The first time I went to live abroad, I was 20 years old, doing a semester program in Seville, Spain. After five and a half months abroad, things were different coming back. I noticed I used different vocabulary, like “child” instead of the “kid” I would normally use. I was translating back into English from Spanish. I noticed how much Americans loved ice. How they used creamy salad dressings like Ranch or Thousand Island, instead of the simple yet delicious, classic oil & vinegar combo.
After Australia, I was saying “capsicum” instead of “pepper,” because let’s be real, it’s a much more fitting word. After doing the Transsiberrean Rail in Russia, I became obsessed with gretchka (buckwheat) and borscht (beetroot stew), which were harder to find here.
Since Spain, nearly twenty years ago, I have gone abroad and came back home dozens of times. Sometimes for a week, sometimes for a month, and even once for two years. But each time I do, things have changed. Both in the US, and in myself. Sometimes it can be as simple as the words I choose to use, or the foods I choose to eat. But other times, the changes are more mental, more emotional.
I have now come back to Colorado once again, this time after fourteen months in Tbilisi, Georgia and three months adventuring across Turkey.
As per usual, the first few weeks are the strangest, and the changes are the most apparent and obvious. Listed below are my thoughts, my negative thoughts, on returning to the US. Some of you may not like them, especially if you have never been abroad, and that’s fine. Please keep in mind, however, that these are my thoughts based on my experiences. While they may not be true for you, they are true for me.
- Understanding everything/being understood
I know, I know. You’re thinking this should be a pro, not a con. And in many ways, it is. But when you first come back, and everyone is speaking English, it’s overwhelming. Constant stimulation. I can understand everything, whether I want to or not.
On my most recent flight to Denver from Istanbul, I had a hard time falling asleep because I could hear two Americans having a conversation. About ten years ago, I had just come back from Asia. I was sitting at an outdoor cafe with my mom and at the table behind us, I heard people laughing and joking around, in English. My first reaction was to turn around and ask them “hey, where are you from?” Luckily I stopped myself before the words came out.
When I lived in South Korea, I could chat with my friends about anything, even the most R rated topics, on the subway, walking down the streets, in coffee shops. If we spoke fast enough, and used enough slang, we knew we could not be understood, and rarely filtered our conversations.
On the other side of that coin, I could understand other foreigners, even when I didn’t want to. My last few years in Korea, I really dedicated myself to learning the language. I used to study for hours each night after work, and often at coffee shops. I liked studying in coffee shops because I could hear the chatter of the language I was learning, but it could also be turned into white noise if I wasn’t focusing on it, which allowed me to concentrate on the verb conjugations in front of me. Every once in a while, another foreigner would come into the coffee shop- to meet friends, to have a language exchange, etc. This made things very hard for me because without wanting to, my brain fixed itself to the only English in the room, the only language around me I could understand with zero effort. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop, even though I had no interest in the conversation. This always cut my study sessions short, and I would have to go home to regain that concentration.
2. I FORGET SMALL ASPECTS OF CULTURE
Coming back to the US, after being gone for large periods of time, causes me to forget simple things. Like ‘do they bring us the check, or do we ask for it?;’ or ‘do I pay for my coffee now, or when I leave?’ Most recently it was ‘am I supposed to wear a mask outside, or just indoors?;’ ‘am I allowed to see friends in a group?’
I crave doing the things socially forbidden in the US that I could do abroad, like drinking a beer in front of the Family Mart in South Korea, or making new life long friends out of thin air, just because they happened to be sitting next to you on a bus or staying at the same hostel.
Cultural expectations are different when you are living in your home country vs. living as an expat, or traveling as a guest through another country. Once you adjust to the cultural norms outside of your home country, it is often difficult to readjust when coming back.
