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23 Things That Will Surprise You When You Come to the US

United States Travel
by Jacqueline Kehoe Jun 22, 2015

CHECK OUT THIS NUMBER: 9.857 million km². That’s the size of the US.

Before we start this article, let’s just address one thing: America is huge. It takes 2 full days to cross, and 4 or 5 if you ever plan on sleeping. Because of this, we’re all different people. Some of us lead the Hollywood life you see in the movies, some of us are overweight gun owners that spend their free time drinking beer on porches, and some of us are quiet, thin, and fit zero American stereotypes.

But while we’re pretty hard to generalize — and you’ll see that on any visit — there are a few things about this country at large that you might find surprising, wherever you go.

1. There are 311 languages spoken in the US.

Three hundred and eleven! Talk about a diverse melting pot of people. But while we have no official language, English will be seen everywhere you go. Despite this huge number, most signs will only be in English, since most of us speak one version or another.

Keep an ear out to see if you can spot the differences as you travel from region to region. The further north or south you get, the less it will resemble the American English you hear on TV.

2. We might chat you up in line for coffee or at the grocery store.

One of the most common things foreigners say about a visit to the US is that the people are so friendly! Almost too friendly, really. If we notice something we have in common with you, whether it’s the fact that we’re both waiting 15 minutes for a Frappuccino or the weather is particularly amazing that day, we might just start talking to you about it. The woman at the check-out counter will ask you how your day is and if you found everything okay, and she’ll mean it.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re open about ourselves. Don’t ask us about how much money we make or how much we weigh!

3. You probably care more about our politics than we do.

About 60% of the voting-eligible population votes in the US presidential election, by and large. How many of those voters are informed? Well, that’s another question. It’s not uncommon for a foreigner to have more vehement opinions on this topic than a natural-born American, and that’s largely because, well, life is okay for us. The things that aren’t okay (like our not-so-great healthcare system) have always been the way they are, so we don’t really know any differently. And if it does bother us, odds are we’re the 5% that’s doing the work or it’s a long, drawn-out bureaucratic battle we don’t really feel like fighting.

In addition to this, you’ll probably find that while the two parties we have to choose from seem incredibly similar to you, they seem pretty different to most Americans.

4. Fitness is practically a way of life.

In general, America is pretty vain. Even in teeny towns it won’t be hard to find a gym and a tanning salon, and sometimes on the same corner. The upside to that is that a lot of us care about being fit. You’ll see runners and joggers along even the most commercial of streets, yogis in parks at all hours of the day, and marathons advertised everywhere, all times of the year, for all walks of life. We gotta do something to work off that double cheeseburger, right?

5. 1 out of 8 of us has worked at McDonald’s.

This says two things: America has a lot of McDonald’s and we’re not as rich as you may think we are. Many high schoolers get jobs at fast food joints, car washes, and coffee shops, and many adults take whatever job they can get and just barely make ends meet. There are pockets of extreme wealth and pockets of extreme poverty — in the same city.

Here are some staggering facts: there are 3.5 million homeless people in America and about 1 in 3 people takes some type of welfare benefit. We’re real people with real problems, despite our good roads, plethora of food choices, and hot water available 24/7. Just like anywhere else, there’s two sides to every story.

6. Our language is full of polite-isms that we don’t even realize are polite.

If someone feels they might be even slightly inconveniencing you – whether it’s asking you to budge over an inch on the sidewalk or they’re taking too much time digging around in their purse – they’ll say “sorry.” You’ll also hear a bunch of “Do you mind?” at things you wouldn’t even bat an eye to and “Bye!” when hanging up the telephone. It’s just the way our version of English has evolved and we don’t think twice about it – especially when everyone else does it, too.

7. It’s generally more expensive to be healthy in America.

If you come from a country where the rich are fat and the poor are thin, know that in America it’s the other way around. Cheap food is fast food, junk food, and candy — and it’s everywhere. Better, healthier, more wholesome food is generally less accessible, more time-consuming to prepare, and more expensive.

So no, not all of us are fat. It correlates with a few factors, like poverty, but even then, it’s not a given. Though 1 out of 3 of us are “obese,” 2 out of 3 of us are not. And if you visit different cities and states, you’ll notice that it varies by region, race, and age, too.

8. College athletes are basically celebrities.

While university sports are second-tier at best in most other countries, in America they can practically be someone’s first religion. College athletes can be superstars, even though they’re just kids participating in a sport at school. For some programs, this goes for high school, too. Heck, Lebron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior. We’re a little obsessed, and that’s one quality that doesn’t change much from East to West.

Oh, and this starts at an early age. Most kids are involved in some sport (or three), the moms or dads go to all their games, and the facilities in plenty of schools are practically professional-level. In short, sports make money, and sports get the money. It’s just how it works.

9. The drinking age is largely enforced and we know it all makes no sense.

We know the system is messed up when it comes to drugs and alcohol, so don’t ask us about it. 21 to drink (and most bars will card you), but 18 to vote, be in the military, and own a gun? Marijuana is basically still illegal, despite state efforts to change that? Yeah. To quote Hillary Clinton, “There’s just too much money in drugs to legalize them.” And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

10. We’re not as promiscuous as Hollywood makes us out to be.

Let’s just leave this one right here. While plenty of American women walk around in short shorts and tank tops, it’s because that’s what the stores are selling and it’s hot out. That’s all. While plenty of American men go to bars to “get laid,” most men with that sole aim in mind go home alone. We like to have a good time, sure, but it’s not more than any other country. Anyone with this stereotype in mind should leave it at the door.

