioeconomic backgrounds and ideologies). The one thing in common that all of them shared was a tendency to not understand the nature of the friendships/relationships they were making when they first arrived. A lot of hurt feelings and misunderstandings because of the sometimes shallow nature of American social interaction.
Yes, they’d meet with a lot of friendliness and amicable treatment, but there was a bit of cold water splashed in their faces as they assumed it was the beginning of a real friendship, and they’d seek the person out for activities, interaction, etc. A lot of Korean, Japanese, West African, and Middle Eastern folks said the same things: they thought they were making friends but they turned out to be arms-length acquaintances. Several expressed that they started to feel that the initial friendliness was phony or superficial. Fortunately, not all of their relationships went this way, and they often met great new real friends.
Here in this discussion, others have responded that they were surprised that Americans live so far from family. These interpersonal issues may be related: perhaps the depth of relationships aren’t as strong here, and bonds quickly forged are more easily broken. I don’t know.
I do remember a Nigerian friend expounding on this by asking me, “If I woke you up in the middle of the night and asked you to come with me, what would you say?”
“I’d ask what was going on…”
“You see,” he said. “My friends from my village would come with me, and on the way would ask, ‘Ade, where are we going?’”
- You really need health insurance – The cost of healthcare in this country is insane. It seems that all aspect of healthcare is designed with ‘patient must be insured’ assumption – read: charge as much as possible. Any uninsured small procedure will leave a lasting impression in your financial health for many years to come.
- Online money transfer between bank is done via cheque – In USA (at least in PA), whenever I want to transfer money to someone, the bank will issue a cheque and post it to the address of the cheque recipient. The recipient will then cash in the cheque. This procedure will take few days normally and applies even to customers who transfer money to another customers within the same bank.
- TSA – I am a citizen of a supposedly ‘terrorist’ country and for some reason got classified as ‘high threat’ individual. Thus every time I enter AND LEAVE the country, I need to go for ‘secondary inspection’ at some small room at the corner of the airport / border checkpoint. Let me repeat: every single time I enter and leave the country. Oh, to make thing worse: any people that go with me need to go for ‘inspection’ too. So when it comes to travelling, at least in airport / border checkpoint, I prefer to travel alone which will likely to fuel officer’s suspicion :p
- Apparently being a non-muslim Chinese studying in reputable school(s) outside of my ‘terrorist’ country for almost a decade was not enough to escape TSA’s terrorist profiling.
- Walmart (and other big supermarkets) – So much stuff for so little price. $2.99 for a pint of Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry. $6 for 24 cans of coke. Why get a $8 Hershey syrup if you can get TWO for $10.
- Credit Score WTF – The credit system in America will create a numerical value (credit score) to asses everyone’s financial fitness. No one know how the score is calculated but you need that to get a loan… or two… or three… and beyond.
- However, in order to get a credit score, you need to get a loan e.g car financing. In order to get a loan… well… you need a credit score (notice the circular reference). Your credit score can also be created by using credit card. You just need a credit score to apply for a credit card.
- Obesity and food portion – It is easy to find obese people in USA. Some people are so obese that they require a special electric scooter to carry them around. This sighting can be seen easily in Walmart where obese people use scooters to shop more … food.
- And yes, typical food portion in America is humongous. I can easily share one meal with another guy and do not feel hungry for hours to come.
- Customer service. In Nordstrom, when a sales assistant says “Can I help you?” s/he actually means “Can I help you?” and not, say, “You’re distracting me from my phone. Can you please leave?”
- Free refills, matches, etc.
- Religion being an actual thing. Prayer breakfasts in the White House. Educated people believing in creationism. The number of churches and denominations. People actually going to church.
- No jaywalking. At least not in Seattle, no matter how empty the street.
- The emphasis on marriage, particularly the apparent pressure for women to get married in their 20s.
- Impressive distances and poor public transportation.
- Food portion sizes which are ridiculous to my view. When we eat out with my husband or friends, we usually share. Not because we can’t afford, but just because we do not need THAT much food. On the other hand I like the can-I-please-have-it-to-go thing for everything that left on the table, which is not so common in Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe, where I am from.
- Sport obsession. In downtown Toronto where I live (I believe this still counts for North America) everyone runs; or rides a bike; or skates; or makes yoga in the park; Public tennis courts and pools are full all summer long, not mentioning fitness clubs. Downtowners are crazy for health and fitness in the positive sense and are generally in the good shape. However, the farther from downtown you get, the bigger people get. In suburbs you barely notice anyone walking.
- Love for marathons. I was surprised to find out how many marathons take place during summer and how serious many people are about them. They pay $100+ in enrollment fees (usually goes to charity) and train themselves all year long.
- Under-dressing in cold weather. Shoes (flip-flops?) + tshirt + cardigan + scarf (+ running nose) = winter city outfit often seen in subway and public places when it is REALLY cold outside. If in winter you see a bare-feet child in crocks running from the car to the mall through the piles of snow, it is likely to be a local one. Immigrant kids are often on contrast a bit over-dressed for the weather, wearing snowpants and mittens starting November.
