I originally wrote this as a Facebook note for a friend who had just emigrated from the UK to the USA. It’s had a lot of positive comments from people – both British and American – so I thought I’d put it here too…
The Quick-start guide to America – for newly arrived Brits
Here is a handy five-minute cheat’s guide to America for Brits who have just arrived to live there. I found out most of this the hard way – welcome to doing it the easy way…
Bear in mind I live in Middle America (in a city three times the size of Milton Keynes and yet it’s still considered “in the countryside”). Things may be very different for you. It’s my experience and my opinion and if I say something incorrect or miss something out then it’s my fault..but I didn’t mean it!
Passports, I.D., Driving License
Get a state I.D. as soon as you qualify (each state has different residency requirements etc). You will get asked for I.D. all the time; at the drug store (chemists), registering for a school, hiring anything, at the library, buying anything on a credit card over a certain amount (weirdly “chip and PIN is not used here very often in fact, I don’t even know the PINs of my US cards).
If you do not yet have a green card / permanent resident card then carry your passport with you with the I95 in it (the little white bit of card – don’t lose it!!!). Some states require you to prove your identity under certain circumstances. In some states it’s also a requirement for people to check that you’re not an illegal immigrant for certain things (Arizona and Fremont, Nebraska both want you to prove your status when renting property and a few other things). If you get stopped by the police – even if you’ve done nothing wrong – you’re going to be in trouble if you can’t prove who you are.
If you can you should get a local state/county driving license. Each state has different rules about the legality of driving on a British licence and whether or not they accept it for use in driving over here. The safest option is to get a US license. You need to check at the “DMV” website for your county and state to see what you can or cannot do – you might be barred from applying until you have been resident for a certain number of days plus there is usually a list of things you need to take to prove your identity. If you have a green card it normally is enough to satisfy all the requirements for ID and so on. You might have to take a driving test – it is, in comparison to the draconian UK test, very very easy. If your state has a theory test (most do) you can usually practice online and retake it if you fail. If you do have to take a theory test I’d recommend cramming hard for it because there are some weird rules about things like school buses (you know, the big yellow things like the one Otto drives in the Simpsons) which you will not know simply by guessing.
Once you get a driving license it is the de facto “I.D.” which everyone asks for and saves a lot of hassle. With a state ID and green card you can safely lock up your passport – they’re all you need.
A.k.a. “cussing”. As Brits we are blessed with a diverse range of swear words. It’s not uncommon to hear the likes of Graham Norton using “the F word” at half nine at night or Gordon “Mr Sweary” Ramsay telling someone in abrupt four lettered Anglo-Saxon exactly what he thinks of them and their f****** apology for a soufflé. We swear telling jokes to our mates. We swear when we stub our toes. We swear playfully when are teased about our favourite football team. In fact, we bl****y swear all the bl*****g time. Most of America does not swear as a matter of course (with some exceptions like leather-skinned cops in The Bronx and barflies in sports bars). Don’t get me wrong – they swear – just not like Brits do – just not often in public. In fact this lack of profanity extends to things like not saying “good God” or “oh Jesus” since it is still considered disrespectful to be casually blasphemous. If you’re normally the kind of person who drops swear-words in to conversation – even mild ones – I’d get out of that habit. However, if you live in New York you may need to start using more swear words than an East-London docker..just to fit in with the locals. 😉
Headache tablets and grocery stores
“Excedrin” and “Tylenol” are the two well-known brand names and correspond to Aspirin and Paracetamol. There are LOADS of “generic” equivalents which are half the price – read the ingredients on the back and you’ll spot the right ones. They are more expensive than the UK, roughly 2 – 3 times more. Wal-Greens is like the UK’s Boots The Chemist. Walmart (which is essentially the same as ASDA) appears to be a lot cheaper if you’re buying prescription stuff. From what I’ve seen Americans have a much wider array of exposure to medications than Brits do. Ambien (which is a prescription-only sleeping tablet) is commonly taken and appears to be given out fairly freely by the doctors whereas a British-based doctor is much more reluctant to give anything other than penicillin. “Drug” adverts litter the TV and magazine advertisements over here, often taking many pages just for one drug. It’s weird.
