Usually, each time we come back to visit the US, we write some missive about cultural differences or talk about ‘reverse culture shock,’ where things we’d never noticed about our country of birth came into focus after being somewhere else. But now that we’ve moved back to the US for longer than just a few weeks, I’m gradually being reminded of American traits that I’d forgotten about during the last 2 1/2 years. Here are a few:
1. Pull, don’t push, doors
As if the whole left side versus right side of the road thing wasn’t hard enough! Another thing I had to keep straight once I got back was what to do when approaching doors at the entrance to a public building. I can now mostly remember that here in the US, the doors almost always pull (ie out from the building) whereas in the UK they always push (into the building). I am not sure which is more embarassing: those few times when I had first arrived in the UK and made a loud clamor by rattling a door back against its doorframe, or being here in the US and leaning my weight into a door only to be rebuffed.
As Faith has noted before, the US is certainly a much more emotional country than most. I’d remembered all along how Americans are wont to use very dramatic terms like “WAR on drugs,” or ‘battleground states’ but I’d forgotten how much of everyday American speech is peppered with (seemingly) superfluous adverbs. Example: “Ohmigod, I completely forgot.’ Presumably, this suggests it is possible to slightly forget or moderately forget something? ‘Wow! That is totally awesome.’ Again, if something were to be only ‘somewhat awesome’ it would not, in fact, be awesome.
3. Side-of-the-mouth talking
I don’t mean this in any metaphorical sense; I mean literally, I’ve realised that a lot of Americans talk out of the side of their mouth. I kinda remember this from before. I’m not sure how widespread the phenomenon is, as I’ve mostly only observed the habit in younger (35 and under) Americans, but no one does this anywhere else I’ve travelled.
4. Cheese, everywhere
Menus at restaurants in London do a pretty good job of describing the composition of each item. In Uganda, you’d be a fool to look at the menu rather than ask your server about anything. I’d forgotten how, in the US, you should ALWAYS assume that everything will be covered in cheese, regardless of whether it is mentioned on the menu. The combination of heavy government subsidies of dairy products, and the relatively small percentage of vegetarians, much less vegans, means that cheese is pretty ubiquitous in American cuisine. I was reminded of this the hard way a few weeks ago, BUT, the good thing is that cheese here is often quite plastic, so I was able to literally peel the cheese off my food, with very little residue left behind. Nevertheless, I now know to revert to a habit I once had of ALWAYS asking servers if a particular item has cheese on it.
5. What passes for public transportation
We knew we had been a bit spoiled by London, where pretty much every neighbourhood is accessible by bus, Underground train, Overground train, light rail, etc and many neighbourhoods have multiple modes of public transport. But we assured ourselves, ‘at least we’ll be moving to Washington, DC, which has decent public transportation.’
But we forgot that in the context of public transport in the US, ‘decent’ means ‘existent.’ We’ve now reached the point where, if we get to the Metro station and the wait time for the next train is only a single digit number, we consider our timing pretty good (by comparison, if the wait for the next train on the Underground was more than 5 minutes, even late at night, I’d get a bit antsy). On at least one occasion, after waiting for what seemed like an epoch for a bus to come by the street outside our apartment, I gave up and decided I’d just have to shop a different day.
Perhaps the saddest summation of our blighted public transport came from a woman with whom we found ourselves standing and commiserating at a bus stop last week. She lamented, “It’s getting dark out; when I got to this bus stop it was still light. I just want to go home.”