- Coffee. I just don’t get it.
- Large car engines. At home I drove a 1.25L stick-shift Mazda2, which was perfect for the city and quite fuel-efficient. Here if you ask for the car with 1.6L engine in the dealership, you get surprised a look. 2.0L, or even 2.3L is considered a regular American engine, while in Europe this will be more on the larger side. Stick-shifts are not that common, too. Many people can’t drive it.
- Although I had the overall idea about north American lifestyle when I was coming, I still was surprised so many times during my first year here. But adjusting was fun, great experience.
It’s not that I didn’t believe, but it’s more things I didn’t expect or couldn’t anticipate before coming here (I’m from Portugal). My experience is limited to Boston and in particular MIT which can congregate some odd folks:
- Bottles of water. For some reason, people carry huge Nalgene bottles around. And the funny thing is, there’s a (refrigerated) water fountain in almost every corridor.
- Tests in pajamas. Ok, this might be an MIT thing, but I’ve seen several students (mostly undergrad) take exams in pajamas.
- Snapping your [spinal] column. I had not seen this in my country, but in every class, seminar or other situation when people sit for a long time, they occasionally tend to straighten up and snap the column by rotating their backs left and right.
- Immediate check and taking away empty plates. For me this was incredibly rude as back home you never take the empty plates before everyone who’s dining has finished their meals. Also, back home one asks for the check, so when waiters bring you the check here without you asking can feel very much like you’re being rushed. This has lead me to leave several food places without paying, when I go home, only to have to return to pay after realizing that no, the check had not been given to me and I had not paid yet.
- Ice cold water immediately when you sit at a table.
- Tips. why does every meal need to be an algebra exercise when almost always you pay the same percentage?
- Infantile and convenient food (and I’m not talking about the fast food). No bones, no spines, hardly ever find an entire fish, it’s mostly filets, very little diversity (little lamb, or duck, hardly ever rabbit, and for fish it’s almost always tuna, salmon, haddock and bass), seedless everything. A lot of things (not desserts) are sweetened, like honey smoked, glazed, etc. Even desserts sometimes look like 5-y.o. were left alone in the kitchen: cookie dough ice cream, oreo cheese cake…
- “How are you?” at every shop.
- How people feel it’s important to immediately know your first name and use it.
- Jogging. Everybody jogs in Boston.
- Doing an online transfer and hearing that the other party was sent a printed paper check by mail > retail banking, in many aspects is not modern at all.
- Personal greetings. the almost-best-friends-but-I-still-don’t-want-to-get-your-germs hugging. Beyond the formal handshake the greetings seem, to me, awkward. As a southern european I’m used to the face kissing with women or heart-felt embraces with men. I appreciate that not all cultures like this type of physical contact, but the american (new england?) embracing is somewhat in between: it’s a hug, which implies proximity and contact, but it’s done in a way that avoids being too intimate.
My husband is Canadian. He has lived in the U.S. since he was 23, when we got married. He was born in Scotland and grew up in Ontario, first near Toronto then outside Windsor as a teenager. His parents have lots of friends that are British immigrants to Canada so his upbringing was heavily influenced by that culture. We live near the Canadian border, so it’s not uncommon for Canadians to commute to the Detroit area for work.
Here are the things that still still surprise him:
- The attitudes towards healthcare. We both are allied health professionals ( he is a pharmacist) so he’s seen it up close from the inside. He can’t believe how people are so callous about the uninsured. From a epidemiological standpoint, he’s seen how counter productive it’s been to discharge people with infections . There is so much waste on marketing, logo rebranding, doing cosmetic nonessential upgrades. Most hospitals have non profit status. They use the budget ” surplus” to lure patients with good insurance. Hubs is pretty apolitical, but he will get fired up about this from time to time. Sometimes it disgusts him.
- Guns , obsession with guns with many Americans. We’ve seen an increase in gun obsession or ” intensity” among friends and extended family. His brother is an engineer who lives in Windsor and works over herea lot, and that is his biggest ” surprise.” Usually he thinks its silly but sometimes the conversations about guns gives him the creeps.
- He’s come to appreciate it, but hubs sees Americans as just more intense, opinionated, passionate , loud. He had to tell people that Canadians are not apathetic or weak, they just are more reserved . My particular Canadian hub does not identify much with the Québécois, who are more into protest and emoting.
- He is in awe (and it’s made me in awe) of the rich musical history of the U. S. He thinks the African American contribution to culture is one of our country’s greatest gems.
- The size of houses. At least in southern Ontario, you don’t see many 4 person families living in a 3000 square foot houses. Overall, I see Canadians as more aware of Energy consumption.
- The diversity in the U.S. culturally, climate, ideology. It’s tiring but it is fascinating.
- Given the fact that we live 30 minutes from the Canadian border, it’s astounding how few people in this area are uninformed or misinformed about Canada ( I was when I met him) I can see it if you live in the south , but to have as much contact we have with Canadians in the workplace, etc it shows a lack of curiosity.
