There are just some things that can never be explained no matter how many times someone asks “Why?” You do things in your life over and over again because that’s how you grew up and you never thought twice about it. You just did it. But when you leave everything you know, your comfort zone and your culture for a long period of time, and come home years later, you have a new set of eyes. You begin to remember all the things you no longer do or think about, or even realize. Soon you’re constantly asking “Whhhy?” or simply, “Whiskey.Tango.Fox?”
First Time to the US? Returning to the US? PIN IT FOR LATER!
I’m writing this as my days are drawing to a near after spending a glorious 7 weeks back in the US for the summer after living abroad for 6 years. My husband and I needed a prolonged stay in the States to decide whether moving back to the US was right for us. Without getting too deep into politics, it just seems there is simply too much animosity bubbling at the surface at the moment. Our biggest fears for moving back to the US is how easy it is to loose a job, lack of vacation time, how expensive it is, the traffic everywhere… – just to name a few.
But on this recent trip back, 7 weeks is a lot longer than our typical 10-14 day trip to the US. It gave me the time to be re-accustomed to American habits and culture again. It took me a few weeks into our stay that realized I was beginning to struggle with some of the odd things Americans do. I’ve written about it before, but this time I found some of these issues becoming pet peeves, or more simply put, I realized I had a slight case of reverse culture shock.
But what is reverse culture shock?
When you embark on a journey to live somewhere other than your home town or country, you have to adjust to a new culture and a new way or doing things. You might struggle in the beginning and become depressed or frustrated with the way that things are done in your new city. This is called “Culture Shock”. But when go back home to your home country and and begin readjusting, but struggle with how things have changed (or perhaps how things haven’t changed), or different from how you remembered or even realizing how you have changed or feel like you no longer fit in, this is reverse culture shock.
Related: Helpful Tips for New Expats
I soon found that I was annoyed with many things that are an every day part of American culture. Like constantly being ID’d when buying alcohol, or trying to use my own reusable bag because I no longer use plastic bags but being looked at as if I might be trying to steal something. Or the annoyance of having to buy my beer, wine and hard alcohol in 3 different locations. Other things just made me shake my head and say “Whiskey.Tango.Fox?” and laugh.
The Drinking Age
There are only a hand full of countries that have a law with a drinking age 21 or over. The United States is one of them. But at 18 you can do everything else – buy cigarettes, vote, fight for your country, buy a gun and have intimate relationships but you can’t drink. In most of Europe, the drinking age is 18 – in Germany, teens can drink beer and wine at 16, hard alcohol at 18, thus ensuring that they learn to drink responsibly. Once you’re beyond the minimum drinking age, you’ll never be asked for your ID again. Unless you never age and manage to keep your youthful appearance…in that case, you lucky little duck!
Being ID’d No Matter the Age
Ever after you’ve turned 21, you’ll often be ID’d no matter your age in the US, even if you’re clearly a silver haired fox or well into your 80s. Many bars, restaurants and stores strictly enforce this across the board, therefore not offending anyone, being irritatingly thorough and not putting their business at risk for serving alcohol to under age minors… who are just going to find another way to get it anyways. Due diligence is great, but when you annoy someone clearly over the age of 21, why bother?
Having “Dry Towns”
Ok ya’ll, we’re in the 21st century. Prohibition ended in 1933, and yet, there are still towns throughout America that still prohibit the sale of alcohol within its city limits, yet you can just drive over the county line, just a few minutes away and purchase your alcohol. These days, many towns have become “moist towns”, so honestly, what’s the point? This means perhaps they are allowed to buy alcohol within the city limits, but just not on a Sunday … even though one could go down to the local bar and line ’em up! Responsible adults should be able to buy alcohol whenever they please.
Fun Fact: Lynchburg, Tennesse – home of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery is a dry town!
Selling Beer, Wine and Hard Liquor in Multiple Locations
Now, not every US state is like this, certainly not California. But Texas and Kentucky both have gargantuan liquor stores where you can buy all of you alcohol (yet more and more options) in one location. But go to a grocery store and your beer and wine will be sold in two separate locations within the same store!! You’ll often buy your beer with your groceries, but have to go out to a side store for your wine. How incredibly inconvenient is this!? What is the point of this?
Not Being Allowed to Drink Outside
That picnic you want to have with friends and family down by the river for 4th of July sounds like a total blast…until you have to leave the alcohol at home. Only in Las Vegas, NV are you allowed to drink with an open container in public. But suddenly putting it into a brown paper bag makes it all ok.
