WARNING: This post contains gross generalisations about the USA and its people. Deal with it, Murrikuh!
America, for 11 years now I have watched you from afar, hearing and reading about you in the vernacular news and occasionally watching your TV and movies. Every other year or so, I visit for a week or two just to see the fam and do the thing. And every time I return there is the inevitable, curious reverse culture shock to make me marvel at this country I feel no longer a part of.
This time, we spent a whopping three whole months in the Land of the Free. This is a long time—the longest I’ve been in the USA continuously since I bid farewell to it permanently in 2005. And to make this trip even more unusual, we travelled coast-to-coast, visiting nooks and crannies of the States we had only seen on TV.
Eleven years in the making, discovered over three months of travelling around The Motherland, here is my list of 15 mostly weird, sometimes wonderful, things about America.
1. Americans love factories
To stick “factory” on the end of a noun is apparently a solid naming scheme for food businesses in America. Cheesecake Factory, Bagel Factory, Potato Factory, Pizza Factory, Sushi Factory… if it’s made in a factory it must be good, right? RIGHT?? America must be the only country on the planet where the people think food made in factories is better than food made in small batches by people instead of machines.
2. Americans love chains—and they are everywhere
Who would have guessed this one? We were staying at an Airbnb in a rather central, very hispanic area of LA (okay, that’s pretty much the whole city), and we were hungry. A quick Google showed an amazing array of restaurants, from a Mexican diner to taquerias to Cuban to Ecuadorian to Yucatecan places. But which one to choose? Our host, a well-travelled guy who works as a school administrator, racked his brain for some local restaurant recommendations. “How about Chick-fil-A? Or Quiznos?” We couldn’t believe it.
But it happened time and time again; to these two strangers in a strange land, so many Americans recommended we dine at chain restaurants. We overheard so many people gushing over In-N-Out or Chipotle. And when it came to eating or doing our shopping, so many times it was a real struggle to find a non-chain, local business to give our money to (though we usually succeeded). In fact, entire swaths of the country are almost solely dedicated to the same 30 or so retail stores and restaurants. I can imagine there’s a significant number of Americans who have never even shopped at an independent local business.
3. Obesity is still a thing
Perhaps related to #2, it’s always a surprise to visit the USA and see so many fat people. Not fat like “I need to lose 20lbs”, but fat fat—obese. But being super fat is so 10 years ago, right? Wrong… Despite the wealth of information available about the dangers of excessive fat and sugar, and the amount of effort put into state and government programmes about healthy eating and active lifestyles, people are still chugging 40oz Slurpees and scarfing family-sized bags of Doritos like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t you people get it?? Have your minds and tastebuds warped so much from all the artificial colours and preservatives that you don’t know what a healthy diet looks like and you don’t notice you’re killing yourself??
One of the shockers for a lot of first-time visitors is that some Americans are so fat, they need to ride in mobility scooters. What an amazing country, where people are so rich they can buy machines to drive themselves around while they eat to death. The situation here is so ridiculous that Mook and I had to adapt our Myanmar travel game to the USA. In Myanmar, whenever one of us saw a larger-than-life statue of Buddha (of which there are a lot), the first person to point it out got to punch the other one in the shoulder. For the USA, we changed it up, replacing “big Buddha” with “person in a mobility scooter”. Needless to say, my shoulder hurts often.
4. For Americans, “The World” only extends to their borders
During my years abroad, occasionally some cheeky bastard would corner me and point out that America’s baseball championship is known as the “World Series”. “Stupid Americans, do they think that they are the only country in the world?” YES, THEY DO. I can hardly count the number of times I’ve seen unverified claims of something being “World’s Greatest”, “World Famous”, or “World’s First”. You can chalk it up to good ol’ American sensationalism, but I have to wonder if any of these people have actually left their city, state or country and seen that there is, in fact, a world beyond their borders.
The alternative to the scenario above is bastard South Americans, who would harp on at me about how “People from the USA think only they are ‘America’, they’re too narrow-minded to see that they’re only one country in America, and that we are American too.” Yes, yes, that is technically true, but c’mon you guys… Murrikuh!
5. In big cities, skateboarding is a legitimate form of transportation for adults
Although the rest of the world seems stuck in the SKATEBOARDING IS NOT A CRIME era, America has progressed. Coast-to-coast, in the fine metropolises of the USA, you can see all sorts of people using skateboards and their own people power to scoot around town, as you would a bicycle. While longboards seem to be the most widely accessible (I have a 40ish female friend on Facebook who rides one), even the tiny little plastic ones for kids are popular. Ride one to the shop, ride one to the pub, ride one to a job interview; no one is judging you here.
