Millo's Musings

10 Cultural Oddities of the United States, as observed by a Brit

22 September 2016

“They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder?”

We’ve all seen that scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent (John Travolta) schools Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) on the “little differences” between Europe and the United States. In Paris you can buy a beer in McDonald’s. In Amsterdam people put mayonnaise on their french fries. And the French, of course, “don’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is”.

I’m European — British, to be precise — and I recently made Vincent’s trip in the other direction, visiting the U.S.A. for the first time in my adult life. I now realise that Pulp Fiction didn’t nearly go far enough. The U.S. and Europe are very different places — far more than I think we Brits tend to assume. I’ve been all over the world, and I can’t recall a single Western country I’ve visited where I felt a stronger sense of “away from home” than the U.S. of A..

Note that I really enjoyed my time in the U.S., and I look forward to going back — and not just because of the British Privilege I benefit from while there. (By the way, to my fellow Englishmen — visit the U.S.A.. The rumours you have heard about your accent are true.) But I have a few observations:

1: Border Control

The first uniquely American experience comes before you’ve even technically entered the country. Unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been to, in American airports (if you’re arriving internationally) you have to go through security after getting off the plane… even though you already went through it before getting on. Apparently the U.S. doesn’t trust other countries to do a good job.

Maybe they’re right, but the plane has already landed safely, so if there were any terrorists on board they clearly weren’t good at their jobs. (I guess that’s the problem when recruiting suicide bombers; none of the candidates have experience.)

But beware: even if your nefarious plan to sneak toenail clippers past the TSA succeeds, you can still expect a thorough interrogation from an underpaid border guard before being officially allowed entry to the country. I’ve crossed many a border in my life, and I’ve never received a grilling like the one I got on arriving in the U.S.A., all for the sake of a three-week visit on a tourist visa.

I can’t complain — I’m a guest, they don’t have to let me in - but what amuses me is that, according to American friends, the U.S. Border Patrol often gives the same interrogative treatment to American citizens who are arriving home, even though they can’t be denied entry to the country anyway. (For the record, every time I enter the U.K., they just scan my passport and let me straight in without saying a word.)

“What were you doing in [country you visited years ago for which you still have the passport stamp]??” is a typical question, I’m told, spoken in an accusatory tone as if that business trip you made to China in 2009 is a dead giveaway that you’re a dirty Commie bent on destroying the Land of the Free.

Speaking of catching bad guys, when you’re filling in the “ESTA” form before entering the U.S., you have to tick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ next to a whole plethora of interesting questions, including “are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?”, and the following:

Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were you involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?

I bet they catch a lot of people that way.

2: Guns

I’ll save the exhausting debate about gun politics for another day. All I’ll say is that, within twenty minutes of making it past the aforementioned border guard, I had another moment which confirmed that I had very, very definitely arrived in America. As I sat in the departure lounge waiting for my connection, a man walked past me with his phone pressed to his head, and I caught the following snippet of his conversation:

You have the guns, right? Make sure you keep one with you at all times!

God bless America!

And to the annals of “things that are amusing to a foreigner but totally mundane to a local”, I add the following sign:

You’ll find the above notice by the entrance to every public building in Texas. “What’s so interesting about that?” I hear every Texan say… I’m not even going to bother trying to explain.

3: Everything is bigger (and not just in Texas)

Something that travel has made me appreciate is this: if two places are both in the U.K., they are close to each other. We are a tiny country, as exemplified by a conversation I once had with a Canadian friend:

Me: Where in Canada are you from?
Him: It’s called (name of town). It’s not well-known.
Me: Yeah, I haven’t heard of it. What part of Canada is that in?
Him: It’s close to Calgary, just a six-hour drive away.
Me: That’s not close!!

The U.S. is only slightly smaller than Canada, which is another way of saying that it’s massive. Really bloody big. To quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy talking about outer space, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts compared to the States.

I tell people I’m from a small town, but “small town” means something different in a British (or European) context. My small town of ~11,000 people is just a 15-minute drive from a city of 150,000 people — and during those 15 minutes you’ll pass multiple other towns, villages, and hamlets. (And in the other direction, I’m only an hour from London.) It’s rare to drive for more than 10 minutes through the British countryside, especially in the south, without seeing some evidence of human habitation. Even between towns, just about every square inch of land is being used by humans for something, usually farming. The U.K. hardly has any of what you might call “wilderness”.

Not pictured: the middle of nowhere

In the U.S., on the other hand, if you live in a “small town”, there’s a good chance that you live in a remote settlement in the middle of the desert and have to drive for two hours just to find an attractive member of the opposite sex who isn’t also your second cousin. And in America (like in most of the world outside densely populated countries like England), unkempt wilderness is the norm, not the exception — and the beauty and diversity of the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.