“HyVee” is roughly equivalent to Tescos – and “Bakers” is a bit like Sainsburys. One odd things here – they will ask you “paper or plastic” – referring to the plastic shopping bags. When you tell them they tend to pack the stuff in the bags for you. Many stores will also send out a member of staff with you to the car to help you put the shopping in the boot. It took me months before I stopped trying to put the groceries in the plastic bags myself. I still take my “shopping cart” to the car on my own…I just have to, it’s ingrained in my psyche…
Oh and it’s “trunk” not “boot” of the car. You’ll forget this…I do…
Tipping is something that takes a bit of getting used to. In the UK we tend to only tip restaurant staff and taxi drivers and even then it’s not always expected (especially if you’re stingy). Over here tips make up a large proportion of the wages for people in low-paid jobs. Not giving a tip is frequently seen as a hugely negative comment on the standard of the food or service. It can also mean not getting served a second time in a bar. The “average” amount is 20% of the total bill (although the exact amount is the subject of much debate if you ever are daft enough to bring it up in conversation with American friends). So on a food bill of $40 a tip of $8 or thereabouts is quite normal. Some people tip less, most though appear to do 20% from what I’ve seen. You don’t tip people like shop staff, doctors, dentists, gas station clerks etc etc but you do tip pretty much everyone else and will frequently be heavily hinted for a tip!
Road rage / car park rage / queue rage
Let see: someone cuts you up or does something equally heinous that enrages your superior driving sensibilities. You both arrive at a set of traffic lights. Hah! Now’s your chance, their driver’s side window is open – you can dive out of the car, stomp towards them putting them in their place in a very loud voice calling them all the names under the sun. Don’t do this. Two reasons: first of all you are in the country as a guest – if the guy/girl gets out and you punch them on the nose in self-defense and the cops get called you could be on a fast plane back to England by morning. Second; the minute you get out of your car and lean in to their car window shouting the odds they *could* draw a weapon and shoot you in the face. They might even get away with it since they could claim they thought you had a weapon and you just apparently came at them with deadly malice. The same applies to car parks and pushing people around in queues. Guns are cheap and a lot of people have them here – legally and illegally. They also carry stun guns and pepper sprays – again quite legally in most cases. The rules about standing up to people here are very different to a Friday night scrap in Slough. Omaha is a very quiet and safe place yet there is at least one shooting per week here and at the start of the year there was nearly one a day on average.
More importantly though – any trouble with the law can result in you being asked (or forced) to leave the US.
The silver US coins take a bit of getting used to. The nickel (5 cents) is bigger than the dime (10 cents) which to me is just perverse. A dime is about the same size as a UK five pence piece. Quarters (25 cents) will be very useful to you since the kids will want to put them in things like bubble gum machines. Most vending machines also suck in paper money. Watch out though – all the paper money is the about the same size and color. You will use 10 and 20 dollar bills the most. Nearly everyone uses debit and credit cards for everything (I am considered a bit weird because I prefer paper money). Even the tiniest store in Omaha has a signature pad for you to sign on when you swipe your card. There is usually even a floor limit up to which they will not care about a signature (anything less than $10 is usually fine). It doesn’t matter if you struggle to use the electronic pad and it does not look like your signature – nobody cares that I’ve come across. Because of this you need to keep track of your card purchases – card fraud is trivial to do and common.
You can usually draw money out of a UK bank account using your card in the US. At the time of writing $400 is about 280 quid. You *will* pay heavy charges for this. It’s cheaper to arrange transfers to the US – the UK bank will do it…for a fee. There are laws regarding US bank accounts in relation to non-residents but usually after you’ve been in the country long enough to appear on the State Department computers you’ll be fine. Banks I’ve dealt with have varied on their knowledge – it pays to ask around.
Food and drink
In my experience food here is mostly (but not always) of a much higher quality than is normal in the UK. It is also invariably of a MUCH higher quantity. It’s quite normal for you to be given plates of food which are FAR too much to eat. At the end of the meal when you’ve finally admitted defeat they will almost certainly ask “would you like a box for that?” – everybody appears to say “yes” and take the remainder home. Don’t be shy. 🙂 Food here is much cheaper too. It also is laden with an array of sauces and slatherings. You’ll need to be strong-willed to eat healthy options in many places.
One revelation is that fast food places like McDonalds usually hand you an empty cup when you buy a “soda” – you fill it yourself from the machines at the side of the restaurant. Refills are generally free and unlimited.
A word of warning: I like curry. I make pretty hot curry. I once made the mistake of asking for “atomic wings” which are chicken wings covered in a spicy sauce. The whites of my eyes turned pink and my lips didn’t recover for two hours…
Beer. There are a lot of different kinds of beer here – many of them appalling. The weirdest thing is that many beers and so on do not list the alcohol content on the bottle so you’ve no idea whether you’re drinking something which contains 6% or 1.5% alcohol. Weird. I tried Jalapeño chili beer so you don’t have to…nasty, avoid.
Iced tea. Not good – it always tastes like Disprin to me. Coffee – especially flavored American-style coffee – is very good. I recommend “pumpkin spiced coffee” from Brueggers. Don’t attempt to make British tea using an iced tea “teabag” – it will taste like spiced floor chippings. You can get British style teabags from the “grocery store” (supermarket) – look for Tetley British Blend or Breakfast Blend for an authentic British taste. To be honest, I’ve not drunk tea now for several months even though I was a 10 cup a day man in the UK..you just end up drinking coffee or “soda”.
