10 Things I Didn’t Realize About America When I Lived in America

Oh America, I miss how ridiculous you are! Today I wanted to honor you (sort of) by listing the most important things I have realized about you while living abroad.

1. California’s Image is Disproportionately America’s Image

The world’s image of the United States is largely centered around things that only exist in California. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the music industry, LA fashion. When I am abroad and people tell me about their impressions of America they constantly (CONSTANTLY) cite Apple as an example of Americas ability to innovate and American female movie stars as examples of beauty.

2. Americas Obsession With Sex Is Ridiculously Disproportional to Its Sexual Tolerance

America craves sex! It is on practically every billboard, TV commercial and magazine cover. At the same time, America freaks out every time there is a nipple on Facebook or a Disney star wiggles her butt cheeks. President has sex with his secretary? Impeach him! The gay community wants to have equal rights? Hate demonstrations! Meanwhile, Katy Perry releases another song about kissing a girl and a countless number of pornos are filmed in California.

3. America’s Roads Are Amazing

American Highway

America’s highway system is clean, wide and almost entirely free to use. It covers tens of thousands of miles and incredibly well maintained. The system has rest stops, designated view points and police to keep it safe. City streets vary but are generally in great condition, well labeled and easily findable on maps. When I travel abroad, I jump in the air leprechaun style on the rare occasions when I actually find the street sign I am looking for or pass down an entire street without the threat of death by pothole.

4. An Odd Amount of Foreigners Travel to Florida

“I have been to the United States!”,
“Oh yeah, where?”
“Disney World”.

I completely understand tourists going to New York City, Washington DC and San Francisco but I can’t wrap my head around the sheer amount of people who travel to Florida. (Washington DC isn’t even in a state and it is more American than Disney World.) Yes, Florida has Miami and Orlando but those places don’t represent the United States. Real American’s don’t even like Florida!

5. Americans Tip Incredibly High But Don’t Receive Proportional Service

It is well known that Americans are high tippers. My surprise came when I realized that although most other cultures don’t tip as high as our standard 15-20%, in mid-priced restaurants locals receive service that is nearly on par with restaurants in America. It seems to me that with the exception of the ultra high-end, we are paying more but not receiving more.

6. Europe Is Not Really More Diverse Than The United States

Europe has Swedes, Spaniards, Brits, the Irish and a whole bunch of other funny talking people. America has well… Swedes, Spaniards, Brits, the Irish as well as Mexicans, Canadians, french rednecks in the south, hippies on the west, pompous billionaires on the east and no one in the north. Europe certainly has more compartmentalized diversity than the United States but the US holds its own.

7. America’s Concert Scene Is Underrated by Americans

When an established artist or band like The Postal Service performs in the United States, they get crowds of maybe 10,000 people. When the same band (or similar) performs in other countries, they fill stadiums. In America, we have so many popular artists and venues that they become diluted. “Which of the 5 world class acts that are playing in town tonight would you like to see honey?” “None, lets just watch something on Netflix.”

8. Most American Food Sucks… So We Make up for It With Huge Proportions

That patty on your hamburger tastes like cardboard? No problem! We’ll give you three and put bacon on it! Your pumpkin pie tastes like it is bullet proof? Don’t worry, we will make it the size of a car tire! Be it our artificially fattened turkeys on Thanksgiving or our genetically engineered fruit, what we can’t compete with on flavor, we compete with in sheer size.

9. Americans Are Quite Empathetic Relative to Other Cultures

Time and time again, I have had foreigners tell me that Americans are the most empathetic culture they know. When you grow up in a country where everyone is treated as entirely special, everyone starts caring more about individuals. When I travel, I always know I have spotted an American when someone stops walking in order to let a stranger take an uninterrupted photo. For some reason though, this empathy goes to hell when a war is involved. During those times, our behavior abroad is generally terrible.

10. America’s Level of Convenience Is Unprecedented (And Ridiculous)

Need something now? Just take your high-speed smartphone out of your pocket and order it via free same-day delivery with Amazon Prime. Need to go somewhere? Again take out your always present cell phone and decide between Zipcar, Uber, Lyft, Taximagic or plain old public transportation (the time tables update in realtime and optimal routing is automatic). Lost? Use your GPS navigate, it will speak to you! Tired? Take any number of energy drinks! Need to catch up with friends? Text message, Facebook, Skype, Snapchat, Google chat, Facebook chat, Instagram, Twitter, e-mail, Rando, WhatsApp or you know… just call.

