Living in America

After living in America from April 2006 to November 2008, I can give a little bit of advice to any Australians who are considering the move. First, you are going to notice some big differences between America and Australia. Second, you are going to need to learn a new language.


Differences between America and Australia

1) Most obviously, the food is very different. High fructose corn syrup is in everything, yoghurt and bread can be sickly sweet, but after a few months you can't taste it any more. Chilli is just soup, it doesn't contain any chilli, and marinara sauce is Neapolitan sauce, it doesn't have any seafood in it. Biscuits are called cookies, they really don't understand scones. Most cereal has marshmallows in it. There is no cordial in supermarkets, but they will sell a couple of sachets of "Crystal Light", a powered cordial. Despite being next to some of the most fertile land in the world, actual fresh food is extremely expensive. All the agriculture is industrial, based on producing the maximum amount of food per unit of time (to get the government subsidies), rather than the cheapest healthiest food. So there is a glut of corn produced using more calories of fossil fuels than comes out in the corn, and a lot of cows feed antibiotics to counter the sickness they develop when they are force-fed corn. None of it is edible though, so it all goes into extremely cheap fast food, making fresh food a gourmet item. Oh, except pizza - which costs more per slice in the US than it does per pizza in Australia.

2) Bus drivers won't give change.

3) Banks here post out spam mail, dodgy companies pay to include offers with your statements, which doesn't invoke much trust in the integrity of your bank. But the whole banking system is archaic - transferring online between your own bank accounts takes three days to be processed, everyone still uses checking accounts (which you get zero interest for) and write each other checks, and you have to have a separate credit account rather than a debit card that works from your savings. I get a credit-card offer at least once a week.

4) American girls bleach their teeth.

5) Americans are extremely generous (probably to compensate for the total lack of social infrastructure) but don't always direct their generosity in particularly useful ways (eg, $27 million to build a Creationist Museum in Kentucky). My first week in Seattle I watched a very serious 17 year old girl on CNN who had started up a charity for those poor 17 year old girls in New Orleans who lost their prom dresses to Hurricane Katrina, and their parents can't afford to buy another $500 prom dress for them to wear. By working really hard and raising money with all of her friends she succeeded in sending an emergency truck full of prom dresses to New Orleans.

6) Public health only kicks in after your health bills have forced you to sell your house and have pushed you into poverty. Health insurance isn't something you get for next to nothing which covers designer glasses - it is a matter of life or death. 47 million Americans have no health insurance (it is really expensive), and a million people every year lose the gamble and become bankrupt due to medical expenses.  Even with decent health insurance a trip to the GP to get antibiotics cost me ~$150. "Universal health care" is actually considered a bad thing to many Americans. They seem to think it means politicians pick our doctors and tell them what medicine to give us, and don't realise they have lower life expectancies than us. They still have tuberculous and a high infant mortality too.

7) There are more homeless people than you can imagine, out on street corners begging. At any given time there are around 1 million homeless, every year 3.5 million Americans are homeless at one time or another (more than 1% of the entire population). Especially over-represented are military veterans (23%), African-Americans (49%), and ex-convicts (54%). 22% have severe mental illness, the majority have mental health issues. Oh yes - there is no public mental health support in America at all, unless you are in jail.

8) A lot of people are in jail - one in every 32 American adults is in jail, making up 25% of the world jail population.

9) Kids are entertainment. The big thing in country fairs at the moment is Mutton Busting. Regular rodeos are so blasé, who wants to see professionals safely at work? Far better to sign a waiver, strap your three-year onto the back of a sheep and see how long they can hold on before the sheep throws them off. Sure, the kids often have tears running down their faces and occasionally get badly injured, but if they win - free movie tickets. For the more sophisticated, they can watch kids being traumatised on cable. “Kid Nation” took 40 kids, aged 8 to 15, and put them in a desert ghost town and told them to run the town by themselves in front of the cameras. Four kids accidentally drank bleach that had been left in an unmarked soft drink bottle, one girl sprained her arm and another got facial burns from boiling grease while trying to cook. They taught the kids a lesson about American society too - the producers assigned each kid a caste at the start of the show, which they could not change. Four kids were selected to be the town council, with the power to award $20 000 to a kid at the end of each episode. The rest of the kids were divided into four castes - the labourers/cleaners (green team), the cooks (yellow team), the shopkeepers (blue team) and the upper class with no job to do (red team). Of course, the different castes each got different amounts of money to spend.

10) You are never quite sure that the crazy guy shouting on the bus isn't heavily armed.

11) You have no idea how much anything costs. Don't trust price tags, they don't include tax (which varies item to item and state to state). Also tip. Don't bother collecting pennies, you'll never know how much anything costs to enough precision to actually use them. Unless of course you want to melt them down and sell them on the copper market - there is 1.4 cents of copper in each 1 cent piece. All the notes look the same and are made of paper.  