Other foods: donuts are everywhere – people have them for breakfast! Kebabs = giros or gyros (gee roes). They are nothing like the ones back in England – you can actually identify what sort of meat it is! Chips – if you want British style chips then look for “steak fries”. I have seen my step-daughter order “fish and chips” and out came battered catfish with a helping of salted home-made crisps. Say goodbye to British fish and chips – I’ve yet to find anywhere that even comes close. Baked beans over here are sweetened with brown sugar and frequently have lumps of pork belly in them (“pork and beans”). You’ll get used to them eventually. Mushy peas can be bought from the specialty section of a bigger grocery store as can Marmite. Sweets = candy; if you ask for sweets they’ll show you a desert menu or say “whaaa?” A lot of chocolate stuff over here seems to use peanut butter as an ingredient so watch out if any of your family are allergic to peanuts. At Halloween and the various parades like Labor Day and St Patrick’s day everyone gives away massive amounts of candy – it’s a kid’s paradise; luckily the dentists are excellent.
Weird things that sound like you know what they are…but aren’t
Apart from the obvious ones like “pants” and “fanny”..
Chicken-fried steak. It’s a flattened, tenderized steak which has been dipped in savory batter and deep fried. It’s better than it sounds.
“Biscuits” – and more especially “biscuits and gravy” (aka “country gravy”) – these are actually savory scones, a bit lighter than scones really, smothered in a thick white savory sauce often with bits of minced pork in it. “Chicken-fried steak with biscuits and gravy” is a very common option in many American “home cooking” style diners.
Prawns are always called shrimps here. Shrimp are plentiful and cheap (in comparison) and sold sized by the number of shrimp per pound so 64s are smaller than 34s. If you’re not near the coast then fresh fish is horrendously expensive. It’s common to see live lobsters in the grocery store tanks. 😦
Ranch dressing. A kind of creamy white slightly tangy sauce which is most often used on salads. It’s a bit like an American version of Heinz salad cream (which is almost impossible to find here).
Chips. We all know they’re what the Brits call “crisps”, right? However, the weirdest thing is the lack of familiar flavors – most common here are ranch, cream cheese, jalapeño, cracked pepper etc. You will not find: smoky bacon, salt and vinegar, beef and onion, prawn cocktail or Marmite (tragedy!). Meat-flavored ‘crisps’ just are not commonly available here. Weird, but true. (I’ve since been told by Lisa you can get salt and vinegar crisps…but I’ve never seen them so I’m skeptical!)
Bacon. Bleugh. American bacon is like the fattiest streaky bacon you’ve ever had. Back bacon is a rarity around here. I go to a high-end butchers shop who specially makes “English style bacon” which is like the stuff we’re used to in the UK. Failing that – get used to crappy bacon which has been cremated.
“Half and half” is a light style of cream that people put in coffee and on some sorts of deserts. 1% is sort of semi-skimmed milk, 2% is more creamy.
Broiler. This is a weird thing – it’s most like the kind of grill you get inside some British ovens only much hotter.
Brats. Short for bratwurst – a sausage with a high meat content. “Italian sausage” is a similar thing which tends to be flavored with aniseed/fennel. It sounds odd but I’ve actually grown to like them as my favorite type of sausage. As far as I know Brats are not made out of naughty children.
Grill. Actually means barbecue. “I think we should grill some brats tonight” means to go out and shove some German-style sausages on the barbecue. People grill stuff all the time here. 😉
Ribs. Also, short ribs, burnt tips and so on. When someone talks about ribs they almost certainly mean a whole side of pork ribs not some scrawny separated things from the Chinese covered in sweet and sour sauce. Most grocery stores sell several different types of pork rubs. They may even sell beef ribs (which are huge). Short ribs are just that and “burnt tips” are, as far as I can work out, bits off the end of the ribcage after they have been grilled. Barbecue places over here tend to be very cheap and serve excellent food – a lot of it home smoked at the premises.
“Asian” usually means Chinese or Mongolian and sometimes Japanese. “Indian” usually seems to mean “from India” with “native American” referring to the original peoples of America such as the Pawnee, Sioux, Navajo and so on. You’ll see Indian reservations (and Casinos). As a Brit you’ll be disappointed to find that the houses on the reservation look like houses and the schools look like…well, schools. Cliches can be left at the entrance signs. The Indian nations have their own rules, laws and governments. The only place I’ve seen “cowboys” so far is in Texas at a show in Fort Worth. You will get to see a Sheriff – they patrol the main roads like the interstates – but sadly they dress like police rather than like John Wayne.
