I like to consider myself unshockable. Culture shock is something that is supposed to happen to other people. Culture surprise though, not necessarily.
It’s an interesting comparison to make – did I feel more of a foreigner in Switzerland or in America? In Basel I had the foreign language issue to deal with…but on a word-by-word basis I’m more likely to be stopped mid-sentence in the States and asked “Wait, what was that?” Random words or phrases that I take for granted in British English actually aren’t a part of American English (The other week I used the verb “to cycle” – an American would say that they “bike”).
When I’m talking in English to somebody for whom English is a second language (as was mostly the case in Basel) I watched my language to make sure it was straightforward, clear and understandable. When I’m around native English speakers I must just plough on however I feel like – the result being that linguistically I’m more out of place in the USA than Switzerland.
There were also many things I came across in Switzerland that I strongly identified with as “a European” (as opposed to “a Westerner”, which is how I group the UK & North America). The emphasis on efficient public transport, in continental Europe was something that fitted into my bike-friendly lifestyle. As was the European attitude to work-life balance (i.e, decent quantities of paid holiday time). In contrast, these European values seem out of place in car-centric, work-centric America.
At the same time as I’m feeling foreign in America…I also don’t feel “foreign enough”. Being white, Western and English-speaking there really isn’t much to differentiate me as foreign here. Being an English speaker in a German-speaking area of Europe I felt gave me the freedom to be foreign, to not quite conform to Swiss cultural standards, to feel that it was OK for me to make the occasional social faux pas and to ask stupid questions about ‘how they do things here’. When my plane landed in JFK Airport it felt like I should just be…getting on with it. This isn’t really a complaint about American life, just a musing that any feelings of ‘foreign-ness’ are really hard to pin down. After all, I’ve had culture shocks returning to the UK; I’ve felt like an alien in my native Scotland.
I’ve already been clear on what I enjoy about life in the USA. I feel that I have to include some of the most pertinent problems about being British in America.
- Coffee. You would assume that the nation who brought Starbucks to the world would have their coffee sorted, right? Oh man, you’d be wrong. American coffee is designed to be grabbed on the go – cup holders in car – to hype up white collar workers as they sit in their air-conned office cubicles. American coffee is designed to be drunk in large quantities (I’m pretty sure that the “large” coffee mug size to a Brit is “small” to an American) while you’re busy doing something else. American coffee is designed as a caffeine base for syrups, flavoured shots, lattes & frapps & capps. American coffee is rubbish. A European prefers to savour their coffee, drinking it slowly and enjoying the taste. When I drink an espresso from Artisan Roast I get kicked in the face by the caffeine horse…and I love it. The espressos I’ve had in the States just taste watery, though I acknowledge that their filter coffee is better than what I’d find in Britain. I’m hoping I will (a) find a funky independent coffee shop somewhere my immediate vicinity before too long (b) buy a Nespresso machine to make my own damn stuff.
- Toilets with in-built gaps between the cubicle door and its walls. This is majorly f*cked up. The fact that it’s been reported in The Onion means it isn’t something I’m hallucinating in the depths of my caffeine deprivation. Why do Americans design their toilets to have signifiant gaps between the door and walls?! Have American toilet designers never been to Europe and realised that feats of modern engineering exist to successfully remove aforementioned gap?
- Use of the word “girlfriend” to denote a female friend who you aren’t actually having sex with. “So, you’re meeting up with your girlfriend from New York this weekend?” “Yes…but you know she isn’t my sexual partner, right?” This is the qualification I feel I have to make every time somebody talks about a female friend of mine. [For reference, in the UK you might use the plural 'girl friends' and not be talking about polygamy...but your friend who is female is just a "female friend" or "friend".]
- Groundhogs. To me these creatures are cute oversized guinea pigs with tails. To Americans they are irritating vermin who will destroy your garden and attack if provoked. There’s one who potters around in the grass near my apartment in the early evenings – I think if I get to the end of 12 months without being hospitalised for rabies it will be a miracle.
I reckon that once I jump through all the admin hoops at grad school, get used to the heat and (finally) start taking driving lessons I’ll have gotten through the worst part of the “adjustment” phase and be ready to make the most of my time here. I might just have to grit my teeth and wait until next summer for that decent espresso, though…