Nine years ago, I lost my wallet in Budapest. When I came back to Colorado, I needed a new ID. So I made everyone’s least desirable adventure over to the DMV, and sat in the lobby, waiting for my number to be called. While I sat there, I overheard the conversation another guy was having the clerk. You can only pay in cash, no credit cards, the atm in this building is broken, but there is a drive thru bank atm across the parking lot. Since I did not have any cash on me either, I was going to need to go to this drive thru atm across the street as well. As the guy walked past me, I asked him to verify what the clerk said just in case. We started chatting as we walked out of the DMV, down the hallway, and into the parking lot. Since we had the same task, I asked if he wanted to go together to the bank; that way only one person needs to drive, and we’re doing the exact same thing. The guy started getting nervous, saying a lot of “um” and “well,” and ultimately rejected my request. So I drove behind his car, in my own car, across the parking lot, thru the drive-thru atm, and back to the DMV. Once back in the waiting room, he wouldn’t look at me.
When abroad, this type of interaction is normal. It’s how I shared the cost of a taxi ride and a hostel room with a Dutchman I met at the Bangkok airport. It’s how I did a camel trek in the Sahara with an Australian and a Korean I met at my hostel. It’s how I did a horse trip in Western China with two French Canadians. It’s just what you do. But not in the US, and that can be easy to forget.
3. PRODUCTS & PACKAGING
Loose leaf tea tastes better. It just does. But Americans are obsessed with tea in bags. I grew up drinking Celestial Seasonings and other teas in bags in the US, so it was just normal. I didn’t think anything of it. But when I left the country, my eyes were opened, and my tase buds delighted. Loose leaf tea is richer, stronger, fresher. In China it was easy to get Jasmine tea and watch the flower open up in the hot water. In Turkey, you have your choice of blacks, greens, and herbals, both in the outdoor markets as well as the super markets. The supermarkets in the US offer endless options of every tea you could imagine, but all in bags. The choice here is what kind of bag you want- thin paper with a string attached, thin paper without a string attached, fancy silk-like bag in the shape of a pyramid. I spent over 15 minutes scanning the tea section at my local King Soopers, and in the end I chose the fancy silk bag. It was the closest I could get.
Can lids. In the US, you need a can opener. Almost everywhere else, cans have a tab and you pull off the lid. Easy peasy. You don’t even need a can opener, which is great if you’re moving around, staying in a badly stocked airbnb, or a hostel.
Beer cans. Outside of the US, you can buy just one beer. Or two. Or six of six different kinds. In Georgia I could get one Lion IPA, one Lion APA, one Argo, and one Kazbegi. In Turkey, one large Bomonti and a couple of whatever looked craft. However many beers you want, however many beers you need. In the US, six. Six of the same kind. Last week I was in the mood for a local craft beer. I opted for Crooked Stave’s Juicy East IPA. I had never tried it before, I didn’t know if I would like it, but I had to get six of it. Luckily I did like it, but now I have 5 more in the fridge. I don’t often drink on my own, so it’ll be a while before these babies get finished.
4. THE US IS EXPENSIVE
Everything costs more here. About 7 years ago, I lived in Boulder for a year and paid $650/mo, before all the extra utility costs, to have 4 other roommates. When I lived in Miami for two years, I shared a flat and paid $700/mo (which is incredibly affordable for Miami standards and much lower than anyone I knew there) for my half, before utilities and extras. I had to buy a car, or in the case of Miami- a scooter, I had to pay for insurance, gas, and repairs. I paid for health insurance.
In Georgia, I paid $300/mo for a 2-bedroom, 3-balcony apartment, utilities included. In the Philippines, my half of rent for the month was $120.
Two weeks ago, I reactivated my American sim card, and paid $45 for 15gb per month. In Georgia I paid $5 for the same thing. In Turkey, $7. In Italy, $10.
Last week I paid $26 USD for a can of Sprite, a small bottle of bitters, and a 6-pack of Craft beer. That’s about 75 Lari, an average weekly grocery shop in Tbilisi, Georgia.
You’re always trying to catch up here, always stressed about finances, never able to save more than a couple hundred bucks a month. In other countries, just existing is not a financial burden. I am actually able to save, breathe, and shed the financial anxiety.
