- Zirui Yan
- Three years ago, I moved from Guiyang, China, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to attend college.
- Before moving, I had certain perceptions and expectations of what the US would be like.
- Several aspects of US culture were different than I had imagined. And in some cases, those cultural differences left me disappointed.
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Three years ago, I moved from my hometown of Guiyang, China, to go to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It was my first time living in America, and like many people who move to a new country, I found that my perception of the United States didn’t exactly line up with reality.
As it turned out, several aspects of US culture, from food to transportation to nightlife, were different than I had imagined. And in some cases, those differences left me disappointed.
Here are 14 of the most disappointing aspects of US culture, according to someone who moved from China.
Everything closes early in the US
- Getty Images
In the North Carolina town I lived in, most places shut down around 9 p.m., except for bars, nightclubs, and a few grocery stores that stayed open 24 hours.
That’s very different from what I was used to in China, where shopping malls, restaurants, and cafes stayed open for business much later. At night markets, food hawkers start setting up their booths around 10 p.m. and don’t leave until 3 a.m.
In the US, it’s hard for me to find a coffee shop that’s open after midnight if I need to cram for finals, and it can often be hard to find an eatery for late-night cravings.
Parts of the US are much emptier than I expected
- Shutterstock/Leigh Trail
China is the most populous country in the world, and naturally, I’m used to seeing huge crowds on every corner. Whenever you go out, you’re likely to see hundreds of people exercising in parks, shopping in malls, and hanging out at coffee shops.
The population of the US is only about a quarter of China’s, and in smaller towns, people are much more spread out.
In the town where I live, I usually never see big crowds of people anywhere, giving the impression of a ghost town. Although I’d see people walking around in the daytime, it was disappointing to see that the outdoor activity would usually die down after sunset.
While the US is also home to crowded, bustling cities, it’s far from the only way people live in America.
You have to drive everywhere
- GettyImages/Michael H
In America, if you don’t have a car, and you don’t live in a city with convenient public transportation, your life is very, very difficult.
Unlike China, where most people rely on buses and subways, the US is very much a car country. If you don’t have a car, it might take you an hour and a half to get somewhere on the other side of the town. This aspect of US culture isn’t something that’s usually shown on TV and in movies, so I had no idea before I arrived.
Food in America can get really expensive — and the full price is never on display
- Sarah Kimmorley/Business Insider Australia
Food in America is way more expensive than in other parts of the world.
Worse yet, the menus of American restaurants can be a little deceiving: The marked price doesn’t include taxes and tip.
After adding a sales tax of around 7.5% and a tip of 15% to 20%, your meal can wind up shockingly expensive. A lot of Americans might not realize the US is unusual in this regard, but it was disappointing coming from a country where the price on the menu is exactly what you pay.
The air conditioning can get really cold in the summer
Living in the South, I figured it would get extremely hot and humid during the summertime.
Well, not if you stay mostly indoors. Lots of public places, such as grocery stores and public libraries, have the air conditioner set as low as 66 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ll have to bring a jacket with me if I plan to sit in the library for more than two hours.
The measurement system is different from the rest of the world.
- Flickr/Personal Creations
The US is one of just three countries in the world that doesn’t use metric units of measurement and one of just a handful of countries that uses Fahrenheit for temperatures. Coming from China, I had to learn the conversion between the imperial and metric systems, as well as the calculation from Celsius to Fahrenheit. It was confusing, to say the least.
Most people don’t care about fashion
In the US, when it comes to fashion, most people consider comfort and functionality the biggest two factors. Sportswear and athleisure are many people’s personal dress code. You see more people wearing Under Armour than Giorgio Armani or Louis Vuitton.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s very different from what I was used to in China, where Gucci has become so trendy that many people don’t even realize they have knockoffs.
People can easily buy dangerous weapons, like guns
I’m still astonished by the fact that Americans can legally purchase and possess firearms before they can legally drink alcohol.
Furthermore, it was shocking to learn that all eligible American citizens and permanent residents can buy and own firearms. At least in my home country, such a thing would never happen. China restricts gun-owning to only certain occupations, like police officers and the military.
The US isn’t very energy-efficient
- Neil Podol/Shutterstock
The US has enough resources to offer all of its people, which is a good thing. However, in my experience, many people aren’t conscious of energy-saving, which is different from what I expected.
Many little things stood out to me in this regard. When washing their hands, people don’t usually turn off the tap while applying hand soap. I know some people who leave home every day with multiple lights on. And most of the buildings on my college campus have lights on and AC running 24/7.
Substance abuse is prevalent on American college campuses
For young adults, using drugs almost seems like the norm if you want to be accepted or “cool.” It’s much harder to obtain drugs in China than in the US, and penalties for violating drug laws are more severe than they are in America.
Moreover, Chinese college campus culture is generally more academic-focused than party-focused, so drug use is less common among young people. I suspect many Chinese students wouldn’t be proud to admit it if they have done drugs.
The smart kids aren’t usually the ‘cool’ kids
- Reuters/Noah Berger
In Chinese schools, those who have good grades are more popular than those who don’t. Chinese parents and teachers like and trust those students because they are smart and disciplined enough to be academically successful.
In the US, often, the students who perform the best aren’t always the “cool” kids – for many of them, they’re stigmatized as “nerds.” It was shocking to learn that much of the time at American schools, students value street smarts more than book smarts.
You can only pay by cash or card at most places
The US is very technologically advanced, but when it comes to paying for things, America is actually behind the curve.
In China and other Asian countries, it’s becoming increasingly popular to pay by QR code. With that method of payment, you don’t need to carry cash or credit cards – you just scan a QR code with your phone at the register and money is automatically deducted from your mobile wallet.
Meanwhile, most shops and restaurants in the US still only accept cash or card.
American families are not as close as Chinese families
In the US, I found that my peers are not especially close to their extended family members like their aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Sometimes, even the relationships between parents and children and siblings can be a little distant as everyone goes their separate ways in life.
In China, on the other hand, loyalty and commitment to your family is the No. 1 priority.
But Americans are generally more individually-minded, and they tend to rely more on themselves than on their families.
It’s difficult to find food that’s both healthy and affordable
American cuisine is some of the most diverse in the world, and practically every cuisine in the world is available in the US.
However it’s often the case that the most affordable foods are the least healthy – think fast food, which is high in calories and lacks much substance.
In China, simple dishes like noodles, stir-fried meat, and vegetables are often the cheapest thing on a restaurant’s menu – and certainly cheaper than the food at McDonald’s.
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