There are always YouTube videos that joke/comments about how the US does things differently, from its unit of measurements to its slangs to its leave and medical practices.
It’s nice to laugh at Americans, not out of malice but simply because the United States is currently still the world’s lone superpower. However, being a non-American it’s actually quite hard to process the differences until you step into the country. Here are 8 differences tha left an imprint on me while I was in the United States, some more whimsical others serious.
While I’m sure there are many many more things others can point out, all of these are personal observations, and they stand out just because they are so different to what I am used to, and what my conception of the US was.
1) Cheesecake factory sells more than cheesecake
“Wait, so the cheesecake factory sells more than cheesecake?” I asked, my jaws agape at what seemed like honestly a very obvious fact.
Because the Cheesecake Factory does sell alot more than cheesecake, it is in essence a full restaurant on the lower middle price range that is fancy enough to feel cool but affordable enough for the average person.
And they do a mean cheesecake.
Actually more like a lot, a damn lot of rich, thick and clog-your-arteries good cheesecake.
2) Drugs sold via advertisements
There I was sitting in a budget hotel in the outskirts of Houston having a heart-clogging All American Breakfast (now I know where the McDonald’s big breakfast contents come from) when an advertisement came on, “do you feel tired and lethargic? Do you get headaches sometimes? Do you want to feel better? Drug X helped me, it can help you too.”
The middle aged lady on the screen seemed extremely reassuring, then she said, “ask your private practioner about Drug X today.”
At the bottom of the screen a thin bit of words popped up, it was a disclaimer “this is not medical advice…”
I think I was advertised drugs and medicine. I didn’t quite get it, actually I didn’t get it at all. Anyone can get any of those conditions and be perfectly healthy still, besides shouldn’t that be something for my doctor to see and decide, that’s why they were trained for more than half a decade. Why should it be on television advertised to non-experts on a subject that actually demands expert knowledge?
There is a good story on the reason why such advertisements exists, its not illegal, although I’m ambivalent on whether its a moral thing to do.
3) Gun restriction signs to conferences and the Second Amendment
There was a funny sign that stood out at the entrance to the Quilting Festival in Houston – no concealed weapons allowed in the festival hall. You don’t really see that in many other countries, because in most countries guns are illegal.
It really only struck me then, that I was in a country where the Second Amendment of the Constitution allowed the right to bear arms (for self-defense against a tyrannical government), based on the conception in the constitution and the ideation of the freedoms it is a fair argument (although the misuse and abuse by people who should not have access to arms is a different issue) – America is a country based on negative liberty (freedom from something) instead of positive liberty (freedom to do something), based on this idea, the right to bear arms enables people to be free from an tyrannical government.
The right to bear arns is sacroscant in the US. No realistic solution, or serious activist/politican would think of suggesting its removlal. But whether controls are needed and how is a controversial argument, especially in an age of mass shootings especially at schools. Responses to the arguments have also been politicised.
The main argument of proponents of gun laws, blames the problem on access to guns and the ease of getting guns, proposing that new sensible laws be put in place to limit gun ownership. Defenders argue that the problem is the response of gun owners and people to guns, raising the example of the Sutherland Springs shooting where a “good guy with a gun” stopped the perpatrator by shooting him dead.
It has led to massive street movements, most especially the “March for Our Lives” in March 2018.
Most foreign viewers would assume that the answer was simple, why do regular people have guns, but that is applying an external world view and lack of appreciation of the American historical and social context to what is a very socially charged argument.
One thing I feel confident of saying, don’t hold your breath for change in any direction soon.
4) Get around via Uber or Lyft instead of Public Transport
Its rare to go to a country and the most expensive part of the trip is transport (especially since I am a cheapskate when it comes to spending anything. But if you are likely to spend a lot on transport the United States is probably such a country. Unlike its contemporary developed cities in Europe and Asia, cities in the United States do not always have sophisticated or high performing public transport system.