5. COMMUNITY DESIGN
In the US, you need a car, which is a very unfortunate reality for both the financial cost, as well as the environmental one. Cities are planned for cars. Drivers are considered first class citizens. In Miami I was riding my bike in the bike lane (very rare in Miami, but in this case it existed), and a car swerved near me; the driver shouted “get out of the road, bitch.” That driver then circled back around the block to throw their McDonald’s trash at me.
Fortunately where I am at currently, in Boulder County, the public transportation is decent. By decent, I mean there are buses that can take me to Boulder or Denver. There are no trains. There is no underground system. The supermarket is just a 15-minute walk away, but I feel a strong desire that I should drive there because the walk is along a busy 4 lane road. Nobody walks to the supermarket here because the city is not made for walking. This city, like most cities in the US, are built for cars.
In most European cities, there is a town center, and plazas, piazze, places. A gathering space, rich with bars, cafes, and markets. Spaces to stroll with family on Sundays. Outdoor spaces to have drinks with friends on Friday night. There is community in these spaces. Warmth. Connection. The traffic is limited, and it is a space designated to pedestrians. To people.
Most American cities do not have a center in this way. They have a Main street. One street. That cars drive down. There are meeting spaces that people drive to. You drive to the supermarket. To the swimming pool. To school. To a coffee shop.
In Korea, I walked. In Italy, I walked. In Georgia, I walked. And because I walked, I felt connected to the place where I lived.
6. AMERICANS ARE OVERLY POLITE
I know, I know. This should be a pro as well. But there are times when it’s just too much. Where the over-politeness actually becomes quite irritating. Americans apologize for everything. The silliest of things. And if you don’t follow along, you are rude.
About 15 years ago, I had just come back to the US and I went to the Boulder Bookstore with my sister, on Boulder’s famous Pearl Street. I was standing near a woman, about 5 feet away, and we were both looking at books in the same row. To get to my sister, I walked in front of her. There was space. After I passed by, my sister whispered to me “that was rude.” “What was?” I asked confusedly, as the woman had done nothing to me. “You walked right in front of her, and didn’t even say excuse me,” my bossy older sister admonished me.
Last week I was at the supermarket, staring at the packaged lettuce section. There is an entire corner in the supermarket dedicated to packaged lettuce- arugula, salad mix, spring greens, spinach, mini spinach, garden mix, caesar supreme, you name it. In a bag. A family sized bag. A plastic box. A bigger plastic box. I was overwhelmed. I stood staring at those greens for several minutes trying to make my decision. Just then, a woman who knew exactly what she wanted, came over, opened the fridge door, grabbed her greens and was off. But then she turned around again, “I’m so sorry to get in your way.” She wasn’t in my way. I don’t own the mixed greens corner. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it if she hadn’t apologized.
Being overly polite is exhausting, and I don’t want to do it all the time. It’s just not necessary. I don’t want to smile and say “hello” to every stranger I pass on my walk; I don’t want to apologize for getting too near to every random stranger at the supermarket; and I don’t want to be seen as rude for not contributing to this culture of over-politeness.
7. THE (lack of) METRIC SYSTEM (and every other global system in existence)
The entire world is measured in kilometers, meters, and millimeters. However, the United States, accompanied only by Liberia and Myanmar, measure in miles. Thankfully I ran track and cross country in high school which have helped me to quickly translate how far I need to go. Three miles is five kilometers is a cross country meet; 800 meters is two laps around the track. These are the things I have to reference whenever my ill-equipped, and under prepared American brain adventures out into the world, and told distances apart from the Imperial system. My mind then does mathematics backflips, multiplying and dividing and estimating from there to reach the desired number.
Today in my hometown in Colorado, it is 66 degrees Fahrenheit. That is 19 degrees celsius. Luckily this is one of the measurements that I have been able to adapt to more easily, and also prefer. Fahrenheit just doesn’t make sense. What does 66 degrees even mean when your baseline starts out at 32. It feels completely random. Nineteen degrees, I get! From freezing 0, to 19. Great! Makes sense.