Thanks America! I miss you a lot and look forward to learning more while I am away!

P.S. Did I just write a buzzfeed article? What is happening to me?! I blame the excitement of living in Saigon. :-p

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Another great, decidedly above the level of Buzzfeed article, and timely for me as I sit in the Iceland airport processing my first trip to Europe in many years. I don’t believe that Americans are particularly empathetic, but they are very generous, which goes hand in hand with our absurdly expanding tipping culture. You are also seriously undermining the quality of food (at least in our shared home base of Seattle), although I believe the ridiculous portion sizes and puritanicalism deserve to sit at the top the list of American peculiarities. The one thing you failed to mention that occurred to me is the ubiquitous prevalence of American flags, and our sometimes warped superficial patriotism!

    • >decidedly above the level of Buzzfeed article,

      Excellent! That is all I am asking for :-p

      >I don’t believe that Americans are particularly empathetic but they are very generous…

      I’d be curious to hear about your experiences as well as others regarding this trait. I would never have associated Americans with empathy before my travels but time and time again, people have specifically used that word (empathy) when describing Americans. In my experience, this word comes up about once a month in conversations with others. I wonder if it is related to our “World Police” mindset?

      > You are also seriously undermining the quality of food (at least in our shared home base of Seattle)

      Is that an invitation? :-p

      > The one thing you failed to mention that occurred to me is the ubiquitous prevalence of American flags, and our sometimes warped superficial patriotism!

      Excellent point. I totally missed the odd patriotism that arrives in waves in our country.

      Enjoy Iceland!

  • Kerry Jones

    Great list (albeit a little Buzzfeed-y!). After living in Australia for a year, I came to appreciate how friendly we are here.

    Americans are gregarious. Most other cultures are way more reserved when it comes to interacting with strangers. This is usually the first thing people from other countries tell me they love about Americans.

    We are also loud as f$#k.

    I agree with the above that we are flag crazy here, too!

    • lol, agreed we are loud. Too loud! (Although I feel like I realized that before leaving the US)

  • Very cool perspective. I often wonder what other countries are taught about America. And buzzfeed…? Please. You wrote more in this article than what exists on their entire site

    • > I often wonder what other countries are taught about America.

      Broadening my perspective in this area has been one of my favorite parts about traveling. :-) As illustrated in this article, I feel like I know more about my home now than I did when I was actually home.

  • Jason Murphy

    I have only been out of the country a whole two weeks, and already I miss American roads and GPS. And concerts.

    Very well organized list. I have nothing to add other than a good proxy/VPN is your all-you-can-eat-content best friend when it comes to Netflix, Hulu, etc. All of which America takes for granted.

    • Enjoy the rest of your trip! Eat something amazing (and properly sized)!

  • Eyup

    What I miss about America are the friendly people. It´s comparatively easy to get into a conversation with total strangers regardless of age, race or class. Never ceases to amaze me how friendly and helpful the people are, in complete contrast to their reputation.

    • Agreed, we are far from perfect but at least we are generally friendly :-) Good point.

  • Molly

    In terms of the tipping, don’t think that your generous tips aren’t vital to restaurant workers! Most states are allowed to pay tipped employees $2.15 per hour!! That’s what I get paid by my employer! In Europe, servers get paid a livable wage, in America, we don’t.

    Most European restaurants simply incorporate the cost of the server into their prices, therefore, you are paying about the same for the meal between the two continents.

    • Good point!

      My point on tipping isn’t so much about the behavior in the States, rather the realization that the service is essentially the same abroad (in developed countries) but not paid for by tips. (Although small things are different like speed of service and whether or not the bill is automatically given to the guests)

      In underdeveloped and developing countries, the story is very different.

  • What do you think about our independent and self-reliant spirit?

    For me, when I was a teen I traveled to Japan and also lived in Europe one the summer and what struck me is how everyone just kind of follows a script that’s laid out for them and conforms to expectations. They have a saying in Japan that encapsulates this concept of societal conformity: “The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down”.