12) There is no social infrastructure. No public toilets and picnic tables in parks or shopping areas or even petrol stations - you have to buy something from Starbucks and get a code. Maybe it is because of the huge homelessness problem in the US - by making a neighbourhood where there are no public facilities you make it a desert for homeless people, who end up crammed into the one or two places that have the bare minimum for them to survive (a bus shelter and toilet).

13) The alcohol laws are really odd - not only do you have to be 21 (and they really enforce it, asking ID from anyone who looks like they could be under 30) but it is sold in odd places. Beer and wine can be bought everywhere, in the supermarkets, 7-11s and servos (but they have to stop sales at 2am or something), but spirits can only be bought at government shop-fronts.

14) Flags. Everywhere. They love their flag.

15) They also love their military. They have 1.4 million active military personal and 1.5 million reserves (nearly 1 in every 20 American adults). Airports have special lounges for US military, many places give active-service military people discounts, and basically anyone in uniform instantly gains respect. The love of the US military is so great that it is often assumed that everything the US government tells the military to do must be okay. The closest the US gets to helping citizens is to military veterans, who get partial aid in education and health care (but not mental health, which is why half of all the homeless Americans are veterans), making it one of the few options for low income youth.

16) They don't tend to take holidays that much - Federal holidays are only automatic for Federal employees, most jobs only give you two weeks a year, and you are strongly encouraged not to take them. They certainly don't take sickies.

17) There are hundreds of television stations, but only two or three shows worth watching.

18) Their politics is polite on the outside but cut-throat behind the scenes. Don’t expect a politician to call other politicians a “conga-line of suck-holes”, but massive electoral fraud and rumours of illegitimate black babies is almost expected. They don’t have a Queen, but at least half the population looks upon the President as semi-divine and omnipotent.

American-Australian Translations

They’ll complement you on your accent a lot, try to be kind and not mention theirs. They’ll be surprised when you say you are from Australia - since we don’t say “crikey” like Steve Irwin they assume we are English.

President Teddy Roosevelt was a terrible speller, and gave an executive order in 1906 to make American spelling simpler, such as dropping the "u" in labour, honour, colour and so forth. He also changed "-ise" to "-ize" and wanted to change dropped to dropt, learned to learnt and so forth.

They won’t have whipper-snippers, they have “weed-wackers”.

What they call a “truck” is really a ute. I’m still not sure what they call actual trucks.

You buy "gas" from a "service station", rather than petrol from a servo.

They call textas "sharpies". You really don't want to hear them pronounce aluminium or acclimate. They pronounce bouy as "boo-ee" not "boy".

They call gumboots “rubber boots”, thongs “flip flops” and g strings “thongs”. They don’t know a dole bludger, feral, yobbo or a bogan.

They don’t know what a fortnight is. They don’t even have the concept, being paid twice a month rather than every two weeks.

They don’t know what busker means - they call them “street performers”.   An apartment is only called an apartment if you rent it, if you own it it is called a condo.

They have a 25 cent coin called a quarter (the most valuable form of currency in the US, because most apartments don't have a washing machine or drier, so you need the quarters for the building's common machine), and they call the four parts of a football game "quaters". There are four quarters in an academic year and they even call a quarter of a gallon a "quart". But when it comes to using fractions, they always say "one fourth", never "a quarter".

They call lollies "candy" and hundreds-and-thousands "sprinkles". BYO is called a "potluck". Capsicum is "bell pepper", rockmelon is "cantaloupe", porrige is "oatmeal". They think that chips means "crisps". They don't know what soft drinks are, they call them either "soda" or "pop" depending on what part of the country they are from. They've never heard of fritz. They call their main meals an "entree", even though they are bigger than a normal main.

“Lite beer” means low calorie beer. All their beers are low alcohol. The put their beer in a “cooler” instead of an esky. They don’t have stubbies or long necks, and don’t know the difference between a tipple and a night, or a pony, a middie, a butcher, a schooner, a pot and a pint. They don’t know what a bottle-o or a bottle shop is, and don’t realise that a hotel is a pub. They couldn’t tell you what grog, cleanskin or goon is. Actually, they have an extremely limited vocabulary for all things related to alcohol compared to us.

They don’t understand cranky or crook.

They call chemists “drug stores”. They don’t abbreviate university into uni. They’ve never been to woop woop.

You’ll start to notice that you shorten everything and add an “e” on the end of it when people start in bewilderment. No brekkie, dinky, barbie, daggy, tanty, pokey, pressie, chockie, trackies (or trackie daks), truckie, yewy, vegies or mozzie. There is also no sickie, but that is because no one ever takes days off.

They don’t know what an ambo is - and it is not because of their lack of health care, they call them “ambulance drivers”.

They don’t understand the subtle and varied meanings that bastard and bugger can have. They also think that calling a good friend a bastard is mean.

They call their super “401(k)”. Catchy name.

They don't know that a slippery dip is a slide, but they call a seesaw a teeter totter.