That’s because there is no need to, the United States is automobile country where a car is relatively affordable for most people. Since almost everyone could get around with a vehicle there was no need to invest in public transport. For the cities that did have public transport, there was little incentive to seriously maintain them since the main users of such systems were the workers and not ‘polite’ society. It meant that visitors to American cities usually had to find private means of transport.
But precisely because private vehicles were so affordable, the rise of private hire vehicles through apps like Uber and Lyft in the gig economy took off.
The sheer mass of vehicles on the road and available for hire meant that transport via Uber and Lyft was a sensible option for more higher income earners and tourists like you or me, and you have to take some form of vehichlar transport between places in the United States because the time when cities developed was very different from that of Europe (as this great video explains).
5) Take off your shoes at the TSA checkpoint
Putting aside the ‘customer experience’ at American airports, perhaps nothing stands out more about American airports than the fact that you have to take off your shoes at their airports – most other airports do not require this at all.
Yup that’s really all I have to say.
6) Massive food portions
7) Nonstop sports games and the macho link
“Dude I thought your meeting was supposed to be at 7?”
“Nah, he asked if we could postpone the meeting, there was a football match between Duke and North Carolina he wanted to watch.”
Sports is big in the USA, although the US tends to like sports that no one else is obsessed about – American football for instance, the rest of the world likes this thing called football, where the ball is played, erm… with the foot. I jibe at the Americans but even that is slowly changing.
Anyway, back to sports and American sports culture, there’s matching being played on TV at all times of the day, especially football (and by this I mean American football) matches. In fact although te most well known ‘American’ sports are American football, baseball and basketball although all the TV screens I noted at anytime were playing American football and not the other two. You have breakfast and there is a match playing, you have lunch there is a match being screened, you have dinner there is another match. And these were all matches from different leagues.
Sports is fundamental to many societies, America is very much the same in that way, however American sports and American football being the quintessential one, is not so much just about history or politics but to sexuality – masculinity and machismo. Football for example praises skill, tactics and technique while penalising physical contact, American football (not dissimilar to rugby) requires physical contact and rewards raw power in speed or strength.
All these sports also have a unique way of introducing women to the sport through sexy cheerleaders, who are in some ways overly sexualised. You don’t see that in football played in other parts of the world. There are few its very much part of the ‘All American experience’ when you think about it – middle class boys who play football (and girls who are the cheerleaders).
Warren Farrel describes this as part of the disposability of boys that society inculcates, by praising boys for hurting themselves – and we wonder why there is a whole discussion around toxic masculinity.
8) Homelessness and tents on the streets
“Whatever you do in your short layover in Los Angeles, avoid Skid Row.” I was in Los Angeles with luggage, whatever I did it had to be damn convenient, so I took the advice seriously.
I had heard of districts to be avoided, but rarely in the city itself, so I decided to do some internet research.
It didn’t take much to convince me to avoid the street.
But I couldn’t avoid the homelessness staring me in the face all over the country. A short walk from Little Tokyo to Olvera Street forced many tents in my face. What disturbed me was that these tents were located outside the Los Angeles city hall. A walk from Olvera Street to Chinatown again pushed more tents of homeless people in my face. The tents on the streets of Los Angeles were filled with men and women, their skin rough and dry, some seemed to have bubbles or diseases that needed treatment.
Then there was Baltimore, with the hoodie-wearing, drugged-up rough sleeping young people on Broadway (one of the main streets in the city).
In San Diego, I saw homelessness just outside the city near Logan Avenue, but these people did not seem normal, they seemed to need medical help in a mental asylum.
Why does America have such a homelessness crisis? I don’t know, and this is deserving of a more in depth post which I will do in the future. It stood out because it was so in my face, and it was so severe, in that way, America does homelessness rather differently than many other developed countries. I hope I never get used to it, and may the people on the streets can get off them one day.
It is important to end this post by stressing that these are 8 things that strike me as different. Everyone from every part of the world will always be fascinated by things done in some other part of the world. What seems normal to someone from Southeast Asia may seem different to someone from the Nordics. Likewise things done in the Nordics sometimes surprise people from America too.
But that is the spice of life, the fact that we do and see things differently.
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