I read with great interest and was amused by the directness of an essay by Sophia Angelique about the culture shock of moving to and living in the USA, after being in the UK, and I recognized much of what she said - although I must admit that I was a little troubled that she was still undergoing culture shock a full eight years after arriving there.
Some of the videos she posted up on there are excellent too. The one of Stephen Fry (Brit) talking to Clive James (Ausie who lives in the UK) stood out as particularly outstanding and again, much of what they say is very recognizable to me. (I’ve included the vid at the end of the top 10).
I thought it would fun to summarize some of the top 10 things that can be surprising and difficult for a typical Brit living in the USA, based on a variety of sources including my own experiences and those observations mentioned above.
I’m writing from a purely British perspective, of course, so I don’t know how much you will relate to it, if at all, if you’re non-British, or if you have never experienced living in the USA. It also occurs to me that younger Brits might find it easier than older gits like me to cope with the culture shock, as I am probably stuck in my ways to some degree. But anyway, in no particular order, here goes with my top 10.
- As Stephen Fry points out, coming from a monarchy, you kind of expect the US to have more republican values of “all men are equal”, but in fact American values are quite different from that. Individual freedom is seen as more valuable than equality and justice in the US which gives it a different value system to the UK (and indeed the majority of republics). Fry argues in the video that it’s rooted in the way that the American constitution prioritizes things.
- As I mentioned in a previous blog, it’s difficult to underestimate and understate the importance of religion in American life, whether it’s in everyday life, or in general society and politics. Outside of respectable religion, I would also say that superstition and hokey beliefs are also much more common too.
- It’s much more commercial and materialistic here compared to Blighty. Practices that would be considered mercenary back in the UK are much more commonplace. Money seems to trump all in the USA, maybe even religion. It certainly runs the political system.
- As a Brit, you get told that we’re a class ridden society - and we certainly are compared to places like Germany, The Netherlands, Scandanavia, but in many ways the British class system is nothing compared to the US where there is a stronger sense of hierarchy, and social and economic status really is the be all and end all for most people.
- American politics. Things are shifted so far to the right here compared to the UK, I still have trouble working out who’s who. Often a ranting politician that I think is a rightwinger, turns out to be Democrat. The loony, foaming at the mouth, religious nut, I discover later is a respected Republican Senator.
- The lack of infrastructure can be frustrating here, if you’re not used to it. Outside of the big cities, there is very little public transport. Whereas you will get shops and pubs in the suburbs of towns and in rural areas in the UK, there is very little of that in the USA. Not only is it a convenience thing, but local shops, post offices, pubs are where a British community would meet and builds ties. (It was interesting to read that this was one thing that Brits found difficult about moving to Australia in a BBC article that I read).
- As Fry points out, America is an enormous place with lots of semi-autonomous states that often have a strong sense of self-identity. People often have more in common with and identify more with their state than the country as a whole. (In the UK, of course, we have Scotland, Wales, England and Ulster, but it is different.)
- Americans really believe in things. British people tend to be skeptical about pretty much everything. We make good scientists but poor dreamers.
- The right to bear arms and the gun thing is difficult to understand as an outsider. I am not particularly comfortable with all the violence that you get in America movie and drama either, although sometimes I think it just acts as a lazy plot device, it can seem to come uncomfortably close to romanticizing violence. I am no pacifist, by the way, I just don’t think real violence is in any way romantic.
- As Fry says, the American ideas of “liberty” and “freedom” are very difficult for a Brit to understand. For us, “liberty” and “freedom” are essentially concepts, which makes them essentially wooly. That doesn’t mean that we see them as bad ideas, we just don’t understand them as being solid things.
Ironically, after a year of living in the USA, I quite often feel that I understand it less now than I did when I arrived.