I’ve been back in the US for a little over two weeks now. I had left almost 5 years ago to study in the UK and now return back to the country where I grew up and have spent the majority of my life. When preparing to come back I was reading about the possibility of having reverse culture shock upon returning. I seem to be experiencing it.
Little Things, Big Differences
When I was an undergrad I received information from my university’s Study Abroad office listing all the places where I could spend up to a year overseas. UC Irvine had quite an impressive list of places, having developed relationships with well over 50 universities and countries.
Some of the places where I could have gone were immediately out. Having taken Latin as my foreign language at university there was no way I could study in a country where they taught in a language other than English. That lone requirement made studying in almost any Asian country impossible, most of South America and a huge portion of Europe (I don’t remember how many African universities were available). From that point I had a list of about half a dozen countries where I could potentially study.
Initially that included the UK, Australia, South Africa, at least one Nordic country for a semester, and the Netherlands. I knew I wanted a full year and didn’t really want to go to South Africa (at the time, though now I would love a chance to visit). At the time I thought that both the UK and Australia would be much too similar to the US and so, kind of by default, settled on studying in the Netherlands. It was one of the best decisions of my life and has greatly influenced my future.
Having now spent the last 5 years in the UK (and 6 of the last 12) I have found those initial reservations that the UK would be too similar to the US to give me a sense of ‘foreign country’ were completely wrong. Yes, there were many similarities, but there were many, many differences.
Bigger Is Better?
Almost everything in the US is bigger, from politics to TV shows to societal concerns. I had almost forgotten that.
Even though I wasn’t in the US I still kept abreast of current events there. So I’ve been following politics with a distanced view. Whereas in the US the presidential election has been proceeding full-steam for well over 18 months now, the longest I ever saw anything political happening in the UK was roughly 6 months during the ‘Brexit’ campaign, and even that didn’t start getting heated until March or April (at least in my view). Having lived through very little political posturing in the UK since I wasn’t allowed to vote, the entire ‘Brexit’ campaign felt long and drawn out. I was tired of it long before the vote. I’m even more tired of this American campaign season. I’m very, very ready for it to end.
Outside of politics I closely followed American TV. Through the ubiquity of the internet I was able to continue watching some of my favourite shows and discover new ones. Over the last 50 years American TV shows have been getting shorter — both in content per episode due to commercials and episodes per season — but both still remain significantly longer than British shows. Most American network drama shows will be slotted for an hour but have anywhere from 40-45 minutes of actual content. They’ll usually run about 22 episodes per season. This has changed somewhat with the rise of serialised shows (Fargo, American Horror Story and True Detective, for example) and some shows on premium networks (notably Game of Thrones), but even the 10-13 episodes for those shows are more than the 3-6 that air for British shows that air on the BBC or ITV or the like. Both types have their strengths and weaknesses which I won’t go into here, but America seems to live by the adage that bigger is better.
The same could be said for architecture, shops, cars and distances. In the US, something is ‘close’ if it’s a 10-15 minute drive away (though having grown up in California, ‘close’ was actually more like 20-25 minutes). In the UK at 10-15 minute drive often puts you in a completely different town, village or city. Everywhere I lived or visited was relatively walkable and had good public transport options for things that were a bit further afield. Having a car wasn’t a necessity for everyone, though it did often make things easier. There are very few places in the US where having a car is a luxury. My partner and I have been apartment hunting this week. We’re moving to the Washington, DC metro area. DC is one of the American cities with a decent public transportation infrastructure, but even the areas where we were looking were far away from public transport or took multiple transfers and long times to get anywhere. The closer we were to central DC meant everything got more expensive, so it’s a fine balancing act. So of course we’re going to have at least one car and live in a relatively large place, because that’s just how America works. We went shopping at one of the local grocery stores to where we’re staying. They said it was a ‘small’ store but was as big or bigger than pretty much every grocery store we used in the UK. It was a strange feeling to think that store was ‘small’.
Cost of Living and Expenses
What has struck me most and given me the most reverse culture shock, however, is just how damned expensive the US is. Common amenities that I could get for £1-2 were now going to cost $6.99 or more. Even taking into account the exchange rate, that’s double the price. That was for simple things like toothpaste or common household goods. When I wanted things that were more ‘exotic’ in the US but common in the UK, the price skyrocketed. Take tea, for example. Even the cheapest variety of some sort of black tea, the store brand, costs $4 for a package of 25. Each bag, of course, is individually wrapped, too. As if my tea will get infected with the flavour of the other tea bag if it touches it. So wasteful, and so expensive! Want milk to put in it? The smallest size I can find at this local ‘small’ store is a quart; much larger than I’m used to, and more expensive to boot.
There are only two things that I can think of that are actually cheaper in the US than in the UK — petrol gas and cars. The current average price of gas in the US is $2.20 per gallon. As that’s almost 4 British litres, that’s very cheap (about £0.58p per litre if my maths are right). It’s hard to do a price comparison for cars as many of the makes available in the US aren’t available in the UK and vice versa (I rarely saw an SUV in the UK, for example, and almost never see Peugeot’s in the US). But because they’re so ubiquitous, cars are cheap. They have to be for 16 year-olds to get and drive them…
The cost of health care is another looming cost that is bigger in the US. Without going into too much detail (since I’ll likely do this as a whole other post in the future), whereas healthcare is free at point of service in the UK thanks to the NHS, in the US it is not. One recent American doctor touring the UK commented on this recently. The short of it is I already miss the NHS and I am a healthy individual who almost never needs it. I’m not looking forward to diving into the tangled, murky waters that make up the American health care system. Though it will be nice to donate plasma again instead of only whole blood.