You certainly have heard stories, good or bad, about American people. You also probably have preconceived ideas from having met Americans before or from films and television programs that colour your impression of what Americans are and what they do. However, American society is enormously diverse and complex and cannot be reduced only to a few stories or stereotypes. Important differences exist between geographical regions, between rural and urban areas, and between social classes. In addition, the presence of millions of immigrants who came to the United States from all corners of the world with their own culture and values adds even more variety and flavour to American life.
The characteristics described below represent that image of US society that is thought of as being "typically American."
Probably above everything else, Americans consider themselves individuals. There are strong family ties and strong loyalties to groups, but individuality and individual rights are most important. If this seems like a selfish attitude, it also leads Americans to an honest respect for other individuals and an insistence on human equality.
Related to this respect for individuality are American traits of independence and self-reliance. From an early age, children are taught to "stand on their own two feet," an idiom meaning to be independent. You may be surprised to learn that most U.S. students choose their own classes, select their own majors, follow their own careers, arrange their own marriages, and so on, instead of adhering to the wishes of their parents.
Honesty and frankness are two more aspects of American individuality, and they are more important to Americans than personal honour or "saving face." Americans may seem blunt at times, and in polite conversations they may bring up topics and issues that you find embarrassing, controversial, or even offensive. Americans are quick to get to the point and do not spend much time on social niceties. This directness encourages Americans to talk over disagreements and to try to patch up misunderstandings themselves, rather than ask a third party to mediate disputes.
Again, "individuality" is the key word when describing Americans, whether it is their personalities or their style of dress. Generally though, Americans like to dress and entertain informally and treat each other in a very informal way, even when there is a great difference in age or social standing. Students and professors often call each other by their first names. International students may consider this informality disrespectful, even rude, but it is part of American culture. Although there are times when Americans are respectful of, and even sentimental about, tradition, in general there is little concern for set social rules.
Americans place a high value on achievement and this leads them to constantly compete against each other. You will find friendly, and not-so-friendly, competition everywhere. The American style of friendly joking or banter, of "getting in the last word," and the quick and witty reply are subtle forms of competition. Although such behaviour is natural to Americans, some international students might find it overbearing and disagreeable.
Americans can also be obsessed with records of achievement in sports, in business, or even in more mundane things. Books and movies, for example, are sometimes judged not so much on quality but on how many copies are sold or on how many dollars of profit are realized. In the university as well, emphasis is placed on achievement, on grades, and on one's grade point average (GPA).
On the other hand, even if Americans are often competitive, they also have a good sense of teamwork and of cooperating with others to achieve a specific goal.
Americans are often accused of being materialistic and driven to succeed. How much money a person has, how much profit a business deal makes, or how many material goods an individual accumulates is often their definition of success. This goes back to American competitiveness. Most Americans keep some kind of appointment calendar and live according to schedules. They always strive to be on time for appointments. To international students, American students seem to always be in a hurry, and this often makes them appear rude. However, this attitude makes Americans efficient, and they usually are able to get many things done, in part, by following their schedules.
Many Americans, however, do not agree with this definition of success; they enjoy life's simple pleasures and are neither overly ambitious nor aggressive. Many Americans are materially successful and still have time to appreciate the cultural, spiritual, and human aspects of life.
While in the United States, you will have many opportunities to discover more about the country through daily contact with Americans, by exploring all that your area has to offer, and by taking some time to travel to other corners of the United States. You will have to deal with such matters as banking, shopping, postal and telephone services, automobiles and traffic laws, tipping customs, and so on.
The basic unit of exchange in the United States is the dollar ($), which is divided into 100 cents (¢). One dollar is commonly written as $1 or $1.00. There are four denominations of commonly used coins: 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, and 25 cents. Americans usually refer to coins, not by their value in cents, but by their names. A one-cent coin is a penny, a five-cent coin is a nickel, a ten-cent coin is a dime, and a 25-cent coin is a quarter. There are also one-dollar coins and half-dollar (50-cent) coins but they are seldom found in circulation.
U.S. paper money (often called bills: for example, a “one dollar bill”) comes in single-bill denominations of one dollar ($1.00), two dollars ($2.00, but these are rare), five dollars ($5.00), ten dollars ($10.00), twenty dollars ($20.00), fifty dollars ($50.00), and one hundred dollars ($100.00). You will immediately notice that, unlike in most other countries, U.S. bills are all the same size and all the same colour. They are differentiated from each other by the number value and with the portrait of a different U.S. historical figure on each denomination.
At first, you may find this confusing and you will need to watch which bills you use carefully. However, you will become accustomed to the currency and will soon be able to differentiate easily between the denominations. U.S. coins also are marked with the coin’s value and each denomination is a different size.
Establishing a Bank Account
One of the first things you should do after you arrive in the United States is establish a bank account. It is not a good idea to carry large sums of cash or to keep it in your room. Most banks have main offices in the centre of a city or town. Smaller offices, called “branches,” are usually found in other parts of a city or town and in the suburbs. Even if your bank does not have a branch nearby, you often can find automated bank machines to serve your needs. Banks generally are open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. On Fridays, many banks stay open a few hours later. Many banks, but not all, are also open on Saturdays, often from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon.
