What Surprises Foreigners About the USA? PART 5

2014-chevrolet-impalaToday is Saturday, September 14, 2013.

Here’s more about what surprises foreign  visitors and immigrants when they come to the United States.  They have a lot to say about travel and cars in this country.

Travel by Automobile in the United States

Foreigners are particularly impressed by the amenities along the major interstate highways.  The full-service rest stops with decent chain restaurants are much appreciated, as are the mostly clean toilet areas.  Road signs are good, but they don’t always tell you where you are going.  That’s because, unlike in the U.K., many American highways are thousands of miles long, and run through or near so many cities that any sign listing them all would be too dense to read.  Travelers here are expected to know which general direction their destination is from their starting point, and which highways will take them there.  After that, it is a question of paying attention to the highway numbers and knowing which exit to take.

My experience is that people use different coping strategies to get around in different countries as well as different areas of one country.  Once you learn the local strategy, you have the run of the road.  In this country, every city is different.  Getting around in a city like Minneapolis, Minnesota is completely different from getting around in its “twin” city, St. Paul.

To those who claim that American roads have funny names, I would say that some Americans might laugh at some of your road or street names, too.  I certainly have laughed at street names in some Asian countries that I visited.  It is a little hard for me to laugh off the name Cretin Avenue in St. Paul, though.  The term “cretin” means moron or dummy, but few Americans use that term.  Lots of Europeans do use it, however, and they laugh and laugh at the street name.  I don’t even bother telling them that there is a very expensive, private prep school called Cretin-Durham Hall in St. Paul.

The vast distances in the United States from one city to another make travel in this country time-consuming and expensive.  Foreigners learn soon enough why Americans much prefer private cars to public transportation when it comes to city-to-city travel.   We do have a few long-distance trains, but they have to be booked pretty far in advance, and the price is just about the same as air travel, and sometimes more.

As someone who used public transportation in the Twin  Cities for many years, I have to say that the vast distances involved and the necessity of changing buses and having to wait at bus stops made it really hard to go very far.  I could only afford to do one or maybe two errands per day.  After I got a car, I was amazed at how many things I could get done in one day.  In the largest cities, people do take the public transportation, but trains and buses are not nearly as crowded as they are in countries such as Mexico or Japan.

It’s true that very few people walk to their destination.  Once again, the is very often because things are just so far away.  American cities are zoned so that commercial areas are separate from residential ones, so there are not that many “corner grocery stores” in most cities, and if there are, they don’t have the variety or the prices to compete with the big supermarkets.

A man from India expressed surprise that cab fare is so expensive in the United States.  You only get a cab if you can’t take a train or a bus, or if you don’t have a car.  In his home country, cabs are cheap enough to use to commute to work every day, even for someone who is not that wealthy.

Those who have driven here and in their home country have commented on the “right turn on red” rule, the cloverleaf freeway exits, the fact that we use four-way stops instead of roundabouts (although I see that this is changing).

One person commented that although Americans aren’t terribly good travelers while overseas, they seem to be very comfortable traveling about in their own country.

red-chevy-cruze-on-highwayAmericans and Their Cars

Americans are truly in love with their cars, and most of us wouldn’t know what to do without them.  Lots of people have commented that Americans drive everywhere, even places they could get to on foot or by bicycle.  Although some cities have great bike and walking paths, they are seldom used.  (I think they are probably used a lot more in certain large cities, but it’s true that they are mostly empty in smaller cities and towns.)

Lots of people have commented on the size of American vehicles and their large and powerful engines, and the fact that most American cars have automatic transmission.  The size of parking spaces is huge, as well, and I suppose that might seem true until you are driving a full-sized car or a very large vehicle such as a Suburban and trying to get into a parking space.

Compared with other countries, the price of buying a new or used car is much lower here in the United States.  Cars are one thing that we do bargain for here, or at least we have in the past.  It seems that the days of dickering down the price of a car are pretty much over.

Foreigners like to remind us that we are very lucky to be able to buy gasoline so cheaply, and they’re right.  Compared with prices in other countries, gas is awfully cheap here.

People from India and other Asian countries commented that they can’t understand why more Americans don’t use a motorcycle to get around cheaply.  They forget that motorcycles are much more dangerous, particularly against a large, solid American car in an accident, and therefore insurance for motorcycles is prohibitively expensive.   They also seem unaware that Americans like to be able to carry things around in their cars.  We like to go shopping only once a week or even once every two weeks, and carry home 8-10 heavy bags of groceries all at once.  They forget that a large majority of people are overweight, and that a motorcycle is probably not a very comfortable way to travel.  Finally, they forget how far things away things are, and that there’s the weather to think about, especially in the northern and Midwestern states.  🙂


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