I’ve lived in the United States for two weeks now, after a full year in London, and have been taking notes on the culture shock which has resulted. The note-taking was necessary because most of the cultural acclimation came in a single mad flurry back on August 21 (not, anymore, 21 August), when I flew back from Heathrow. Seated next to me on the flight was a talkative older natural gas executive who lives in Albuquerque and commutes to Oklahoma City. I learned this because within about three lines of exchanged dialogue, he stretched out a firm hand and said, “Robert Jackson.”
In England, it is possible to talk to strangers. Nobody really makes a habit of it, and in fact chats with strangers are rather a rare thing, but they exist and you will probably end up doing it once or twice. Never, though, never will you learn a stranger’s name. It is altogether possible for English people to chat, have dinner together, help each other carry their things onto a train, or spend a comical week bumping shoulders in a cramped hotel hallway without ever even wanting to exchange names. The English act as if they’re embarrassed by their names, and, as anthropologist Kate Fox points out in her book Watching the English, the customary way to learn who you’re talking to is to pause Columbo-style as you’re exiting the conversation, duck back in, and say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch your name…?”
Americans, by contrast, don’t mind getting a proper introduction out of the way in the first two minutes. The English carp about this. “First time you meet a Yank, they tell you all about their medical problems and their kids and their whole life story.” I found that rather unfair; I certainly don’t act like that. Then I heard a very American voice behind me on the airplane saying, “I just got a promotion and we’re expecting a girl…”
Here’s another thing. Since I’ve come back to the States, a lot of people have been calling me “young man.” This makes me wonder: when does that stop?
As I stood in a snaking line to collect my luggage and send it back through security after arriving in Dallas–a bureaucratic innovation which Europe has mercifully avoided–a bomb-sniffing dog licked a slice of cucumber up off the floor. A family of Texans said things like, “Aww, isn’t he cute!” A young man (there’s that young man thing again) standing apart was less amused. His backpack was open and in the hands of a security officer, who was shouting: “Your customs form said you weren’t bringing any food into the country! Well, what’s that then? That’s food! You lied on your customs form, sir. Follow me this way. What other food do you have in here?”
Speaking of food: god, Walmarts are huge! The produce items are invariably grotesque; recently my father and I split a baked potato that was not quite the size of my foot. The smallest onion at the local store here is about the size of the largest onions for sale in England, where I avoided the larger onions anyway. Why exactly do we need our produce to be so huge?
Equally creepy food-purchasing cultural-difference vestige: over in England, if you buy a loaf of that pre-sliced factory bread that comes in bags, it expires in three or four days. You root around to the very back of the shelf to get the loaves that have four good days left, or if you’re really unlucky you’re stuck with something expiring tomorrow.
So when, on September 5, when my mom pulled a loaf of Oroweat off the Walmart shelf and said, “this is good until the 17th,” my first reaction was, “What?” Here in the States, everything is loaded up with preservatives. Foods are built to last. In England that can sometimes be the case (Sainsbury’s store-baked cookies have a month-away expiry date) but it is the exception, certainly not the rule. American foods are survivors. They will cling to life in your pantry for a long, long time.
Maybe the biggest lifestyle difference (aside from the inevitably slower pace of Boerne, Texas compared to central London, and aside from the fact that Texas is enduring the hottest summer in American history) is not food-related: it’s the uselessness of walking. Walking in suburban Texas is a bit like eating Cheez-Its: it gives you something to do for a few minutes, but serves no practical function. If the weather was nice enough to even step outside–which it is, today–my “walk” would consist of heading up a steep hill into another part of my neighborhood, turning around, and coming back. The nearest businesses, a bank, a faux-Irish pub (“Sheppard’s Pie”? really?), and Papa John’s Pizza, are 1.2 miles away.
A final note: I’m told that American residents never refer to their home country as “the States.” I’ve done that at least twice in this blog essay. Sorry!