Luckily when I was about 22 years old, my friend gave me a very hand trick to translate temperatures, which has served me well.
Fahrenheit users of the world are in the minority. The United States is one of seven total countries in the entire world to use this measurement of temperature.
What we know in the United States as military time, the rest of the world knows simply as time. In the US, my dinner reservation is at 7pm; in Italy it’s 19h. In the US the bus leaves at 1pm, in Turkey it leaves at 13h. This 24 hour scale of time clears up a lot of confusion. Nobody is asking if the flight is at 7am or 7pm. They just know, because it’s 07h or 19h. Except in the United States of America.
Because of the US’s fierce rejection of standardizing its units of everything, its citizens go out into the world completely unprepared, confused, and quite frankly to continue the stereotype of being stupid.
8. RESTAURANT CULTURE
Eating is eating, right? So how can restaurant culture vary so much from country to country. In the United States, you eat at a restaurant to eat. In the rest of the world, you eat at a restaurant to live. To enjoy. To spend time with friends.
Last weekend I went to brunch with a dear friend, and not long after they cleared our plates, the waitress dropped the check. We were still talking, we had lots to catch up on, but that feeling of needing to leave was strong. We had come, we had eaten, and now we must go. The table is for the next person. It was strictly business.
In Italy you reserve a table for dinner. For the night. Not for 90 minutes. You go when the restaurant opens for dinner and you stay until it closes. You eat in courses, you drink wine, you chat, you laugh, you connect, you have an amari, or a limoncello, and you leave just before the the lights go out. It’s an experience.
However, this fast paced turnover at American tables is most definitely correlated to the way people in the service industry are paid. Americans work for tips, and the rest of the world works for an actual paycheck, regardless of how many people came in to eat that day. In Melbourne, I worked at a restaurant pub. I got paid $15/hour. Then at the end of the night, the entire wait staff divides all the tips equally, which ends up being around $10/night. For me, this was shocking. In a good way. I made the same amount of money on my paycheck whether or not it was raining and slow, or busy and sunny. The Australians complained the pay was too low, their friend was making $19/hour at that other pub across town, but I was happy!
The US is the only country who puts the onus of paying their staff onto the customer in the service industry. When you eat at an American restaurant, you pay for your meal, for tax, and 20% tip (15% if you’re an asshole) so your waitress can pay rent. Can you imagine going to fill up your tank with gas, paying $40 for the gas, and an extra $8 to the gas station attendant because the gas company refused to pay that employee’s salary?
The federal minimum wage for servers in the US is $2.13/hour. Pay is not consistent, and tips are necessary in order to survive. Because servers rely so heavily on tips in the US, it puts them in unsafe and uncomfortable positions. Ask any American you know who has ever worked in the service industry what they had to deal with from a customer, while maintaining their cool, in order to get a paycheck.
Before I moved to Italy, I worked in a taproom in Louisville, CO for a few months. I had to deal with sexism and misogyny on a daily basis, all with a smile across my face, and still told to “smile for me, sunshine.” Male customers made jokes about me giving them blowjobs. Smile, smile, smile and pay me.
I once saw a meme about if the show Breaking Bad happened in England, it would look like this: man gets cancer, man goes to the hospital and gets the care he needs, doesn’t go broke, the end.
It is shocking to me how we as Americans are so resigned to this system of “care” in our country, that we are very cognizant of the fact that at any point we could be broke if we have a health crisis. Thousands, even millions, in debt if anything goes wrong with our bodies.
The United States is the ONLY country in the developed world (and 1 of 10 worldwide) that does not have a system in place to protect the health of its citizens, that does not have universal healthcare. According to the 2018 U.S. Census, 27.5 million Americans, or 8.5% of the population, do not have health insurance. And the majority of that uninsured population are poor people and people of color. This country that declares itself to be the best in the world, forces its citizens to choose between health or financial ruin, or worse, death.