11. We’re so much more than just NYC and LA.

In fact, those are two of about 20,000 towns or cities. The media depicts the US as made up of sparkles and glitter, neon lights, raring nightlife, and expensive cocktails, while most of us are living at home in the suburbs in a 1-family home or apartment ordering delivery pizza and watching Game of Thrones on DVR. If you come to America expecting NYC or LA, make sure you go to NYC or LA!
Oh, and remember how big America is? Try going out west to parts of Montana and Wyoming — where in some places there’s 6 people per mile.

12. Our security checks are absolutely ridiculous.

Make sure you allot another 45 minutes just for getting through security at the airport, and they’re even going to check your bag at museums, fairs, and most other public events, too. It’s largely a post 9/11 thing. However, it’s so ubiquitous it doesn’t take long getting used to.

13. Cereal choices and sandwiches and desserts, oh my!

“Is this a football field or a cereal aisle?” you may find yourself asking. Wal-Mart is the size of a city block, and the cereal aisle alone will cause your jaw to drop. Then you’ll go out for lunch, and you’ll have about 85 sandwich places to choose from, including burgers, of course. And after that, dessert. Yep, it can be its own course, especially if you’re getting fancy for a nice sit-down dinner. Heck, why not skip the sandwich and just have ice cream for your meal?

…In other words, if you’re trying to cut carbs, good luck!

14. The “news” we know is local culture and pop culture – and not much else.

Why don’t we know much about international news? Well, some of us do. It’s not an excuse, but the rest of us are caught up in local happenings or pop culture. Since we’re at that center of lots of media forces (aka Hollywood), you won’t have a unique experience if you run into someone that knows nothing about Greece’s financial status, but can quote to you just how much money Jurassic World made this weekend. It’s all about priorities.

15. Leave your cash at home.

Here’s a challenge: come to America with only your debit or credit card, and never go to an ATM.

Wait, that’s not a challenge at all — that’s the norm. 99% of places will accept your plastic; even independent little stands (heck, organized picnics in the park) will have a credit card reader attached to a phone or iPad. So easy!

16. Public toilets are everywhere, largely clean, and free.

And it’s fantastic.

17. There is an app for everything you could possibly need.

If you ever get lost, hungry, or need anything, know there’s an app for that. Stranded in the middle of nowhere and need a ride? Download the Uber app. Craving pizza? Every pie of your dreams is available from the app store. Even places that have no need for an app have an app. With a smartphone in your hand, you’ll never be without the world at your fingertips.

18. Diversity is tolerated, but not necessarily embraced.

Remember: we’re a country that’s produced Kim Kardashian and the Westboro Baptist church. If you want to walk down the street in tie-dye pants, a garbage bag for a shirt, and planks of wood for sandals, by all means, go ahead. You’d be surprised how many people don’t even look at you for fear of seeming impolite.

That being said, it won’t exactly be easy to make friends. We’re a melting pot, sure, but we tend to stick to our own. You’ll be amazed at how many races and walks of life you see in America — and how often they come in homogenous groups.

19. To fit in, get a car.

In America, barring a few places, you need a car. Our public transit system isn’t great, in that it doesn’t really exist. Nobody (the colloquial nobody) takes the bus. Most streets aren’t super pedestrian friendly (though you’ll see runners and joggers). This is why everybody owns a car – there’s not really an alternative option.

But for the record, this isn’t everywhere – just most places. In NYC, you’ll be fighting through hoards of pedestrians, and in small towns you can cross the street because there’s one car coming and he’s a kilometer away. Some college towns are pedestrian friendly, but for most Americans, they’ve had a car since high school.

20. Everything is bigger. Everything.

It’s not just Texas. Everything is bigger, from our cars to our portion sizes to our houses to our parks. Does anyone need a quadruple burger topped with a hot dog and potato chips? Don’t think so. Does a family of three need to drive a car the size of a boat? Well, no, probably not. Does that same family need a 3000-sq foot house? Nope. Is Denali National Park the same size (or bigger) than some countries? Yes.

Why is everything bigger? Well, because of all that space. That and we like it that way.

21. To fit in, carry around a bottle of water (and don’t be afraid to wear sweatpants).

Again, this isn’t everywhere (especially not at the workplace), but you’d be hard-pressed not to spot someone wearing something that resembles pajamas if you frequent your local cafes and restaurants. And as for the bottles of water, don’t ask. No one knows. The water is drinkable everywhere — and water fountains aren’t uncommon — but we still have this fascination with…staying hydrated?

22. We have incredibly beautiful, diverse terrain.

For some reason, the US isn’t known for its national parks and crazy-gorgeous landscape, though it should be. Again, we’re huge, so we have just about everything (part of the reason we don’t travel internationally). Snow-covered mountains? Check. Waterfalls flowing into crystalline lakes and rivers? Check. Miles and miles and miles of beaches? Check, check, check. Canyons, marshes, rolling hills, geysers, volcanoes — it’s all there somewhere. We’re too busy working to appreciate it, so you should do it for us!

23. Your experience in the US is determined greatly by where you go.

Just to reiterate: No two people in different locales in the US will have the same — or maybe even similar – experiences. In the West, you might experience bad traffic, mountainous landscapes, and tan, friendly people. Go out east to Boston and NYC, and you’ll notice that it’s a little more harried and rushed, more people ride public transit, and the cuisine is like a different world. Somewhere in the middle you’ll get wide open spaces, hospitality that’s almost saccharine, and lots of cheese-y, butter-y foods. Again, generalities. So before you go anywhere, do yourself a favor and choose more than one spot. It’s the only way to get a better, more accurate, detailed, genuine experience out of this large, diverse country that has so much to offer.

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