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Immigrants Explain What Shocked Them About American Culture

During one of my first Christmases in America, I remember watching intently as my sister-in-law pulled out a cylinder from the fridge, cracked it open, and scooped sections of white goop onto a baking tray. A few minutes later, steaming rolls emerged.

“Is that canned bread?” I asked her. The Americans laughed—what I called canned bread, Americans called Pillsbury dough.

I grew up in Australia—a country not unlike the United States—but I was completely floored the first time I visited an American grocery store. In Australia, there are only a few brands of milk, butter, and bread. Milk generally has one ingredient (you know, milk), the cheese isn’t fluorescent orange, and bread does not come in a can. In America, options for a single product type barely fit into one aisle. It was my first major experience of culture shock—which can feel like a hurtful reminder that you’re not “home” anymore.

I asked other immigrants about their first moments of culture shock in the United States. Here’s what they told me.

“I had not seen or even heard of braces before [coming to America]. I had friends in Korea who had really messed up teeth, but it wasn’t necessarily seen as any kind of defect. I started seventh grade in the US and several of the kids had braces—the type with wires going across both upper and bottom teeth with a metal holder in front of each tooth. They looked almost like robots. I didn’t actually find out what they were until maybe two years or so later, because I didn’t have the language skill to ask about them initially. To me, teeth were just what you had. If you had good teeth, you had good teeth. Bad teeth, then bad teeth. It didn’t seem like you could move your teeth like that. They felt very solidly planted in my mouth so the entire concept was foreign.” — Chae An, 45, attorney, South Korean

“It is so frustrating here. Nothing is easy. Nothing is efficient. To pay rent, you have to use a check? I have never written a check. The last time I got a check was maybe 20 years ago, from my granddad. Getting an apartment takes so long as opposed to other countries I have lived in where it’s just a handshake. That’s it. I went to the post office yesterday, and I was waiting in line for maybe an hour—and there were only five people in front of me. I felt like I went from a Western country to a third-world country. People here with money have access to things. The rest of the people are just trying to survive.” —Robin Zeitoun, 26, welder, French

“Once we got here, we ate corn dogs almost every day for lunch, little pizzas for snacks, and sugary cereals for breakfast.” — Ben van den Heever, South African

“In the classroom, I experienced a lot of culture shock by how the students interact [with each other] and how they interact with [me, as] the teacher. American kids are very active in the classroom. They even say things before they raise their hand. Students eat in [my] classroom, which is forbidden in China. Often you are rewarded here for being an extrovert. Basically an introvert cannot survive in your classroom. In China, I don’t have to clean [my] chalk board. It is the students’ responsibility to clean the classroom. In China, teachers are very high ranking. You are very respected. Here, I don’t think so. The income is not really above middle class here.” — Niki Xu, 26, math teacher, Chinese

“Food-wise, I noticed us all getting these round faces from the bad food we ate. We did not realize it, because it was the standard and you think because it’s advertised and readily available it can’t be bad for you. We were so ignorant coming from South Africa, eating home cooked food every night over there. Then, once we got here, we ate those corn dogs almost every day for lunch, little pizzas for snacks, and sugary cereals for breakfast.” — Ben van den Heever, 32, founder of Brooklyn Biltong, South African

“The whole paper towel thing struck me very strongly as soon as I came to the US. In Korea, paper towels were used for very few selective kitchen tasks, mostly to wipe off oil from frying pans. So I enter a US host family’s house and they use paper towels for everything. They don’t bother to even keep a rag. It’s the same thing with schools—just big rolls of paper towels for when you spill something. But honestly, when I went to Korea last year, I noticed that things have changed. They now have paper towel disposals in a lot of bathrooms.” — Chandra Edwards, 27, financial analyst, South Korean

“I was hugely shocked by all the street harassment. And as a queer woman, I didn’t realize that I had to police myself in certain areas here. I thought NYC was supposed to be such a gay city, and it is if you’re in Manhattan or Chelsea. When I first moved here I remember my girlfriend and I were kissing on the street outside of our apartment in Bushwick and a group of teenagers started yelling and jeering at us. It was kind of scary and very confusing. I’ve learned not to hold hands or display affection in certain neighborhoods because of it. I don’t really travel around the US, but I can tell you I definitely wouldn’t hold hands in the south especially with all the crazy anti-LGBT legislation popping up.” — Sarah Barnett, 28, radio reporter, Canadian

“[In conversations with Americans], I feel uncomfortable, like I am not communicating in the right way. I can’t conduct a conversation in three minutes. Maybe I take ten minutes. I don’t think in English. This is how an immigrant brain works. I talk in my head in Urdu, but then I have to speak in English. I am unable to change myself, because when I came here I was 40. It was in 2010. So do you think that a 40-year-old mature person who spent their adult life doing things one way, you think he can change within three years, five years, six years? Not possible.” — Shahid Khan, 45, community organizer, Pakistani

“I’ve found Americans to be basically over friendly, which is weird because I’m Canadian and that’s our stereotype. I’ve had cashiers ask how I am—that’s normal. But they then ask things like what am I doing that day or something I find way more personal. And I don’t know if it’s the Canadian in me, but I always give a full answer, so maybe I am engaging too much. I need to learn how to make polite conversation that doesn’t make others feel obligated to keep asking questions.” — Allyson Power, 28, student, Canadian

“I am a gay man who came from Guatemala and it is very dangerous to be gay there. When you start to realize you’re gay, the authorities, the religious organization and the gangs, they are against gay people. I came here and after a year and a half I applied for asylum. It took me a while, honesty, to realize gay people could live a normal peaceful life here. My whole life I believed I was wrong and I would go to hell and I deserved the treatment I got. It was 2011, the first time I enrolled myself to march in the Gay Pride Parade. That made me feel proud, just proud to be who I am. Now, I feel that this is home.” — Edy Meda, 29, server and fitness instructor, Guatemalan

Follow Serena Solomon on Twitter. See more of Mai Ly Degnan’s illustrations on her website.