In Europe, dinner tables spill into patios outside where guests may drink practically on the sidewalk. In Germany, you can go anywhere you please with a drink in your hand – even on public transportation, though this is radically changing. But there is certainly no crime for drinking while walking down the street.
Building Cities Around Cars, but not People
Our cities are large and public transportation is often practically non-existent, therefore, causing everyone to drive everywhere, all the time. Want to go downtown for a drink? Guess what, you’ll need to drive in or take an uber or resort to finding a friend to be a designated driver (DD) who will sit there and watch everyone else drink and have a good time and then have to deal with their drunk asses. Live in a city with good public transportation? Take advantage of that every.single.day!
Where is the reliable public transportation to help people get in and out of big, busy cities to help reduce traffic, smog and even a lift home after a few drinks without worrying about drinking and driving.
From main courses to finger nail polish, there are just too many damn options. I found myself suddenly wasting soooo much time trying to make a decision about EVERY THING. I’m all for having multiple options, but having dozens of options is just mind-blowing. Why do I need to decide between 10 different burgers or 200 different colored nail polishes?
Every American always questions why the dime is smaller than a nickle, but is double the amount. And speaking of difference in coin sizes, why does American money have nicknames which actually says NOTHING about the value of a coin, except a quarter.
And why are all American Dollar bills the same size? You honestly have to do a double check that you’re not giving the cashier $100 when you meant to give them a $10 or a $1.
In Europe, bills increase in size along with the value of the bill, as well as having different colors for each bill therefore ensuring that you know which bill is which.
Little to NO Vacation Days
Nothing is harder living abroad than being limited to only one week of vacation for your family. Two if they’re lucky and have no other holidays planned for the year. Why must Americans be forced to work day in and day out, with little to no paid holidays? We’re not robots. We’re people and are entitled to a relaxing holiday and can come back to work feeling refreshed and ready to work. It’s scientific knowledge that relaxed employees make for happy employees and when employees are happy, they produce better quality work. Come on, we’re in the 21st century and are way behind Europe in PTO. Most Europeans get a minimum of 20-24 paid days of holiday per year.
More than half of American workers (55%) squandered their vacation time in 2015. That’s 658 million unused vacation days for fear of loosing their job, being bullied by their employer FOR wanting to take a holiday or worse, come back to 2x as much work because there is no one there to manage the work.
Driving Motorcycles without a Helmet
Every time I come home, my parents live in a new state and yet, so far, only in California was it mandatory for motorcyclists to wear a helmet when driving. As if it’s somehow safer in one state but not another, despite how many times we’ve seen a motorcyclist who had been hit by a car. Worse is when seeing a motorcyclist driving in sandals, heels, or even shorts. Just the thought of road burn makes me ache!
Bacon on EVERYTHING!
Bacon on waffles – Heavenly. Bacon wrapped chicken – delicious. Bacon on burgers, salads and whatever else I almost always can agree that bacon makes everything better. But bacon maple donuts or bacon maple ice cream – I.JUST.DON’T.GET.
Deep Frying EVERYTHING!
Americans have this love affair with deep frying anything and everything and I personally never got into it. My first deep fried twinky came out soggy and gross and I said then, I’d never eat anything like that again. Until our recent visit, a small town fair deep fried a variety of items and our little group decided to try the deep fried twinky and deep fried Snickers. Both were so heavenly, I get it now.
American vehicles seem to get bigger and bigger every time I come home. I just don’t see the need or the point of a gargantuan gas guzzler as a daily vehicle. If you transport a lot of heavy duty goods, then ya sure, it’s necessary, but just because someone feels like they need to compensate for something, is a little ridiculous. How is this even remotely environmentally friendly? You’d never find trucks that big in Europe – mostly because they wouldn’t fit in any of the cities, streets or parking lots.
Monster truck shows? I simply don’t get the point other than destroying sh**.
Christmas in July
Whyyyyy? Why does the Hallmark Channel showcase Christmas in July ALL MONTH? Why do stores offer Christmas in July sales? Can’t people just wait the allotted 11 months of the year until the next Christmas season? I love Christmas as much as the next person, but technically having Christmas sales and movies twice a year takes away some of the special magic Christmas affords us in December. Though, I’m not going to lie, I did my holiday Christmas decoration shopping in July since I don’t live in the US!