Travelling in the U.S., I really get the sense of being on the “frontier” — vast, virgin land that humans have yet to conquer, full of possibility and adventure. If that’s what it feels like to a newcomer in 2016, I can only imagine what it felt like in 1620. It must have been, in the original sense of the word, awesome — which brings me to my next point:

4: America is so, like, totally awesome dude, literally!

I’m not the first person to make this observation, but omigawd dude, the way Americans, like, talk, is like, kinda literally totally dripping with excessive positivity and, like, totally unnecessary filler words, dude, literally.

Nowhere is this more prominent than with the word “awesome”, which in olden days meant “awe-inspiring”, before taking on the colloquial meaning of “good” or “cool”, and these days has become watered-down to the point where it can mean anything (“okay”, “yes”, “um”, “please”, “let’s have sex”), while simultaneously meaning nothing whatsoever. “Awesome” is the Polyfilla of American vocabulary, used indiscriminately to fill empty space, and it’s as overused in American English as ignorance of science is pervasive in the American South. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an American say the word “awesome”, I’d have a totally awesome amount of money.

When I remarked on this in a text message to an American friend, she replied with the following:

Dude totally, like seriously!! Don’t worry, everything is rad and super chill here and everyone is stoked on life and pumped about everything.

To which I said this:

S’alright mate, if we ever meet in Blighty (even if that’s yonks away) we can have a right bloody chin-wag down the local, I’d be chuffed.

I offer the above as evidence for the quote of unknown origin (dubiously attributed to George Bernard Shaw) that America and Britain are “two countries divided by a common language”.

Incidentally, I once read an archived newspaper that used the phrase “an awesome event” to describe the previous day’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I think it’s safe to say that the meaning of the word “awesome” was different back in 1945. Literally.

5: Residential Sprawl, and the Necessity of the Automobile

The U.K. has the population of California plus Texas in an area the size of Michigan… meaning there’s not much space, so we have to cram our buildings together tightly, or vertically. In the U.S. such pressures don’t exist, so in many neighbourhoods you’ll see that practically every house is detached, with barely a terraced house in sight. (And to prove my point, most Americans reading this will have no idea what the terms “detached house” and “terraced house” even mean.) Wandering around American suburbia, I’m struck by the sheer amount of empty space everywhere.

But the more foreign thing about American residential areas is that they are just that — residential, in their entirety, over vast, vast swathes of land with nary a commercial building in sight. The concept of a “corner shop” apparently never made it across the Atlantic. If you need to buy anything in America — even just to pop out to buy a loaf of bread — your destination is probably far, far out of walking distance. (Public transport? Don’t make me laught.) If you want to survive just about anywhere in the U.S., you need access to a car.

Luckily for me, Uber exists, and I was able to rely on it (and on “rides” from others, which is the American word for “lifts”) for most of my trip — but if they hadn’t been available, I don’t know what I would have done. It’s a minor frustration, but the second-order effect is worse — since everyone is driving, no-one is walking, which means that most of the time when you do go for a walk, no-one else is around, even in the middle of the day on a weekday in a huge city.

To be a pedestrian in the U.S. is to inhabit an eerie, surreal ghost town, inhabited only by cars and the homeless (of which there are an alarmingly huge number, but that’s another story.)

6: Credit cards

Bizarrely, the U.S. still barely uses the EMV (“chip and PIN”) system for credit/debit card payments — despite this being the standard just about everywhere else in the world. So if you want to pay by card in the U.S., you often have to do the primitive, Stone Age thing where you swipe the magnetic strip then sign your name on a piece of paper. Really? This is still a thing? Chip and PIN has been not just the default but the only way to pay by card in the U.K. for ten years, and they have it all over the rest of Europe too. How is it that the world’s richest country hasn’t caught up with this technology yet?

To add to the confusion, every time I went into a bar (where I would always get asked for I.D.; this never happens anywhere else in the world), if I paid for my drinks by card then the bartender would usually ask me if I wanted to “close it up”. I had no idea what this meant, and it took me a while to figure it out… but I’m not going to explain it here, just so that the next Brit who tries to buy a drink in the U.S.A. can experience the same confusion that I did. Suck it!

7: Tipping

When I wasn’t being confused by bartenders, I was forgetting to pay their wages. In the U.S., you’re expected to tip bartenders, and also people in a whole plethora of other professions, applied in a seemingly random fashion. Taxi drivers, but not bus drivers. Hairdressers, but not tailors. People who deliver pizza, but not people who deliver the mail. It makes no sense, and it left me constantly worried that I was paying too much or too little.

What’s the point? One article on American tipping etiquette make the unusual move of stating the facts plainly: “We tip waiters and waitresses because they don’t make a livable (sic) wage. Our tips are helping to subsidize substandard wages.” Wait, what? Why not just pay service staff a “livable” wage in the first place and get rid of all this theatre? The end result is the same anyway — I get a meal, you get my money. Why does it have to be so complicated? (Note: in the U.K. you’re generally expected to tip in restaurants, but rarely anywhere else — and waiters here don’t rely on tips to survive like they do in the U.S.A.).