“My father is English” / “I am French” / “I am Swedish” / “I am German” / “My Wife is Scottish” / “I am Irish”. I have heard variations on this phrase whenever I’ve met someone new. Invariably it is from someone who has clearly been nowhere near Scotland/Ireland etc. Don’t be fooled – it actually means “I am descended from people who were born in Scotland”. 🙂 Although this sounds like a claim to a tenuous link with a nationality the newness of America in many cases can mean people’s grandparents *were* actually born in Scotland (or wherever). In the UK we tend to think of nationality as being conferred by place of birth more than ancestry so it is a bit odd to hear this kind of thing. Many Americans though are very proud of their non-American provenance and you’ll find lots of Irish and Hibernian societies dotted around the place celebrating a distilled version of the stylized culture to which they feel affiliated. I only wish more Brits were as enthusiastic about their home country. Sigh.
Patriotism, flags and soldiers
I remember one year the hoo hah in the UK when they stopped the taxis flying England flags during the World Cup in case it “offended people who were not English”. This is never going to happen here. People fly the Stars and Stripes with pride. Banks have big flags; some flashy businesses have HUGE flags 40 feet high. All of them are dropped to half-mast on 9/11 (did they drop any Union Jacks on 7/7? No? I thought not). If the flag flies at night you’re supposed to keep it lit…out of respect. You’re not supposed to desecrate it – although it was recently established that you have the right to do so under free speech laws but I’d say this is taking your safety very lightly if you do. Americans are, on the whole, very proud to be American. It’s not a blind approval of the government. Plenty of people hate Obama with a passion but love their country. It is a great country and I don’t blame them. It is a sharp contrast to the general lassitude of the UK.
The other thing; here, in the American heartland, soldiers are lauded for what is seen as their great and worthy sacrifice on behalf of the country. It is common for me to see offers that give serving soldiers big discounts or even free entry/services. I have seen complete strangers walk up to a uniformed soldier and shake him/her by the hand and thank them “for their service”. People have stickers on their car bumpers and windows saying “proud father of a US marine”, “US Army (Retired)”. Knock the efforts of the US Army, US Air Force and so on at your peril – in the wrong place, to coin a phrase, you’re inviting a butt-load of trouble.
Speaking British to people
The phrase “two nations separated by a common language” is very apt. Don’t make the mistake that because Americans and Brits tend to speak English they must in some way be similar. America is as foreign as Spain or France. Yes, there are lots of similarities but this generally goes to confuse the heck out of people.
The time it really shows up is when you try to speak in to one of those drive-thru things (at McDonalds or whatever). Unless you sound like Hugh Grant there’s probably not a snowball’s chance in hell they will understand you and you will have to repeat yourself two or three times before they get it wrong anyway and you say “yes” to whatever it is they’re going to shove in the bag for you.
I speak with a pretty clear and educated British accent – yet people in grocery stores and so on still often ask me to repeat myself..I think it’s mainly because they’re not expecting me to be British and the inflection of certain words catches them by surprise. You’ll also have to allow extra time for people to ask you daft questions about where you come from, where that is in the UK etc etc and then listen to them tell you about when they were stationed over there in the army or went to London on a school trip. Don’t get me wrong – it’s pretty cool – but if you’ve just popped in for some loo roll and you *really* need to go to the toilet it can be a *little* annoying to try and extricate yourself from the very nice person in time to avert disaster. I have been asked crazy questions like “have you ever met the boys?” (as part of a conversation about “Lady Di” – by “the boys” the lady on the checkout meant “the Princes” – and no, I haven’t although I have briefly met their uncle, Diana’s brother).
Think of the USA as 50 different countries – Nebraska is not the biggest state and yet it’s as big as England. America is HUGE. There is almost *everything* you could ever want here – mountains, flat land, big city life, rural nowhere, history, culture, lack of culture, food of every country in the World, vineyards, themeparks, sun, snow, beaches…
To those reading this with skepticism and thinking of me as becoming traitorously defensive of the Americans; before you criticize an American for not knowing where Birmingham, West Midlands is or calling somewhere “Paris, France” – point out Delaware on the map to me. Tell me what the smallest state in the US is. Can you tell me which mountain has presidents carved in to it and which Native American tribe disagreed with this idea..and why? I can. Admittedly many many Americans can’t either…but that makes them no worse than you and no better too.
So – a brief(ish) round-up of stuff that no-one told me before I came here. I’ve found the USA to be a great country, very comparable to the UK but also very foreign – something which the ability to speak English does nothing to help with at all. There are bad Americans and good Americans but this is because they are bad people and good people…not because they are American.
Just stay away from the atomic chicken wings…