6. Hipsters aren’t so bad
As someone who has gone to an art exhibition in the basement of an East London pub and, with a poorly-poured £5.50 pint in hand, seen a taxidermied squirrel climbing a Pringles tin for sale for £200, I can tell you: Hipsters in London are fucking arrogant and pretentious as shit. Their irreverent status as pricks has even been immortalised in the song “Being a Dickhead’s Cool” and Vice Magazine’s series “Dalston Superstars“. But, having spent most of my adult life in Japan and the UK, these were the only hipsters I’ve ever known.
So can you imagine how surprising it was to go to LA, San Francisco, Denver, and New York City and find out that American hipsters are actually really nice?? Like, down-to-earth, occasionally bashful, welcoming, polite, and generally pretty normal people?? Sure there is still an air of pretension here and there, but nowhere to be found are the up-down-evil-eye grimaces of holier-than-thou baristas, nor the passive-aggressive elbows on dark dance floors. American hipsters are generally nice and approachable people. (Funny this didn’t apply to Canada.. hipsters in Toronto were pretty poncy and not very nice.)
7. The beer is amazing!!!
Gone are the days when American beer was almost exclusively the realm of companies like Budweiser and Miller, who produced watery lagers that looked like piss and didn’t taste much better. America has flourished in a new era: craft beer. The revolution has brought us such an enormous variety of high-quality, delicious beverages for reasonable prices that surely there is no other nation on earth that has better beer than the USA. I’m sorry England, I’m sorry Ireland, I’m sorry Germany, I’m sorry Czech Republic and whoever else. You might have a long history of beer making, and you might have some damn fine beer, but America beats you out in variety, quality, availability, and imagination. This is something we are truly going to miss back in Europe.
The craft beer revolution in America has produced one more awesome thing: the growler. No, not the UK kind of growler—a growler in America is a refillable brown glass jug that you can bring down to almost any brewery or taproom in the country and have them fill with your choice of brew to take home. It’s eco-friendly, it’s cheap, and it’s fucking awesome.
8. TV is so full of action
American TV looks like normal TV played on fast-forward. You’d think shows were edited by people with severe ADHD with all the cuts and change of scene. The commercials all sound like they were narrated to be action films, and they kind of are with the way the cars are zooming around and the food is flying across the screen, bouncing on a plate, and then flying again. All the channels that I used to know as interesting and educational (TLC, National Geographic, etc.) have all become sensationalist free-for-alls, with programming written for the lowest common denominator. On the occasions where we’ve decided to kick back and zone out in front of the TV, we usually end up turning it off because it gives us headaches. It’s no wonder Americans usually dress in gym clothes and running shoes… they must always be on the edge, waiting for some action to happen.
9. Americans have a dysfunctional relationship with food
Ah, America, the land of extremes. Unlike the rest of the world, where meals are used to nourish the body, to relax in the company of family and friends, or to enjoy the exquisite textures and flavours of nature, eating in America feels highly politicised. On one side you have those that fear food and feel that it’s something to be controlled and restricted: people who get hives even thinking about the word gluten despite the fact that they don’t have celiac disease; Paleo devotees who shun dairy and carbs; juice fanatics who would be happy to never chew again. Companies big and small pander to this ever-growing market of diet obsession, and a cornucopia of products that were once only found in dusty health food stores has now taken over entire shelves at supermarket chains big and small. Surely the USA’s next big war will be the War on Gluten?
In response to this mania America has birthed a culinary opposition: those that vilify healthy eating. They paint dietary restriction as wussy, emasculating, and unpatriotic. Because what is more American than stuffing your face with enormous portions of high-fat foods? Chicago deep dish chain Lou Malnati’s declares proudly on their wall, “Pure Chicago pizza: No sprouts, no eggplant, no kale, no peanut sauce, no tofu”. McDonalds has now rebranded themselves as “anti-kale”. An Instagram account called “Girls With Gluten” made the rounds with my American Facebook friends, because looking at skinny girls stuffing their faces with greasy food like bulimics before a purge is apparently super hot for people in the USA. What is attractive here? The girls? The food? Or saying a big “fuck you” to people who make the effort at a balanced and decidedly “un-American” diet?
