Things to Learn about American Culture
February 11, 2020
Lucas Draper ’23
Coming to the United States from a foreign country to further your education is a big decision, and I congratulate those of you who have made this decision. If you’re still thinking about it, I cannot recommend this pathway enough. However, the United States is a culture all to itself and there are a few things that are super important to learn before you arrive. I have spoken about a few of the things that stumped me when I first got here in this blog post, but this list is a collection of things that are American staples and might be helpful for you to understand before you arrive in the States.
There are 50 states in America. Fun fact, they all have capitals. They all have other cities within them. I have faced many issues when a conversation turns to ’so where are you from?’ I often end up having to ask the same question over and over, ‘where is that?’ or ‘oh is that near X state?’ Learning your states will make things a lot easier for you, especially when someone makes the complaint ‘oh it’s so cold,‘ and someone else turns to them and goes ’but aren’t you from Michigan?,’ you'll get the joke (spoilers: Michigan is really far north, so it’s cold up there).
The American National Anthem (Or at least be able to recognise it)
Although Oberlin isn’t really the most patriotic of schools, you’ll still hear the anthem a few times in your tenure here at Oberlin. As a swimmer on the Oberlin Swim and Dive team, they play the anthem at the start of every swim meet. For those of you who are Americans, this will not be a surprise. But for me as an international student who comes from AUSTRALIA (arguably a very unpatriotic country), this was bewildering.
To have Star-Spangled Banner start playing and the entire natatorium turn, face the flag with their hand on their chest, and start singing or humming along, was very confusing. Knowing the words to the song can be helpful (although admittedly I am yet to do it) and if that’s not something you want to do (fair enough). At least listen to it so you can recognise the tune.
Thanksgiving is a concept I am a little confused by; I’ll be completely honest. I had to do some research for this section, but Thanksgiving is a coming together of families to mostly argue over things and enjoy a turkey. I know that’s not really the intention but that seems to be what most people have described Thanksgiving to me as. I wrote another post about Thanksgiving, so go check that out if you want to see what my experiences were like!
American football is an interesting sport that a large portion of the population is incredibly passionate about. Here is what I have learnt about the way the game works. A bunch of men dress up in shoulder pads and a helmet and try to run a ball across a large field. The other team runs into them to stop them from doing it. Each team has four attempts to try and get the ball at least 10 yards and if they succeed, they get another four attempts and so on until they make it all the way and get a touchdown or run out of tries.
If they get a touchdown, that gives them six points. Then they can kick the ball at the goal for another point. Then the ball turns over and the other team either has to start from the far end (if a touchdown is scored) or wherever the other team was when they ran out of attempts. There are a bunch of fouls and things that I have no understanding of, but it’s still an interesting game to watch.
Tipping is something I have covered before, but I will mention it again. In America, the minimum wage is terrible, and it is made worse by the concept of tipping. Employers can essentially pay wait staff less because of the understanding that they will be tipped by customers for their service. Generally tipping is 18-20 percent. You only really have to tip at restaurants where someone serves you. Things like Uber/taxi’s and coffee shops you don’t necessarily have to do it. Tipping is an interesting thing to wrap your head around, but you’ll get the hang of it.
The U.S. Measuring Systems
America seems to enjoy confusing the rest of the world. Think about any sort of measuring system you use and America probably uses a different measuring system. Weight, temperature, speed, you name it, it’s different. I still have no clue how hot something is if someone talks in Fahrenheit, or if someone talks about going miles per hour I don't really know if they are going fast or slow. It’s been an adjustment, but you will eventually wrap your head around it. If not, you will learn how to nod and pretend you know what is going on.
American Food Portions
They’re generally huge. That’s really all I have to say. Never order anything large if you actually want to be able to finish it. I really don’t know what else to say, they're just really large.
Doing Things on the Other Side
This one was surprising for me. I was expecting them to drive on the other side of the street, that’s common knowledge, but I was not expecting them to walk on the other side of the sidewalk. I walked into so many people walking down the street when I first got here because I was looking at my phone and walking on the left. That was awkward. So keep in mind they do that. They also swim counter-clockwise around a lap lane, which has led me to many bruised elbows over the course of my first semester on the Oberlin Swim and Dive team.
Crossing Signals (Or at least in Oberlin compared to Australia)
In Australia, the crossing signals make noises. When you are standing to wait for the light to change there is a slow beep that happens and once the light has changed to allow you to cross, the beeping increases speed and gets a little louder. In America, some traffic lights don’t even have pedestrian lights, or if they do, they don’t make a noise unless you actively press a button. So for the first week or so that I was here (and for the time I was in LA with my uncle), I kept waiting for the light to make a noise and then miss my chance to cross. Luckily I have learnt my lesson. My tip for you is developing a glance up technique, where you look at your phone for a few seconds and then quickly glance up to see if the signal has changed and then cross when it has.
In America, they write dates with the month first, so it goes MM/DD/YYYY. For me, that was strange, especially when it was the beginning of the month because I could not tell which was the day and which was the month.
This one is kinda expected but I thought it was worth pointing out. The power outlets in America are different. They do not have a switch to turn them on and off. You’ll probably need to make sure you buy converter things to use your plugs from home.
Americans put all their clothes in the dryer. In Australia, that’s not something that really happens. Most of the time, unless it is raining, Australians hang their clothes up to dry outside on a clothesline. This took me a second to get used to it because I feel like I am wasting energy by doing that. But eventually, I got used to it and I realised it’s so much easier.
Not Including Tax in Prices
In America, they do not include tax in the price of an item when it is on the shelf. It’s tupid, I know, but because sales tax is done by the county they can’t put it in the price of the item. I’ve been tripped so many times going to buy something and being charged more than it says on the thing I am going to buy. Just remember to learn the tax of the county you’re in (Lorain County, the county Oberlin is in, is 6.75 percent).
I hope that my little list of things has helped you out. College is an awesome experience, and definitely has its hurdles. So hopefully this list will reduce the number of things that come as a shock to you when you arrive!
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