    What’s striking about our culture is the high value we place on a person being their own person…finding their own way, failing and succeeding by their own talents and abilities. We seem to make a way for ourselves. And, this seems to attract others from all over the world…Keith Urban wants to be a country music star? If you’ve got talent, the American world will cheer you on, embrace you and feel they’re better for your unique contribution.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. It takes getting out of the country to gain a fresh perspective. As Joni Mitchell’s song goes, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”.

    • Thanks Scott, you add a helpful and interesting perspective.

      > What do you think about our independent and self-reliant spirit?

      This is certainly something we are known for I have seen it many other countries as well (Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Australia.) In fact, I’d argue that many countries are doing a better job of this now than we are. The American Dream is no longer just American. I think that is a good thing.

      > What’s striking about our culture is the high value we place on a person being their own person

      I absolutely agree with this. The practical execution of this doesn’t always last past college but it is certainly a driving and core part of our culture.

      Regarding Japan, I haven’t been there yet but I will be living in Osaka starting in January. I expect that that country will teach me a lot. I have heard a lot of good and a lot of bad. I am excited to see it for myself.

      Cheers Scott!

      • Japan is a beautiful country with kind, generous people. When I was 16 and visited there, I cried when we came home because I wanted to live there. We’ve had many Japanese foreign exchange students live with our family over the years and they’ve become family members. The problems in Japan now stem from a general apathy and lack of direction in many of the younger adults. I think you’ll really enjoy it and look forward to hearing about your adventures there. Of course, the food is excellent. Safe travels! I’m enjoying this chronicle of your adventures and am envious of what you’re doing!

  • Tony Spencer

    Love the blog but very much disagree with you on #5. I can’t say I’ve had the same service abroad as I get at home with a well tipped server.

    • Either you are getting worse service than me abroad or I am getting a fast one pulled on me back home :-p Then again, maybe I am not tipping enough!

      Either way it sounds like you are doing something right! Cheers Tony!

  • Jenna

    California has the 12th largest economy in the world (used to be in the top 5). Don’t see how recognition of California abroad is disproportionate to the rest of the US. Why would people abroad care about say: Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Ohio, New Mexico, etc. any more than I would care about a small area in England I’d never heard of?

  • mike vallano

    Yes. And most everyone in the US still bitches about the roads.

    And the level of convenience is crazy. I was on the phone w/ my credit card company in the US yesterday and they were like “I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to put you on hold for 2 or maybe 3 minutes; thank you so much for your patience.” Meanwhile lines form around the corner when people try to go to the bank in Central America.

    Great list!

  • David

    I think its also safe to say that in America. Southern California’s image is disproportionately California’s Image…

  • I live in Southern California in a neighborhood that is still a best-kept secret. The quality of daily life here is astounding. The advantage to having traveled a bit, is that it helps me to not take where I live for granted – I am very aware of how good I have it and feel grateful often. What resonates most with me are your observations about “ridiculous convenience.” Very true! The weather is almost always warm and spring-like, the regular grocery store on the corner offers a wide selection of affordable organic produce, the local butcher offers free-range bison and turkey, there’s a stellar gym down the street, and there are TWO smoothie bars!

  • Lisa G

    I appreciate this article because I have also learned a lot about the U.S. while living away over the course of about 10 years (off and on, mostly on). My strongest agreement is with the disgraceful quality of American food. Yes, the Happy Hour sliders in LA are gourmet and delicious (PB&J on a bacon burger? yes please) and I am possibly obsessed with more than a few restaurants in Seattle, but the truth is the ingredients we have access to in the U.S. are crap. I am living in Germany currently, and even the egg yolks are more yellow here. In fact, I have even gotten thinner living in Germany on a flavor packed diet of bread, cheese, meat and beer. Chicken in the U.S. disgusts me and it makes me sad when living in Mexico, to see high end restaurants promoting U.S. beef pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, while street corner taqueros serve tortillas made from U.S. and Monsanto corn. I am especially depressed by the idea of all these people I love in the U.S. fueling up every day on subpar food and the effect that is having on their health in the long run.

  • Joel

    Kewl list!

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