Your community counsellor can suggest which banks are convenient in your local area. Remember that banks are private businesses. They are all different and each one wants to get your business. You should check with several banks to determine which bank offers the best services for your needs. When you are ready to open a bank account, go to the “New Accounts” department at the bank you have chosen. A bank officer will help you to open an account by explaining the different kinds of accounts available and the costs and services of each one. You should plan to open both a savings account and a checking (current) account at the same bank, simply because it will be more convenient for you. For example, if you have a savings account and a checking account in the same bank, you can easily transfer funds from one to the other. Interest rates on savings and checking accounts vary from bank to bank. Investigate and compare various banks and their rates of interests on checking and savings accounts before you decide where to open an account. Internet banks are an alternative option to traditional banks and are another possibility to explore. The best source of information for these will be on the Internet itself.
In the United States, tips (gratuities) are not automatically added to bills, as is customary in some other countries. Even if tipping remains a personal choice, it is usually expected when certain services are provided. You should be aware that the people who commonly receive tips are paid a wage that is lower than those who do not receive tips. They depend upon tips for a significant part, sometimes the majority, of their income. The average tip is usually 15 percent, but it can vary depending on the extent and the quality of the service provided.
The expected tip in a restaurant is 15 or 20 percent in a good restaurant with excellent service. You should leave your tip on the table for the waiter or waitress as you leave. If you pay with a credit card, you can add the tip to the credit card charges before you total the bill. The restaurant then gives that amount in cash to your server. If you sit at a counter in a restaurant, the tip is usually smaller; 10 to 15 percent is sufficient. In a fast-food restaurant, the bill is paid when the food is ordered and no tip is expected. In a cafeteria or a self-service restaurant, you pay the cashier after having chosen your meal and, again, no tip is expected.
It is customary to give 10 to 15 percent of the total fare.
Airport and Hotel Porters
It is customary to give $1.00 for each bag.
Barbers, Hairdressers, and Beauticians
They usually are tipped 10 to 15 percent of the bill.
The attendant should usually receive $1.00 to $2.00.
Never offer a tip to public officials, police officers, or government employees. This is against the law in the United States. There is no need to tip hotel desk clerks, bus drivers, theatre ushers, salespeople, flight attendants, or gas station attendants.
When travelling abroad, you have to be ready for extreme or unfamiliar conditions. You might have an upset stomach or other digestive problems in the first few days as your body adapts to the climate and the food. It is even common to catch a cold. You may have trouble adapting to the altitude if you are going to a mountainous area. Even the most seasoned travellers and the fittest athletes have to deal with these problems when they leave their country. These discomforts can, however, be controlled. Here are a few tips to help you adjust:
Unfortunately, as everywhere else in the world, there is crime in the United States. You should be especially careful until you are familiar with your local community. Every town has unsafe areas, and you should find out where these are as soon as possible. Basic safety rules include the following:
Going as a tourist to a foreign city or country for a short period of time can be fun, but living and studying there for longer than a few months is a completely different experience. You get to know the place and the people on a much deeper level. At the same time, you will have to deal with some physical, mental, and social challenges.
Even though living in a foreign country can sometimes be frustrating, it can also be very rewarding.The majority of people who live and study in the United States for an extended period of time go home feeling positive about their experience and believe that the time spent abroad was beneficial both academically and personally. This chapter contains information that may help ease your transition.
Depending on your country of origin, one of the first adjustments you will have to face after your arrival in the United States is “jet lag.” Jet lag is the physical shock of your body adjusting to a new time zone. Its intensity will depend upon how many time zones you have crossed during your travel to the United States. While your body is adjusting to a new daily rhythm, you may experience headaches, disorientation, sleeplessness, or sleepiness. Many people find that for every hour of time difference, it takes one day to completely overcome the effects of jet lag. However, you may find that you are through the worst of it in about half that time. After this period of adjustment, you should be able to function normally and follow a regular daily schedule.
There are a number of things you can do to help yourself through the transition:
Culture shock is the process of adjusting to a new country and a new culture, which may be dramatically different from your own. You no longer see the familiar signs and faces of home. Climate, food, and landscapes, as well as people and their ways all seem strange to you.
If you feel this way, do not panic. Culture shock is a normal reaction. As you become adjusted to U.S. culture and attitudes and begin to know your way around, you will start to adapt to and understand your new surroundings and way of life. International students experience culture shock in varying degrees; some hardly notice it at all, while others find it very difficult to adapt. There are usually four stages of culture shock that you will experience:
The first few weeks in your new home will be very exciting. Everything will be new and interesting, and you will likely be so busy getting settled in with your new family and your classes that you may hardly notice that you miss home.
As you begin to realize that you are not on vacation and that this is where you live, you might experience anger and hostility. Sometimes you may feel hostile toward Americans and their way of doing things, and even trivial irritations may cause hostility to flare.
In time you will come to better understand your new environment and will find, maybe even unconsciously, that you are adjusting to your new home. You will experience less frequent feelings of hostility and irritability.
Finally, you will find that you have come to feel that, at least on some level, you consider your host family and your new town, your home. You will have made friends and will feel that your community accepts you just as you have accepted it. The length and intensity of each stage depends upon the individual, but no one escapes it completely. The important thing to remember is that you are not the only one experiencing these feelings. Many others before you have gone through it, and there are others all around you who are dealing with culture shock.
Below are some of the common symptoms of culture shock and some suggestions to help you get over these hurdles.
If you feel that your problem is different and this advice does not help, contact your Local Coordinator. CHI Local Coordinators are dedicated to helping you have a rewarding exchange experience and will do all possible to help you achieve that goal.