When lived in Miami, I got an ultra sound on my breast (to check for cancer!) which cost me $1200 with insurance. Twice. In Italy I got that same ultra sound, and paid 150 euros without insurance. In South Korea I paid $30 for dental x-rays, and $900 for lasik eye surgery (total for both eyes) without insurance. In India, I paid $10 to get my teeth cleaned. In Georgia I paid $460 for four veneers, which would cost in the thousands in the US.
Beyond the massive costs to healthcare in this country, there are also massive inequalities. The way this country limits childbearing folk from making their own reproductive and parenting choices. Black people have a much higher chance of dying in childbirth than white people. Discrimination against trans individuals in many forms.
Last week I saw a man begging at an intersection with a sign stating he needed money for insulin for his diabetes. His hands shook as he drank water. This man was forced to shed his dignity in order to beg for lifesaving medication just to exist. There is something wrong here.
For several years, while I was abroad, non-Americans would inform me they had no interest in visiting the United States. Guns, they told me, they were afraid of getting shot. I used to laugh and say “it’s not that bad,” because at the time, I didn’t think it was. Now, it is that bad, and instead of my previous response, my new one is “I don’t want to go either.”
I am afraid to die in a mass shooting. Honestly. Last week there was a shooting in Arvada, 30 minutes from where I am, in the center of town. Three months ago there was a shooting in the King Soopers in Boulder. The very King Soopers I used to go to in university. I imagined people running down aisles I was familiar with.
This year alone, there has been more than one mass shooting per day, and the US is on track to have more than 5000 mass shootings by the end of the year. Around 40,000 people died last year in the US due to gun violence. People are dying for doing nothing other than existing. In supermarkets. Shopping centers. Massage parlors. At work. Movie theaters. Public transit. Concerts. Juneteenth celebrations. Moms. Dads. Grandparents. Children.
Innocent people are dying every single day in this country. Defenders of the Second Amendment say they deserve their right to carry and own weapons, but what about the right of every citizen to live?
If you’re American and you’re reading this, you most likely did absolutely nothing, other than be born, to become American. A big coincidence, you happened to be born while your parent was existing inside the borders of the United States.
If you’re American but you weren’t born inside this country (or military posts abroad), then it’s likely you have spent hundreds of hours filling out paperwork, locating documents, talking to lawyers, doing interviews, taking tests, paying thousands of dollars, etc.
One of these things is easy, and the other is very difficult and time consuming. I would say to take the latter route, you must be pretty determined to become an American citizen, persistent. So one thing I can’t understand about this country is the overwhelming patriotism for something you did absolutely nothing to achieve if all you did was be born. I can understand pride for a group or “team spirit,” or cheering for a national sport team; if you’re in the military or know someone in the military, maybe you feel a stronger connection to country for that reason.
But what throws me is this blind patriotism, this American arrogance. Saying the US is the best country in the world. Because it isn’t. Full stop. Because we assume (incorrectly) that we are the best, we don’t look to improve. We don’t see what other countries are doing right and emulate that. From the small to the big.
In South Korea you can push elevator buttons twice. Once to select it, and another time to deselect it if you made a mistake. We could use that in the US. After Australia had a mass shooting in Tasmania in 1996, the government took massive steps to ensure this wouldn’t happen again. They recognized a problem, and took steps to correct it. To protect its citizens. To become better.
This patriotism is, quite frankly, embarrassing. It’s why it has become so hard to say where I’m from when I’m abroad. The eye raise, the mouth turned down, the slow nodding. I see it, the way people react when I say where I’m from. During the Bush years abroad, everyone assumed I loved war and didn’t know geography because “Americans are dumb.” During the Obama years abroad, people laughed and exclaimed “Oooh Obama good, America good.” Now, just a nod and on to the next question. While “patriots” are at home shouting about being number one (I will never understand the chanting of “USA USA USA”), the rest of the world is laughing at us.