Friday, October 25, 2013

Feeling Foreign in America

I love America; land of my birth, cradle of my childhood, my protector and provider for many comfortable and profitable years. Visits to the Motherland always filled me with a sense of belonging and the assurance that it was, and would always remain, my true home. This year, however, America seemed just a tad alien. More than on any other visit I found myself pausing to ponder over simple tasks or social customs. Where once I felt completely in step, I now found myself wrong-footed and occasionally lost. America, it seems, has moved on without me.

Television, for instance: while I have always found it more dire and insipid than British TV, this year it was nearly incomprehensible. The shows, the news, the commercials (many, many, many commercials) were filled with apparently popular celebrities—both local and national—who were complete strangers to me. And the screen flickered with pop-ups and scrolling messages while parts of it remained obscured by semi-transparent corporate logos. It was like trying to watch the telly on Facebook and, like Facebook, it left me baffled and slightly nauseated.

Okay, it's not quite as bad as this, but it's close.
And the grocery stores, always too large, were now intimidating massive and caused more than a few culture clashes. While the shelves still held many of my old favorites, there were just as many products that were unknown to me. Then, at the check-out, we encountered The Packer.

Being conscientious shoppers, we arrived at the check-out with our own bags and proceeded to pack our purchases ourselves. This really seemed to put a knot in The Packer’s knickers, and she remained determined to do the job even though we clearly didn’t want her to. She even tried to grab items out of my hand as I picked them up so she could deposit them in the bag she was holding ready.

“We have our own bags,” I kept telling her.

“It’s New York State Law!” she would reply, as we wrestled for the next item.

It was all very unsettling.

All we wanted was a pint of milk and a box of chocolate chip cookies.
Then I tried pumping gas.

The mechanism was familiar enough but I stood waiting for the pump to turn on for some time before realizing I needed to go in and pay first. The next time, I used my credit card at the pump, but I found I needed to key in my zip code in order for it to work. And, of course, it wasn’t about to accept my post code. The next time, I used my American credit card and had the requisite zip code at the ready. But that pump didn’t ask for my zip code and instead told me to “Press to Start Pumping.” I think this incident says less about culture differences and hints more at the idea that US gas pumps operate in random and esoteric manners because, as I fruitlessly poked at various locations on the pump face, my American friend got out of the car to help and then both of us poked fruitlessly at the pump face until he saw a sign—written in huge, red letters—reading “Press to Start Pumping.”

Things went a little more smoothly after that.

While driving, I had to puzzle over new road arrangements and also encountered a number of rotaries or traffic circles, which are the US equivalent of round-abouts, only used by people who have no idea how to drive on a round-about. And the Americans, bless them, have a knack for taking something that is relatively straight-forward and enhancing it into something dangerously confusing. Add to this my ingrained habit of looking right and turning left into the round-about and you will understand why we approached every traffic circle with a sense of dread.

Just a random photo to remind you that America was closed when we got there.
We thought they might suggest we go to Canada instead, but they let us in. Eventually.
But the main thing that made me despair of ever understanding America again was the phone. During my last visit, I bought a disposable phone and put a hundred minutes on it. It was a god-send, so I took it back to Britain with me and brought it along on this trip.

I knew that, unlike my British disposable phone where the minutes remain valid indefinitely, the leftover minutes on my US phone would dissipate after 90 days, so when I turned the phone on I was not surprised when it didn’t work.

I was, however, surprised that the new bundle of minutes I bought wouldn’t load onto the phone, so I called their customer service and they informed me that, when the time limit on the minutes is up, the phone becomes useless; the only thing you can do with it is throw it away and buy a new one or request a new SIM card (if you happen to have a US address, which I do not). I realize these are disposable phones but surely that is taking it to its illogical conclusion.

Tracfone: a useless piece of plastic.
And so, on my first day back in America, I threw a perfectly good phone I had been hanging onto for the past year into the garbage and bought a new one that I will, likely, have to throw away next year, and I wondered just what sort of country I had landed in.

America, we need to talk; we seem to be drifting apart.


  1. This is so funny! When I go back to America now, not having lived there for 16 years it seems so familiar and yet so unfamiliar all at the same time. Strange how somewhere you have lived can change so much when you step away for a while. Hope that you are enjoying the visit though! Hope too that you will enjoy being back in England again.

    1. Oh yes, I am (was) enjoying the visit. There's more to come ;)

  2. Yes, it's a strange world we inhabit.

  3. Fun post and thanks for the chuckles. I have not lived in my own home country of Holland for decades, but do go back regularly to visit. I know exactly how you feel, a stranger in your own country. People will look at me strangely when it is clear I do not know something, something that EVERYBODY knows. Everybody but wacko me.

    1. It is a strange feeling; it sort of makes you want to shout at people, who are living in their own country, "but, you're doing it WRONG!"