Observations of America Part 2

Nowhere has its charms

It’s been almost two months since I came back to the US. Since arriving, I’ve been able to get a few things sorted out. I have a job as a barista at an Italian coffee house. I started planting my garden. I started making candles and soaps again. These were all things that weren’t really possible for me in Korea. I am enjoying having a bit of peace and quiet in the countryside and even though my college degree is basically useless at my current job, it’s less stressful for me.. Overall, I believe it was a good decision to come back. That being said, I still look forward to traveling more (Sweden is slated for the end of the year!) and living abroad again within the next few years.

While in America however, I want to travel around a bit more as well. I haven’t explored the country of my birth as much as I ought to perhaps. So I’ll be blogging about my upcoming visit to New York city and surrounding areas. I’ll also do some throwback posts about Korea and other destinations (I never did France and Germany justice last year, I realize looking back at all of the notes and pictures I took). Here though are a few more observations about America that now strike me as a little odd after living away for a few years.

1. Americans don’t care about English. This, as with all of my generalizations is just that: a generalization. Some people care about grammar and having a good vocabulary and correct pronunciation. Most do not. Most Americans don’t care or don’t even notice if they use an adjective in place of an adverb. When meeting with a childhood friend, he said, “It’s been so long since I seen you!” The English teacher in me wanted to scold him that saw was of course the proper past tense. Sometimes I think if I hear another person pronounce “mozzarella” as “mutz-er-ella” I think my head is going to explode.

For people learning English as a second language, this should be a great relief. English is complicated and confusing. It has its gloriously lovely bits, it’s ugly bits, and it’s ridiculous bits. Even in a country where it is most people’s first language, it’s not taken that seriously by most of the population. And most Americans don’t seriously study a second language either, so if anyone gives you a hard time, just ask them how many languages they know.

Just a pretty picture of some nearby historic buildings.

2. Tipping is terrible. Because people in service industries get paid such low wages (minimum wage in the US is $7.25, waitresses however only get about $3.00 an hour), many are dependent on tips. Every time you eat out, you must calculate the fact that your meal is going to cost about 20% more, the customary amount for tipping. Tax is also not factored into the price of things ahead of time either as it is in countries such as Korea. An tax varies from state to state in the US from 6-9%. So a ten dollar item will actually cost $10.60-$10.90 depending on where you purchase it.

Some tipping is polite and encouraged in some cases in other countries as well, but it’s not nearly so depended upon as it is in the US. Whether or not to raise the minimum wage by scaling it to the economy and make it a livable wage is still a hot button topic in the US. It was originally established to be the minimum that a person could earn to support themselves, however, it hasn’t increased along with inflation. As for why a waitresses wages are so low, her tips are factored in. The customer, not her employer, is supposed to make up that remaining hourly wage by tips.

3. Disposables are everywhere. Every American home I have been in has a stash of plastic shopping bags that they have collected from the supermarket. Bags are given freely and excessively. I have to beg cashiers to let me bag my own groceries or else I have a dozen bags at the end of a shop. A loaf of bread will be given its own bag. Anything somewhat heavy such as a sack of onions or potatoes will be double bagged to prevent tearing in spite of the fact that they already are packed in their own sack.

My husband and I have purchased our own reusable bags to take with us on grocery runs. We also have taken to shopping at Aldi, a German owned market chain that charges people for bags to keep prices low and encourage reusable bags. But bags aren’t the only problem. People (such as my own father) use paper towels and disposable plates in their own homes. Instead of investing in some tea towels to wash and reuse or washing their dishes regularly, they make mountains of paper, plastic, and styrofoam trash. These items are cheap, plentiful, and convenient, so these habits are much more common than in many other countries that are a bit more “green” conscious. The idea of lessening one’s carbon footprint and eschewing the use of disposables is still seen as an alternative lifestyle in many communities here. If you bring your own bags to the market and bike or walk where it might be more convenient to drive, you might be seen as a bit odd. Which brings me to my last observation of the post…

4. People drive everywhere. In most areas of America, it is absolutely essential to have a car. Unless you live in one of the five or so major cities that have a well saturated public transit system, you must have a car to keep a reasonable schedule for work. I love the convenience of having a car as well. You can stock up on things like, say olive oil, which might be quite heavy and awkward to carry home by walking or on a bus. You can buy a couple gallons of olive oil and have no concerns about how to get it home. However, since moving back, I sometimes feel like my muscles will atrophy with lack of use. Exercise isn’t something I get easily through my every day life, it’s something I have to make time for.

In such a society of convenience and of enthusiastic motorists who love their cars, Americans tend to over-drive. In a large shopping center, they may move their car from shop to shop instead of walking the extra hundred meters. The same with running errands in town. People may take their cars to visit the post office which is only a few blocks from their house. If you choose to walk anywhere further than a block or so to do something, you are often met with surprise. So many people are missing a very simple and pleasurable to way to get some exercise and fresh air.

I’m glad I came back to America and there are many things I am enjoying about my life here. However, it’s a weird place. Like any other, it’s got plenty of quirks that may be hard to understand for others. For me, there has been a big benefit to travel. I can see the ideas and practices from other countries and cultures. It helps me to have a better perspective on life here as well, not just accepting things as they way they are. I believe that is the point of travel, to give perspective and exchange ideas.


  1. Reusable bags really are underrated! It’s so easy to bring them along. The hardest part is remembering to do so. I also like the walking one. God knows I love a taxi but when push comes to shove it really is best to walk if its feasible.

  2. Ha ha, the language thing is so true! I always told my korean friends that we just speak English we never actually learn how it ‘works’ because we don’t have to. Korea was an eye opener for us as well in terms of learning to walk everywhere, initially because we had to, later because it was good exercise. Tipping is a sore point for me as well as I have worked in the service industry for a few years. After Korea I absolutely think that tips should be abolished in all countries and people should be paid for doing a job by their employer!

  3. One of my biggest pet peeves about visiting home is the driving everywhere. It’s hard to get used to when public transport, biking, walking are so easy to do and accessible in Korea. I feel very lazy driving places, especially when you have to drive to a workout/gym. At the same time, there is no alternative because things are so spread out. It’d take me an hour to get to our nearby city of Missoula by bike as opposed to 20 minutes by car. By the way, where have you settled?

  4. Yep, you’re spot on with your observations! I personally dislike driving a whole lot which is why I lived in Chicago where I could take public trans everywhere and/or walk, but because the US is so massive and spread out, driving is essential to the lifestyle. How are you adjusting back though? Did you experience any reverse culture shock? Do you miss Korea? How long did you teach for?

  5. I’ve noticed many of the same things as you when I came back to Canada! Another one I observed was everything being so dispersed! Im so used to the buildings so close together and the lights!!!

  6. Awww, I feel bad for those people who depends on tips. In Korea, some people get offended when you give them tips. My Korean friend told me that people feel insulted that you look down on their jobs when you leave tips.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s