Mild Culture Shock (USA Coast2Coast #3)

A friend of mine once described moving to the UK as "mild culture shock", the combination of all the little things that, in an otherwise seemingly similar-to-home country, led to the displaced feeling of not belonging there. Mild culture shock is sometimes the worst, because you go in expecting to be able to navigate effectively – you speak the language, you've seen the place on TV. You haven't prepared yourself as you otherwise might have if you were going to, say, Vladivostok.

I had a similar experience in New Zealand a few years back, and I found a useful barometer was the weekly political satire/comedy show 7 Days (like Good News Week, or Mock The Week if you're British). Getting jokes about politics and culture requires actual integrated knowledge of that culture. When I arrived in NZ, I got about 30% of the jokes. By the time I left, it was closer to 70%. Not perfect, but then I still hadn't shaken the feeling of "not home". It's a paradox perhaps that "not home" is half the point of travel, and simultaneously the source of angst.

I thought about this a lot today on the long drive from Winslow, AZ to Amarillo, TX (880 km). Much of the country is flat plains, which while quite majestic in their own way also do a great job of inducing driver fatigue. It was after a fuel stop that I realised I was actually dreading pulling into service stations, because while they look like servos at home, the protocol is completely different and navigating it still brings me stress. So, to occupy myself on the next leg, I made a catalogue of all the little things that make up my experience of American culture shock. I've put the list down at the end, in case it helps someone else (feel free to comment more!). Sadly, I haven't found a version of Good News Week to test my cultural barometer (the TV in the motel last night induced me to watch at least three episodes of Say Yes to the Dress, so I'm staying away from cable).

In any case, after today I'm roughly half-way to Nashville. The part of Texas I've just come across is full of wind turbines (to the north) and fields to the south. It's a little incongruous to see the vast wind energy infrastructure in a state famous for oil, but I guess that shows how things move on. The wind is roaring through, and there's dust devils all over the fields. Amarillo is full of pickups with big growly engines, and I was quite excited to see people driving said growly pickups while wearing cowboy hats; feels extremely authentic! And that's the thing about culture shock, I guess – the same things that are disconcerting are also things that make up the fabric of somewhere else.

Tomorrow I'll be driving across the rest of the panhandle, and across Oklahoma, right in the meat of tornado alley. Just have to channel my inner Bill Paxton. There's a happy thought. In the meantime, I'm going to go in search of some kind of BBQ.

A short list of Australian/US mild culture shocks:

  • Petrol stations. You must pay first. Having a foreign credit card (which won't work in the bowser because I don't have a US zip code to enter) that means pull up, get out, go into the shop where you either a) guess at the amount you'll pay so they can authorise the card for that amount, or b) pay a guessed amount of cash. I say "guess" because I'm always filling up, not putting in exact. Then, you go out, pump the gas (see next point), then return inside to collect change, or an accurate receipt for the credit card (which will credit back what you didn't spend). This means if you want to buy anything else, you have to do that in a separate transaction. So, lots of double handling. This whole process for some reason I find stressful.
  • Petrol pumps. They have only one nozzle. You push a button to select the fuel after picking up the nozzle. Some have vapour recovery, and won't pump unless you've formed a seal with the rubber boot around the nozzle. If in doubt, read all the signs on the bowser.
  • Indicators on vehicles are red, not orange. Harder to see. Weird.
  • Toilets are shallower, and filled with a wide bowl of water to a rather alarming level. Careful knack required when flushing.
  • Default switch "on" position is up, not down.
  • Biscuits + gravy = soft scones + white sauce
  • Driving on the right. Makes it slower to process the right place to be at the right time; tend to drift to the right in the lane, I think because I'm used to my body being to the right of the centre, not the left.
  • Trucks put their hazard lights on when they're going relatively slowly uphill. Never seen it in Australia and took me a while to realise what it meant.
  • All the logos for hotels, petrol stations, and eateries are different, so brand recognition is about zero. Doesn't sound like a big deal, until you're travelling at highway speeds and trying to work out whether the upcoming exit has what you need. Same deal for most of the brands in the supermarket.
  • Tipping. If you watch videos on how to tip on YouTube, it seems like you are tipping everyone. The reality of being here is that I'm still working out who you tip and who doesn't. In restaurants and cafes, sure, though not in big chain stores it seems. Taxis and Uber seem to be appropriate, too. But I've had a couple of people who were super helpful refuse a tip, even when they'd done something beyond their job description. Still confused on this one.
  • Tax. Most prices are listed without tax, so you pay more once you reach the counter. For example, all drinks at maccas are $1 (huge posters display this), but at the counter in one place, I paid $1.10.
  • Super, super polites. I'm getting ma'am a lot. It's not at all a bad thing, but nothing like home!