Portion Sizes & Calories
Are GARGANTUAN! Every single meal my husband and I have eaten out, we have shared because they’re just sooo big. Why is every single meal and drink ridiculously large? Why does every meal have to be so big that you have left overs to take home? Doggy bags are practically non-existent outside of the US because portion sizes are much smaller, therefore it also helps with reducing food waste. On the plus side, we save money by sharing a meal.
Worst of all, restaurants have started putting the calories of each meal on the menu, which either just makes you feel like an utter fatty for eating something naughty or causes you to have eater’s remorse before you’ve even eaten it and instead you opt for a simple salad because it’s the only thing not over 500 calories.
Why oh why do we have food competitions to see who can stuff as many hot dogs, hamburgers or anything else in their stomach in a short amount of time?? Not only is it a complete waste of food, but it’s sickening to watch! I love watching the travel channel or food network where they venture to restaurants renowned for a famous meal that just needs to be shared with the world, but when the portion size is so large or there’s a competition, all for the sake of a T-shirt, it’s a little ridiculous. Imagine the people we could feed with that food.
Personalized License Plates
It’s always fun trying to decipher everyone’s personalized license plates in the US, whereas in Europe, you’re less likely to see very many specialized plates. My favorite to date was “OMG MOV” – clearly displaying her road rage and slight impatience.
Endless Prescription Commercials
Nothing quite scares the bejesus out of you like prescription ads listing all the potential side effects of said drug prior to consulting a doctor who may or may not prescribe me that particular prescription. In Germany, you definitely don’t see nearly as many commercials and they simply just tell you to consult your doctor prior to taking. Punkt. No need to scare the patient half to death with multiple ways they may die or have a stroke.
An Overabundance of TV’s in Restaurants
Go into any restaurant in the US and you’re likely to find a minimum of one or two TVs somewhere, if not on every wall of the restaurant. Because god forbid you miss an episode of Housewives of Atlanta or Top Gear. What happened to having a nice family dinner out and ACTUALLY talking to one another? What’s worse is that many restaurants are starting to offer iPads to children in order to keep them quite.
Air Conditioning 24/7
I’m all for a bit of air conditioning on a hot, humid day, but does it realllly need to be down to 61*F (16*C) every single place we go? You don’t even realize how cold you’ve become until you walk back outside and suddenly feel yourself defrosting! Going to the movies? Bring a jacket! Going to work? Bring an office blanket!
Gaps Between Toilet Stalls
One of the first things I noticed being back was the 1/2 – 1″ gaps between the door and the walls of the toilet stalls. I suddenly felt exposed as if the people waiting for a stall were watching me. It’s already bad enough you think they might hear you tinkle.
Bakeries and Butcher Shops
Where are they? I never once saw a bakery or butcher shop. Where can I get a variety of freshly baked bread without it being store bought and prepackaged, lacking in all nutrition? Where can I find a butcher who specializes in fresh meats that isn’t Costco? Why are bakeries here mostly loaded with pastries and sweets or donuts but not bread?
Exuberant Tipping Expected
This one is a stickler and everyone has their own opinion on the matter. But after living in two countries with two different ways of handling this issue, I prefer the latter.
Why does the US still have this backwards system of tipping an exuberant percentage in order to pay a restaurant’s employees a decent living? Why are restaurants not taking care of this? Tipping because the service was excellent should be a welcome bonus, not expected, especially if said job was not done well. Feeling forced to tip just because it’s “required” doesn’t mean you have to. You tip because you felt that the service you received was excellent, not to help someone make a living. 10-15% is common, but more often than not, I’ve started seeing restaurants ask for 20-25% tip! But if I feel that the service I received wasn’t up to par, or my meal was bad, I won’t tip and I’ve even had friends pay my portion for tip because they disagreed with me. But I’m sorry, why should I pay an extra 10-15% for a service that was terrible? That’s my hard earned money too!
In Europe, many countries don’t ask, require or even like receiving an extra tip and sometimes it’s even insulting. In Germany, tipping is not mandatory, but it’s a nice gesture, however, never more than 10% and mostly just rounding up. Restaurants pay their employees pretty decent wages, therefore they don’t need to live off of their tips. Sure, the service is different in terms that you may have to flag down a waiter for another beer, but at least their not wasting their time bringing you unlimited refills on soda that you didn’t ask for.
In some cases, it’s automatically included if you have a large party, despite whether or not the service was good. Luckily, if it’s crap, you can fight it. If it’s great, well then you can chose to pay it.
