5 Lessons Learned Living Outside the US

by Colin Heinrich Jan 14, 2014
1. Systems of measurements don’t matter.

If you ever need to win an argument with a foreigner abroad, start talking about the American imperial system of measurements. They’ll sigh condescendingly so often they’ll hyperventilate and pass out. It may as well be a yoga course. Nobody’s gonna forget to breathe when the instructor says, “There are 5,280 feet in a mile…what?”

Living in America, we’re aware of the metric system and how the entire world thinks we’re idiots for not using it. “It’s all multiples of ten!” they’ll say, as if we can’t remember conversion rates just because they’re not as neat. Americans simply don’t need the metric system unless they’re scientists or drug users, and even then the smart customers buy by the ounce.

The little secret the entire world keeps from us, however, is how they’re actually the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar after dark. They like Krabby Patties after all, Squidward. You’ve got Brits talking about miles per hour. Aussies talking about height in feet. Everybody measures their TVs in inches. The only measurement that seems to be isolated to America is Fahrenheit, and people normally at least understand the generalities of that. Living outside America, rather than acclimating you to the metric system, simply teaches you that the entire thing’s a clusterfuck anyway. And that’s before bringing up Britain’s idea of measuring weight in “stones.”

2. Our money sucks.

I’m not an economist. I can’t even tell you the conversion rate for the country I currently live in, let alone how conversion rates are calculated in the first place. But I can say without any doubt — American money sucks. And it’s not about its strength. You’ll cry the first time you get 60 pounds back for a hundo at Heathrow, but after that it’s just a fact of life. No, American money sucks because, frankly, it’s just ugly as shit.

You’ll notice it the first time after you return home, and then it stares you in the face every time you have to pull those dull green slabs of mangled cotton out of your wallet. Sure, there are new bills coming into circulation nowadays, tossing some oranges and blues into the scheme like some desperate advertising for the latest edition of Monopoly, but it’s still ages behind every other country on the planet. Even Vietnam has waterproof bills of different shapes and colors, with a neat little clear bit on them because why the fuck not, and that’s with a relatively recent attempt to turn them into the 51st state.

In America, people often wonder how blind people can tell what kind of scratch they’re dealing with. In other countries, that’s a stupid question in the first place.

3. Wifi and free toilets aren’t a right, but a privilege.

Back in the Cold War, the term “First World Country” was used to refer to America and the other bastions of capitalism. Nowadays it refers to any developed, modern country, but after spending a few days trying to find fast, free wifi in Australia, it’s hard not to wonder if America really is the last great Land of the Free.

Back home, wifi is so ubiquitous that any old shop is going to offer a connection while you browse. Hell, they lose customers if they don’t, because Americans are so used to being plugged in it’s a shock to the system when it drops out. In other countries, wifi doesn’t always come so cheap, and it forces you to sit back and take a look at your life. Maybe you don’t need that Instagram after all.

And that’s not to say anything about the toilet situation. In America, nobody thinks twice about taking a leak in the back of the nightclub. But spend a few months in Europe, counting your coins and wondering if you could somehow slip past the sweaty old woman sitting on a stool in the men’s room, and you’ll start to appreciate the open toilets when you find them. You’ll also start to appreciate the back alley wall and the trees in the park. Suddenly, emptying your bladder isn’t a given, and that will only make you appreciate home more.

4. Our portion sizes are kind of fucked up.

When I was a kid, my parents always made sure I knew that I should finish all the food on my plate. “There are starving kids in Africa,” they’d say, as if the whole point of our big dinners was to spite those kids (‘Merica!). Now that I’m older, I have to wonder if that culture is part of the reason so many people in this country are so goddamn fat. We finish everything we eat, which tricks us into thinking we still want more. It’s a positive reinforcement loop that leads to Supersized meals and bladder-buster drinks at the theater.

No other country does this. And it’s unsettling at first — going hungry 24 hours a day by sole virtue of eating what that country has deemed appropriate for one sitting. But once you get used to it, once your stomach tightens down to a level more appropriate for a human being planning to live past 45, you start to realize how insane it is to drink 48oz of soda in one go.

5. The entire world is just as screwed up as we are.

If people were required to follow through with all the bold claims they make, the world would be a pretty hilarious place. For one, there would be a whole hell of a lot of Republicans moving up to Canada after every Democratic victory. Now, why a bunch of pro-gun, anti-socialized-healthcare conservatives would think Canada makes a good refuge for them is anybody’s guess, but it raises a fair point. For every problem America has — as seen by both Americans and foreigners, who we all know just love to weigh in — every country has just as many of their own. Those Brits who lambast our gun control are fighting just to keep their porn. Those Aussies laughing about our early bar closures are wondering if they’re going to get beaten to a pulp each night they go drinking.

America isn’t perfect. Our government spies on us, our cops occasionally beat people up, and a good percentage of people here still think the Earth is only 6,000 years old. But you know what? America may be the troubled bully with a weird need to prove himself, but it’s our troubled bully. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

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