It’s argued that when service staff are working for tips, they’re incentivised to provide better service. This is true, and in some countries which don’t have tipping cultures, the service is universally terrible. (No Spanish waiter could hold down a job in the U.S. — they’d all be fired on the first day.) But I’d like to propose an alternate system to holding your staff hostage to starvation wages: pay them a reasonable price for their work, and if they don’t do a good job — such as if they don’t provide good service to customers — fire them. This system is also known as “how it works in every other industry, everywhere,” it’s all the rage.

With all that being said, it’s not the fault of American service staff that they get paid next to nothing, so I tried my hardest to get things right and tip as expected (or more.) And I’m always amused by the flip-side of this, when I’m out with American friends who have newly arrived in Europe and often can’t wrap their heads around the concept of not tipping:

Them: “How much should we tip?”
Me: “You don’t have to leave anything. It’s not expected.”
Them: “What?? You can’t not tip!”
Me: “Yes you can, trust me.”
Them: “I’ll just leave a 5 on the table.”

If I was a waiter in a country like Spain, I’d pray for more American customers. They leave all this extra money lying around all over the place unnecessarily! What strange folk.

8: Sales Tax

I can’t complain about tipping without also making the obligatory jab at the way sales tax (“VAT” to Brits) is charged in the U.S.. It’s absurd. The price printed on the label is not the price you actually pay; it doesn’t include the tax. They don’t add the tax on until you bring the item to the checkout and scan it. Let me repeat that: the price printed on the label is not the price you actually pay. Do I even need to explain why this is ridiculous? Judging by the conversations I’ve had with many Americans (and Canadians — they do this too), the answer is “yes”. I don’t even know what to say.

Even weirder, some stores in the U.S. don’t display any prices for some or all items — to find out how much something costs, you have to take it up to the counter and ask (or just plonk down some cash and hope you have enough). I don’t think I’ve ever seen this practice in the U.K. — in fact I’m pretty sure businesses have to display all prices, legally.

I did get a taste of home though in Santa Monica, California, where I stumbled across an establishment called the “British Store” whose shelves are stocked with all kinds of British goodies that I’d never before seen sold outside the U.K., such as Jaffa Cakes, HP Sauce, and, just to please the Scots, Irn Bru. The only problem is that all self-respecting Brits (there’s dozens of us!) are wincing at the establishment’s name — if it had actually been British it would have been called the British Shop! At least they win points for effort.

9: Sports!

By complete accident, my visit to the U.S. overlapped Superbowl Sunday, meaning I got to experience this time-honoured American tradition for the first (and probably only) time in my life. I didn’t get to go tailgating (I still don’t really understand what this activity actually is unless you’re talking about the dangerous driving practice), but I did watch the game at a friend’s house.

I have vague memories of getting trounced at Madden NFL on the Playstation 2 by a friend when I was 12, but other than that, I’ve never played “football” and had no idea how the game was played, how points are scored, or what the rules are. By the end, though, I think I’d got it figured out:

The only thing I couldn’t figure out was how they’d occasionally interrupt the four hours of solid advertising to show a thirty-second clip of armoured men throwing a funny-shaped ball around. What was all that about?

10: Patriotism

I like the U.K., and I like being British. Despite our tendency, by no means unique to Brits, to complain incessantly about our country and government, only a fool could deny that, all things considered, the United Kingdom is a pretty good place to live and to be from. Yet, unless there’s currently a football (the other kind of football) world cup taking place, overt displays of patriotism in the U.K. are exceedingly rare. However patriotic Brits might feel, we generally keep it to ourselves.

The U.S. is the polar opposite. Americans, in general, love America, but you didn’t need to be told that – they’ve already told you themselves. Repeatedly. On a typical day in the U.S.A., you’ll see more people flying the Stars and Stripes than you’ll see Union Jacks in an entire year in the U.K.. The national anthem of the U.S. is also sung before every sporting event (not just international games… do Americans even play any international sports?), whereas I can’t even remember the last time I heard anyone in the U.K. singing God Save the Queen in any context. Even if all the other differences I’ve described didn’t exist, you can’t spend any length of time in the U.S. without being repeatedly reminded what country you’re in.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I think patriotism is fine, just as long as it’s not mindless tribalism and you actually have valid reasons for liking your country. And there are many valid reasons to like the U.S., which is probably why people from all over the world have been flocking there for centuries seeking liberty, opportunity, or just a plain old good time. I had a great time in ‘Murica, and I know that I’ve still only scratched the surface – there’s so much to do and see there and I’ve still only experienced the tiniest fraction of it.

So like a two-term governor of California, I’ll be back… and it will be totally awesome. Like, literally. Dude, seriously.

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