10. The liquor laws are stupid
The USA is well known internationally for its unreasonably late minimum drinking age of 21, but there are actually a whole slew of other weird alcohol restrictions that vary state-by-state. In most states, alcohol cannot be sold after 2am, except for Utah where it’s 1am, and places like Alaska, where it’s 5am. And then there’s the states that prohibit or restrict sales on Sunday. In many states you can buy beer, wine and spirits at supermarkets or convenience stores, but in others (like Colorado and New York) supermarkets can only sell beer, and wine and liquor must be purchased separately at liquor stores—which cannot sell beer. Then there’s Utah and Alabama, where all alcohol can only be purchased at state-run liquor stores.
And then there’s the “no open containers” law, which prohibits drinking on the street. This seems to be the general rule everywhere, except for places like New Orleans and Las Vegas. But in the latter, drinking outdoors is only okay on the new strip, because in the downtown area they had too many locals taking advantage of it and causing problems. But when you go camping or to parks people seem to be flouting the law anyway, so why does it even exist?
In summary, America is a jumble of confusing and rather arbitrary laws restricting the purchase and consumption of alcohol, something that rightfully makes us the butt of many jokes across the pond.
11. The tipping thing is totally out of hand
What used to be an optional custom used to reward especially good service has, in modern America, become a vile and mandatory system that holds both customers and servers hostage to one-another. Some people in America get paid so low that they depend on tipping for their income. I get that much. But instead of enacting fair wage laws, America as a whole seems satisfied to let employers off the hook and make customers responsible for paying restaurant servers a living wage. A customary tip used to be 10-15 percent, but thanks to the rising cost of living, it has become almost a mandatory 20 percent. Some restaurants kindly print out tip calculations at the bottom of your bill, cheekily suggesting tips of 18, 20, and 25 percent!
But what’s worse, the tipping madness has extended far beyond jobs where people make below minimum wage. Bartenders expect you to tip $1 just for pouring a beer ($2 in NYC), and everyone’s got a tip jar out—from the dudes at the deli to snarky cashiers at Chipotle. Tip the barista, tip the cashier at the ice cream parlour, tip the hotel maid daily, tip your hairdresser, tip your tattoo artist. It’s an archaic social obligation that Americans apparently love way more than just earning a normal wage. (Read about the madness in detail here)
12. No one smokes cigarettes anymore
A good thing! Unlike in Asia and Europe, there appear to be very few young smokers in the USA. Compared to a Japanese izakaya or an English pub garden, smoking areas at bars and clubs here in America tend to be noticeably empty of actual smokers, and it’s rare to walk down the street and smell cigarette smoke or see someone smoking cigarettes out of their window. Bravo, America! You’ve kicked the habit. Weed, on the other hand, is big big big. But as we learned in Colorado, why smoke a splif when you can just vape?
13. Lazy sports are in, and they’re awesome
Stoner sports, lazy sports, or whatever you want to call them; kickball and disc golf are where it’s at. Disc golf was kind of a thing when I was in uni, but now almost all municipal parks in Michigan seem to have their own disc golf courses and you can buy the frisbees almost anywhere. Disc golf is relatively challenging and you don’t have to run. What is not to love?
Then there’s kickball. When did this become such a thing? In the evenings and on weekends, local parks in major cities are swarming with people playing kickball in leagues, usually drinking beer and often wearing funny outfits. A sport that involves booze and costumes?? Export that shit to Europe and sign us up!!
14. There are loads of broken tires all over the road
Okay guys, I’ve travelled on the road through over 30 countries and have never, ever seen so many broken bits of tires all over the road like we have here in America. What is up with that? Do you guys not check the tread on your tires, or are you just too cheap to change them before they blow out? And don’t you have to clean that shit up? It’s a fucking hazard and it’s ridiculous.
15. Gay people are really gay
This is another thing that is terrific about America. The first time I saw two extremely effeminate guys on the train—in skinny jeans and crop tops, one wearing makeup—I have to admit I was kind of shocked. Why? Because everywhere else I’ve been in the whole wide world (okay, except maybe Thailand), gay people do not have as much freedom and/or social acceptability to dress and act how they like, so they tone it down or hide it completely. But the USA has opened such a big, wide dialog about all kinds of sexuality that, in the more liberal parts of the country, people appear to feel free to dress and act how they please—no matter how much that deviates from the old fashioned acceptable norm. And that is great! While there of course is still a long way to go before this “Christian country” evolves enough to give people of all sexual orientations the same rights and treatment as they do heterosexuals, I think America is progressing in the right direction.