It can be so frustrating when shopping in the US because the price you see on the tag is not the price you pay at the register. For whatever reason, tax in not already included in the price of the item, but at check out it is then added to the cost. And tax prices vary depending on which city or state you’re in. Unlike in Europe, VAT (Value Added Tax) is already included in the cost, so if the item says 9,50€, you’re gonna pay 9,50€! No need to guess at how much you might pay.
Change in Speed Limits in a Short Amount of Distance
Nothing can be more mind-boggling when driving in the US and the speed limit changes 5 times in less than a mile. Is it 35, 45 or 55? Best go 40 to be safe. Clearly, this is a what we call a “speed trap” where police officers prey on confused victims to make their monthly ticket quota.
Dilapidated Cars on the Road
How and why are so many cars on the road which are falling to pieces before your eyes? Not only is it dangerous for the driver but those around! I know it’s not legal, but why is nothing being done about this? Where is the front of this car?!
Power Lines Not Underground
One of the first things my techy husband pointed out on his first visit to the US was the fact that many power lines are not underground, but instead strung across the country, occasionally falling over and during big storms can cause power outages if toppled over or struck by lightning. It never dawned on me before, be he makes a valid point. Secondly, it just looks so chaotic and messy and would easily reduce the eye sore by putting them underground.
State to State Differences in Recycling
Why is recycling a state to state issue and not a mandatory federal issue? Why is the US way behind on recycling, reusing and reducing the amount of waste? Having lived in Europe for 6 years now, I’m quite conscious of the amount of waste I throw away and try every day to reduce the waste, especially unnecessary waste. For example, in Germany we charge .20 per plastic bag now, therefore, automatically encouraging you to reuse your bags or even bring durable long-term bags.
While here in the US, I’m ghastly aware of the amount of plastic waste there is and first thing first bought myself a reusable basket and a reusable shopping bag, yet when I go into any store people either think that I still need to purchase said bags or that I’m stealing them. I have to blatantly tell them, “No these are mine, I don’t use plastic bags”. While I know that states like California are leading the way, other states like Kentucky are no where near having any form of plastic reduction or recycling. The beautiful new neighborhood my parents live in has no form of recycling containers for glass, plastic, paper etc. Appalling!
Why is everything ALWAYS on sale in the US? Not that I’m complaining about saving money, but how can stores constantly be having sales and stay in business? On one hand, it’s great to save money, but on the other hand, people grow more accustomed to cheaper prices of items and then refuse to pay the original price and possibly resulting in a lower quality of the product.
In Germany, big sales only come several times a year, such as end of summer sale or end of winter sales. Up until 2004, these kind of sales were heavily regulated and therefore, you wouldn’t find a “Labor Day Sale”, “4th of July Sale”, “Memorial Day Sale”, “Christmas Sale” …. etc. (American holidays aside). They could only have seasonal items for sale and only twice a year.
Reality TV Shows and Soap Operas
Don’t people honestly have anything better to do with their time? Why does the US have to glorify people like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton?
Honestly, I could go on and on and on about some of the things I now find outdated, backwards and simply just need to be brought up into the modern age, or worse, things that need to go back to the way things were like in the past. For example, is it realllllllly necessary to have a ton of pre-made dinners and desserts, also in one-time use throw away plastic containers? Worse, I’m finding that more and more people choose not to cook home cooked meals anymore because Costco can sell it cheaper than buying all the ingredients needed to make a meal, also saving you time. Soon people aren’t even going to know how to cook anymore! I had to LEAVE the US before I finally learned how to cook home cooked meals because there were so few frozen meals or a lacking in a variety of fast food restaurants.
I’m honestly both torn and overwhelmed by how much I have changed while living abroad and returning to the US to find things still unchanged, if not worse. I feel sad that I feel this way, haranguing on and on about my home country which I love so much, but somehow I feel almost like I’ve lost the love, yet still totally feel 100% proud to be an American (politics aside). I guess I just feel like the US lacks “Ordnung”. I feel like in so many other ways the US is falling behind the rest of the world in terms of advancement in education, infrastructure, health care and quite often, common sense.
I’ve been torn between two countries for at least the last 3 years, debating back and forth if we should stay in Germany or move back to the US, but I think I can officially say at the moment, I’m content to stay in Germany. Yes, it’s a lot easier to sit here and moan on the computer than moving back to the US and doing something about it, but I’m only one person and there is too much to change. I find that if the US would stop bickering back and forth about so many things, and actually work together, maybe one day some things could be improved.