What Surprises Foreigners About the USA? PART 12


Homes like this are also called “McMansions,” a take-off on the name of the fast-food restaurant, McDonalds. Until recently, these houses sprang up fast, and people got the impression that they were built as fast as McDonalds turns out hamburgers.

Today is Saturday, September 21, 2013.

American Homes

For all but the very richest foreigners, the size of American homes is impressive; even people who are not very wealthy live in big houses.  Statistics show that the average size of homes is increasing, even in this sluggish economy.  The size of homes and yards here represents a great deal of upkeep, and many foreigners are shocked that only the very wealthy have maids and gardeners to help with the housework and yard work.


A wooden house is called a “frame” house in the United States. This one is being built on a hill over a concrete basement, with a double garage in the back of the house. Not all American homes have basements, but most homes in the Midwest do, because of tornadoes.

Some are shocked that the toilet, sink and bathtub or shower are all in the same room, because in many countries, the toilet is separated from the sink and tub.   The fact that homes here are most often made of wood is surprising to many Europeans, who say that homes there are made of wood only if you are trying to make an environmental statement.  Although the trend now is to paint homes natural, neutral colors such as olive drab, gray, various shades of brown, or slate blue, there are still places where homes are painted in bright colors, such as pink and yellow, particularly in tropical places such as Florida.

The fact that the vast majority of homes have washing machines and dryers is also remarkable to some, and once again, size is impressive.  People who have to make do without a clothes dryer in their home country marvel at the fact that the weather is not a consideration when deciding when to do the laundry.

watr heater

American water heaters are huge, nearly as tall as a man. They are usually located in the garage or in the basement.

Our water heaters work continuously, and you get hot water as soon as you turn on the shower.  Americans very, very seldom run out of hot water.  Central heating and air-conditioning are also on automatic, controlled by a thrmostat for the whole house.  The result is that few people actual open their windows to get fresh air.

Most rooms in American homes, at least north of the Mason-Dixon Line, have wall-to-wall carpeting.  (Naturally, in areas with humid, tropical climate, carpet is a mold hazard and is not used.)  Many foreigners consider carpeting a needless luxury, and argue that it is much less sanitary than a plain wood floor, and much harder to clean, as well.   Many younger Americans seem to agree these days, and the trendier neighborhoods feature homes without carpeting.

The fact that Americans use fertilizers on their lawns to make the grass grow, then take pains to cut down the very same grass every so often seems truly crazy to many foreigners.

Nobody mentioned this, but I can’t imagine that at least a few people aren’t surprised by size and placement of our garages.  Many homes nowadays have a double garage and a single garage, side by side, and they take up quite a bit of the front of the house.  You can certainly see how Americans value their cars from the way they are housed.

Graduate students in an American university.

Graduate students in an American university.

Education in America

In many countries, engineering and medicine are majors of choice, but American students tend to choose liberal arts studies, such as English literature, American literature, languages, philosophy, history, or psychology. American students also study law and communications.   In spite of the way Americans are portrayed in the media, many foreign exchange students are surprised to find that American students are very smart, especially graduate students who are earning advanced degrees.  Since American parents are not generally expected to pay for advanced degrees, the students are much more disciplined and focused.

Compared with schools in other countries, American universities are extremely expensive, and the amount of debt that students incur during their studies is truly frightening.  (It’s frightening to Americans, too.)  Some have commented that a university education is overpriced here.  People from abroad who went to university in their own country have commented that even though they paid relatively little for their university education, they are not doing badly at all, compared with American students who spent a small fortune for their degree, and then have to pay through the nose for a decade or more to erase the debt.

A great number of foreigners have commented on Americans’ general lack of knowledge about the world outside their borders, even their closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico.  Some Americans don’t even know that much about their own country, which seems particularly shocking.

mediaAmerican Media

It’s probably true that the media in every country has some sort of bias.  In some countries the media are strictly controlled by the government in power.  In the United States, depending on the owners, TV stations and newspapers generally tend to have a Republican or Democratic slant.  It’s much easier to see the bias in a foreign country than  it is to see in your own country.  Many Americans turn to BBC, the British broadcast network, for less biased news, but it appears that the BBC are also biased.  It just doesn’t show up as much when they are reporting on news about the United States.

Dialects of American English.  New York City, Boston, and San Francisco have their own special dialects.

Dialects of American English. New York City, Boston, and San Francisco have their own special dialects.

Americans’ Use of Language

In the United States, when we are speaking of a person’s ethnicity, we use terms that describe nationality.  We may say, “He’s German,” but this expression means that his ethnicity is German, but of course his nationality is American.  It can get confusing when we speak of  “Indians,” because we may be speaking of Indian Americans (Americans whose family was originally from India) or Native Americans, the original people of North America, which some of them refer to as Turtle Island.  The fact that Native Americans are called Indians, of course, is simply that Columbus got lost and thought he’d reached the shores of India.  Some Europeans call them “red” Indians, but that term seems rather racist to me.  I have no idea how the Native Americans feel about it, though. They, themselves say they are “walking the Red Road.”   It’s confusing.

In any event, once people come here from other places, they begin to Americanize their names, and if they don’t so it, others will do it for them.  Nowadays, many people don’t pronounce their surname the same way it was originally pronounced.  Some people actually Anglicized their names when the immigrated here, changing the spelling, the pronunciation, or both.

With a population that is 98% originally from other lands, American English is full of terms from other languages, as well as Native American words from many different tribes.  Naturally, the vast majority of these words have been altered to “sound more like English.”  Even the English-speaking foreigners are sometimes confused about the way we use English.  It’s worth keeping in mind that American English is based on an older form of British English, and once we declared independence from the British, the languages as used in America and the British Empire started to develop in separate ways.  The result is that even people from England, Australia, and India can’t always understand us very well, and they are often shocked at some of the things we say.  I remember referring to some teen gangs in America as “gangbangers,” and the Australian person I was with was well and truly scandalized, thinking I was referring to an act of gang rape.  Oh, well… live and learn.  🙂


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