One of the best things about traveling to a new destination is discovering some unexpected things there. I call it a “positive culture shock”. When I went to the USA for the first time, I didn’t expect to be surprised. Sure, it’s different from Europe, but not so exotic as African or Asian countries. As all other Ukrainians of my generation, I grew up watching Hollywood movies and listening to American music. Needless to say, I was wrong and there were lots of things that surprised me in the US.
Here are some things I wish I knew before visiting the United States for the first time.
7 things I wish I knew before traveling to the United States
1. Tipping culture can be annoying but it’s important to tip
I am used to the fact that tipping is voluntary and you are expected to tip only when you are satisfied with the service. I also never tip more than 10% unless the service was exceptionally good. Turns out the things are different in the US. I was surprised to hear that the hourly pay of restaurant workers is really low. And even though I hate the fact that the responsibility for paying waiters is on the customer, not the employer, I understand that my opinion won’t change anything. Tips are an important part of income for many restaurant and hotel workers in the US, so it’s important to know how much to tip. Tipping 15% to 20% in restaurants is the norm. This means that your meal suddenly becomes more expensive than it seemed when you looked at the menu, especially when you realize the next point…
2. Tax is not included
What I didn’t know about the US before visiting for the first time, is that prices in shops and restaurants do not include sales tax. Besides that, different cities and states have different tax rates, so you will never know how much exactly you will have to pay. To be on the safe side, you need to calculate around 10 Cent extra for each dollar. Or just use a credit card and don’t worry about tax.
3. Credit cards are widely accepted
Oh, I love this thing about the United States! No need to worry about cash all the time. It feels especially good after you live in Germany for a while, where everyone knows that cash is the king. I love the fact that you can even leave tips in restaurants with a credit card. And you don’t have to think about what to do with all the small coins after you leave the country. In fact, I still don’t know how American cent looks like even after traveling to the USA for a couple of times.
4. Portions sizes in the USA
This shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, because I’ve seen a couple of videos before where people talked about portion size differences between the United States and other countries. And to be honest, food portions in German restaurants are also too big for me sometimes. Whenever I go to a restaurant in the US, I try to be really hungry and order with a motto “better order less than more”. I don’t remember even one single time when I had to leave a restaurant hungry in the United States. But there were many times when I couldn’t finish my food or pushed myself to finish even if I wasn’t hungry anymore. And it kinda bothers me, because I hate when food gets thrown away. I know that you can take the uneaten food away, but when you are traveling and staying in the hotel, there is no way to warm it up or no fridge to keep it, so the food gets wasted anyway.
Another shock for me was the number of calories in some restaurant dishes. I’ve never seen it anywhere before, but in the USA some restaurants mention the calories of the dish on the menu (which I really appreciate). Imagine my shock when I saw many dishes that were over 1000 calories. That’s half or more of the recommended daily calorie intake for an average adult!
Not only food portions, but drink portions are also bigger in the USA than in many other countries. I’ve learned that I can order small coffee in the United States and it will probably be larger than a coffee cup back home anyway.
On the positive note, I love the free tap water in American restaurants. For me, it’s a great way to save money on eating out, because I don’t like to drink anything else with my food. The only thing to remember that tap water usually comes in a cup full of ice cubes, so if you don’t like ice cold water, just ask them not to put ice inside.
5. Efficient public transport exists only in big cities
The first big city that I visited in the US was New York, where the public transportation system is not that different from any European city. It was really easy to get around by metro. We also took a 3-hour train ride once from Chicago and it was pretty good.
But when we went to visit relatives in the city with over 100000 residents, I expected that there would be some kind of public transportation in the city of this size. Wrong. Cars are a big part of the lifestyle in the US. Luckily, nowadays there are companies like Uber and Lyft for people like me who can’t drive.
6. “How are you”
A simple “How are you?” was really confusing for me at first because I had no idea how to react to it. Do I just answer “good, thanks” or do I have to ask the person how they are doing as well? Since then I just trained my self to say “find, and you?” or something like this when I hear this question.
7. Americans measure things differently
The US has its own measuring system that might seem strange to anyone who is from outside the US. They measure distance in miles and not kilometers, and weight in pounds (lbs) and not kilograms. Then there are inches and feet instead of meters and centimeters. But the most confusing for me is still the temperature. I can never understand whether it is cold or warm when someone tells me the temperature in Fahrenheit since I always use Celsius. But I finally found an easy solution to this problem. Google can convert Fahrenheit into Celsius when you search for “… Fahrenheit to Celsius” and you can do the same with miles, pounds, and inches.
What’s a culture shock you experienced while in the USA?
And if you are an American, what surprised you in other countries?