- Drive-thru ATMs and stores. It left me speechless. And then to think that most purchases in the U.S. are on credit ;). You can even do drive-thru shopping, drive-thru oil-change, drive-thru massage(?). Everything is drive-thru!
- Cars, cars, cars. It’s a big country and public transport is lacking. Hence, everybody owns at least one car and uses it for the smallest distances. It’s like people forgot how to walk or bike. Although I saw many people bike, it was to do sports, not for day-to-day transportation.
- Use of slang OMG! NO WAY!! So, apparently people really do say O.M.G. a lot (in california that is) and other slang you hear on t.v. I thought that was simply T.V. stuff.
- Extreme sensitiveness towards race and religion. People tend to be very sensitive about racial and religious topics. I was embarrassed to ask a Costco employee where the white chocolate was because I was afraid she would tell me I was a racist.
- Huge serving portions. I’m a big guy and love eating, but 50% of the time I could only finish half the food on my plate (how do you guys do it?!).
- Gigantic cars. WOW, I thought a Land Rover was big until I saw the average pickup truck in the U.S.
- Many payment options. You can pay with check, credit, debit, cash, or anything else of value. Unbelievable. I’m used to either paying in cash or with my debit card. It’s really smart business wise – you simply cannot say you don’t have the money, because even if you don’t.. you can still pay.
- Widespread obesity. I was shocked to see the amount of obese people in the U.S. I can fully understand it though: the portions are big, everything has cheese in it, refills are free, purchases in bulk are cheaper, etc.
- Franchise, Franchise, Franchise. In California it’s hard to avoid franchise restaurants or stores. Although I’ve heard that in many other parts of the country this is absolutely not the case (e.g. Texas).
- Amazing presentation skills. A 7-year-old kid from the U.S. would beat any European in a sales pitch. I find the average American amazing in presenting themselves, doing sales, explaining how things work, etc. I’m jealous.
- The U.S. preserves its nature. I was thrilled to see how far ahead America is in preserving its beautiful nature. Absolutely terrific, kudos to you guys.
I’ve lived in Germany for a few years from what my German friends have told me:
Wooden houses. In Germany you only build a house out of wood if you are poor or trying to make some sort of environmental statement.
The sheer size. Tried to explain to a friend that my state takes 6 hours to drive across at 120kmh and that it’s not even the biggest state. A few told me driving through the plains area made them a bit agoraphobic.
That there are places in the US where you can be the only person in a 50 mile radius (not counting Alaska)
Funny thing, I told them the name of the state I came from and they gave me a blank look. I told them that it bordered California and instantly they said “CALIFORNIA!” They then asked if I had ever been to Hollywood and seen celebrities. They couldn’t comprehend how far away I live from Hollywood and that I’ve never seen a celebrity.
The couldn’t believe that we like Root Beer.
I’m originally from Sweden, and I have to admit that I first mis-remembered this question as being about what makes the US different from other countries. Since it’s about what foreigners will not believe until they go there, which is a much harder question to answer, I’ll just do a flow of consciousness thing here.
And first something about where you’re from. I notice that many answers tend to be on the form of “things work” and “it’s so rich” for people from developing countries. Being from a developed country myself, that’s not what I found hard to believe before I came here. Rather:
- Yes, you can buy guns without very much of a background check. When I was driving around yesterday I saw a guy walking out of a gun store with a bag, possibly enjoying his purchase of two new pistols. It was great!
- People really are afraid of socialism. This seems to be especially true the less they know about it, or believe it means turning their car in to the state. It also turns into fear of Obamacare being some sort of socialist plot, which is hilarious.
- There really are enormously big things here, like huge cars, houses and natural scenery. It’s too bad the last is not as well known – the US could get a lot more revenue from tourism.
- Bank checks are still used and mailed in envelopes. I thought this was only in a few cases but a lot of companies seem to prefer this method by default.
- Food portions are larger, and you can get some amazingly fatty food. Every once in a while, it’s a feature rather than a bug.
- Nobody takes the bus (for the laid-back, colloquial definition of “nobody”).
- Credit cards are way more popular than in other countries, and the default, rather than debit cards. Using the latter is considered odd.
- The role of religion is much stronger here than in other Western nations. Things like creationism are usually believed by a handful of people in other places, but here it seems to be at least a force to be reckoned with.
- It really is a diverse place, much more so than many foreigners really understand. A country that can produce both Snoop Dogg and Westboro Baptist Church is like no other place (seriously!).
- Bureaucracy really is kafkaesque at times. But most of the time, it’s just that there are over 300 million people and the manning for a certain department is limited to two guys in Kentucky who have to answer every request by snail mail. This is probably the real reason people say government is evil.
- A lot of people really think a constitution written hundreds of years ago provides written guidance to any issue the nation might be faced with. Then again, a large subset of the same group believes that a book written 2000 years ago provides answers to all problems in life.