What Surprises Foreigners About the USA? PART 1

spacesToday was Tuesday, September 10, 2013.

There was a question posed on the Quora web site that generated a great many amazing answers.  The question was this:  What facts about the United States do foreigners not believe until they come to America?

In this and the next few posts, I’m going to summarize some of the answers, grouped into general categories. Some of these comments may be familiar to you, while others may surprise you.

Sheer Size

One of the biggest surprises for many foreign visitors and immigrants alike is the sheer size of the United States.  The size of even some of the smaller American states is the same as or larger than some whole countries.  People are not prepared for the vast distances between cities.  I’ve heard a number of jokes over the years of people who imagine that someone from New York is practically neighbors with someone from, say, Philadelphia, because on a small map, the two cities look pretty close together.

Another shocker is the fact that huge areas of the country are uninhabited.  For people who come from places where the population density is very great, it’s almost unimaginable to realize that there are places where you might be the only person within a fifty-mile radius.   Even if there are hundreds or even thousands of people in a particular town, people from crowded countries such as Japan will remark that they can’t believe how many  streets and sidewalks are empty of people.

People often underestimate how the sheer size of the country will impact travel here.  Several people have commented on how much time and money it takes to travel anywhere, and many bemoan the lack of public transportation, not only within towns and cities in the Midwest, but also from city to city.   It’s also unbelievable to many that there are Americans whose daily commute, round trip, may be as much as four hours.

Many also underestimate how the size of the United States impacts efforts such as rolling out high-speed internet or building enough cell phone towers that all areas are equally connected.

It’s not only the land that is big.  Everything seems to be bigger here, including cars, homes, stores, furniture, people, and portions of food.  After I had lived in Japan for a while and gotten used to the small washing machines there, it astonished me to realize how large American washers are, by comparison.

Not Like the Movies

Another thing that shocks people is that American people and American life are simply not like they are portrayed by Hollywood.  In the movies, we all drive very fast down the highway, and most of us have a red car.  We don’t work on weekends.  We all live in fabulous, luxurious houses.  We don’t all spend every evening in bars and nightclubs.

More than one person commented that they thought “yellow school buses” were just a Hollywood convention for showing that kids went to school.  They had no idea that they were really yellow.   Another person commented that he thought the sound of crickets and frogs was simply a convention to show that it was evening in the movies.  He had no idea that you could really hear these sounds in some places.

There are some famous places that lots of foreigners seem to assume all Americans know about.  One is the Grand Canyon.  The fact is that the vast majority of Americans have never been there.  Nor have most of us been to any of the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls, or Yellowstone National Park.  Once again, I think that a lot of people just fail to realize that the size of this country makes it impossible for many Americans to travel as much as they’d like within their own country.  🙂


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