Culture shocks for an Indian traveling to the US

America is a land of dreams and for some Indians it is their dream and only goal in life. The US has many great things to offer but as an individual coming from an entirely different culture there are many aspects about the culture that can strike a first time traveler. For me the distinct culture differences I percieved were not the short dresses (TV had sufficiently prepared me for this) or public display of affection that Indians usually assign as something western but in reality I have seen more PDA on a park bench in Nagpur than anywhere in the US.

A great guide for life in the America’s is a book called Inscrutable Americans that lists the maladies a naive Indian cooks up on his visit to the US. Some exchanges with ‘the natives’ in the US are embarrassing and awkward for example when trying to return a hug from an American friend (I am quite the non hugging type) which leads to several dives in the wrong direction and finally both parties settling for a handshake.

America is fun, interesting, dynamic and a place where many cultures merge. I have found more types of cuisines, cultures, races, ethnicity in this one country than any other country I have been to. Hence America is much more inclusive as it is said to be the land of immigrants. But America is not all roses and peaches there are negatives and positives like any other country and is guaranteed to have its share of culture shocks.

1. Public transport is very well connected in the cities but is very spotty in the suburbs. Hence getting from place A to B will require some intensive planning however short the distance if one does not own a car in the US or can’t drive (rented cars however are easy to hire). Calling a cab service is the other option but they are expensive.

2. Shops close by 8:30 pm and restaurants close pretty early too depending on which city you live in. The only happening area in a city after 8pm is downtown which is very different to cities (read metros) in India where one might get stuck in a traffic jam at 11pm.

3. Cheese burger is not a vegetarian burger with cheese. It is burger with beef patty most Americans can’t really comprehend a vegetarian burger save for some specialty restaurants, also waitresses who have experience with this faux pas will remind Indian customers and mention this repeatedly that there is beef in this burger!

4. People have dinner by 6pm and you might even get used to going to sleep by 9. In Mumbai 9 pm is Kaun Banega Crorepati (Indian version of Who wants to be a Millionaire) time.

5. America is not just its big cities but is made up of smaller towns too where life moves at its own pace. So if going to America is your life long dream, this is something you should keep in mind. America is not all big and bustling cities. It is smaller towns too were the only entertainment is a dinner theater in a diner and one street called Main street where everything happens.

6. If you cant drive or order online you might as well go back to India. America is all about driving and having a car so if you can’t drive and don’t live in a city you might soon get depressed enough to start packing but remember to save money for the cab service till the airport.

7. People smile at you and make small talk in elevators (that’s what Americans call a lift) all across America, so for someone who is new to this, keeping small talk ready for the next stranger becomes a task in itself. People smile and nod on the streets too.In India you can stare at the other person on the street till the person makes eye contact after which you look the other way and find someone else to stare at. But for all the friendliness it is still difficult to make friends in the US.

8. They have seen Indians before so you are not exotic and might not just find dates just because of your ethnicity. Even then you will find people who relate India to bindi (dot), sarees, hot, curry, yoga and Bollywood only.

9. In the U.S people are very particular about safety, so no dangling from bus doors and riding on the foot board of a train. Your days of adventure on the commute are over.People in the US need a firework permit to light fireworks for festivals.

10. The sky is so BIG in the U.S!! The horizon in the US seems vast and is a startling difference in for someone who has lived near the equator all her life.

11. Driving in the US with its serpentine interstates and automatic vehicles is boring for a person who learned to drive in India as there are no cows to dodge, no rickshaws to honk at and knowing traffic rules in not optional.

12. 50% of the commercials on TV are for prescription drugs and they are required to list the side effects (includes death) which takes up half the ad and usually has a video of a dog and his master playing. Though Indians are not used to see ads for drugs we can easily buy them over the counter with or without prescription which is not allowed in the US.

13. Getting a Doctors appointment in some cities in the US is next to impossible. We tried for a Doctors appointment in Pennsylvania but most were booked for more than 3 months for new patients. Finally we ended up traveling to the next state where we got an opening for an appointment. The inference is that access to medical attention seems to be similar in India as well as the US for entirely different reasons.

14. Guns are an important part of American culture hence owning a gun is common place and so are news articles of a lone gun man shooting someone or ‘some’ people.

15. Winter and snow can get very depressing after the initial novelty wears of as the sky looks grey and the earth turns white but spring and autumn are an entirely different story all together as it becomes a riot of colors.

16. Portion sizes are HUGE! The first time I ordered a Pepsi I felt I had to be extra careful with the cup least someone drowns in it? Another time I ordered a pork chop at a diner and got a chunk of meat as big as my thigh, I considered taking a cue from tigers and burying the meat and eating it for an entire month.

17. In India trains are the cheapest and most reliable mode of transport and one can scale the entire country traveling only in trains. This is not the case in the United States, trains can be expensive sometimes more expensive than flights. Also trains have limited sleeping coaches/berths and most of the train would have sitting option only.

18. Healthcare, even basic healthcare is costly for people without insurance (Obamacare might make some difference to this). Free or charitable programs are very few hence poor people face a number of problems to avail healthcare options. Some enroll themselves in drug trials to get a shot at medical care. Emergency care though is mandatory and free for all residents in the US.

19. Yes, there are homeless people and poor people in the US too, though lesser in number compared to India. I got to work and interact with some people at a rehabilitation center where I volunteered. It was a very enriching experience and it gave me an added perspective of the US and some underlying problems which is not all glitz and glamour.

20. The US is one of the only 4 countries along with Papa new Guinea where maternity leave is not mandatory given to women. This along with having to wax legs at home because beauty parlors are expensive are just some of the problems women face in the US.

I had a great time traveling in the US and I was lucky to see many parts of this amazing country. Some of this is written as an attempt at wry humor and some of it is of course true. Anyone traveling to a new culture is bound to have some culture shocks whether it is Indians visiting the US or Americans visiting India. If you have some of your experiences to add, please do so in the comments. I also believe that such culture shocks are what make travelling to a new country exciting.

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5 thoughts on “Culture shocks for an Indian traveling to the US

  1. Very well written post Anju. I have similar experiences. Somehow we think that western nations are perfect societies, little realising, that finally, human beings are basically the same everywhere. Their problems would be different but they do exist.This must be one of the few articles that actually refers to the differences that can disappoint first time visitors. Good job!

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