Five “Normal” American Things That Can Seem Pretty Weird

Por fin! Finally! After nearly a month Stateside (can you say “Stateside” if you aren’t in Europe?) — plus a frantic week preparing to go and an extraordinarily drama-filled week upon return — I’m happy to be writing again. For now, I hope you’ll put it in reverse with me to explore a few of the wonders and woes of an expat’s trip home. “Back it up!” as my son says, quoting his toy Caterpillar trucks. And with that, I bring you five “normal” American things that seem pretty weird if you’ve been out of the US for a long time:

  1. The astounding variety of stuff available, for better or worse, in an average US grocery store. My mental dialogue while browsing goes something like this: “Honey Bunches of Oats Greek Honey Crunch? I’m not sure I understand. Snack chips made with chia seeds? Oh, let’s try that! Take-out sushi? There is a God, and he has chosen to put heaven in this place.” And this is the way that I feel when I go into Kroger or Publix. Put me in Whole Foods too soon after re-entering the US and I might pass out. Seriously.
  2. Taking your iPhone out in public without worrying about your personal safety. Sad, but true.
  3. The simple pleasure of blasting your radio and singing along while driving solo in the car. I don’t have a car in Barranquilla, and I don’t really need one, which is nothing short of awesome. But I forgot entirely about this little joy. I don’t think there’s really any equivalent.
  4. The smell-less-ness of the US, or at least the suburban parts of it. It’s downright weird. It’s not like Colombia is a smelly place — it’s not. But in the US, you start wondering if the whole place has been sanitized. This can be good or bad. There’s a reason why the US is not usually at the top of the list of places that are a “feast for the senses.” Unless you’re in Whole Foods, of course.
  5. Prescription drug commercials. Sheesh. Didn’t miss those. The longer you’ve been away from this particular onslaught, the more these advertisements will creep you out. For all their lists of symptoms and side effects, the commercials themselves have to be a symptom or side effect of something — something not good. These go in the category of things I can live without. Along with Honey Bunches of Oats made with Greek yogurt… although I don’t know, I kinda would like to try them.

By the way, the time between this holiday trip to the US and my trip before that was eight months. That’s the longest I have ever been away from my home country. Do you live away from the country you grew up in? If so, what’s the longest you’ve stayed away? What parts of “home” seemed surreal when you returned?

Here’s hoping your new year got off to a good start. Stay tuned for more — and hopefully more profound! — insights from my time away.


11 responses to “Five “Normal” American Things That Can Seem Pretty Weird

  1. We went back to the US (from Australia) this Christmas too. It was our first trip home in three years.

    Australia is “close enough” culturally that you don’t expect the differences to stand out as much as they do.

    The variety in the stores and the prescription drug commercials definitely stood out too. The other things that caught our eye/ear:
    – American accents arriving at LAX
    – stores open late at night (heaven for those of us who work non-typical hours)
    – the shock when I say that nationalized health care and gun control can and do work … in a country that staunchly loves its outback, its personal freedoms, and its guns
    – bad American airline service (I am quite happy to be back in the land of Virgin Australia, Air NZ, Emirates,etc.)
    – exceptional customer service everywhere else
    – In’N’Out
    – free wifi always available
    – cheap books (yes, I still read the paper kind)
    – tipping


    • That’s a great list, Anna! Three years away is a long time! I 100% agree with you re: the crappy service of US airlines and the exceptional customer service everywhere else. And wow, it has been years since my last In ‘N Out burger… my husband is getting tired of me telling him how I want to take him there. 😉


  2. Haven’t been back to the States except for a short two weeks a couple of years ago since August 2010 when I landed in Lisbon. The only things I miss (besides friends) are being able to buy Sharpies, good dim sum, a good blues band, CVSish type drug stores, Altoilds and American Spirits (but I am going to go the e-cig any day now). Settled now in Lagos, a southern beach resort town where the Age of Discovery was launched, here I have found the best of what I loved about Ft. Lauderdale, where I spent most of my life. I don’t miss the rampant consumerism, lack of health care, terrifying amount of violence, and terrible attitude toward immigrants. Tiny bankrupt Portugal has made me feel more welcome and has taken cared of me better than my homeland, the richest nation on earth and I paid a lot of taxes in my life before I left!

    My veggies comes from the farmer’ stall, the fish bright-eyed from the market, the water from the tap, all clean and delicious.Eating healthy is less expensive here. Recycling bins are everywhere and always full (even on the beaches). Buses run on time and are full, cars stop to let you cross the street, I can walk home late at night without fear. Yes, electric and fuel are terribly expensive, we don’t use heat because of that, we wear lots of sweaters and sleep under piles of duvets. We don’t have a car, we have a bus pass. We also don’t have a much of a military or nuclear power plants, The government is just as corrupt as every government, at least, with a Parliament and multi-party system there are more choices.

    If I have to go back “home”, I think I would be scared.


    • I’ve heard Portugal is lovely; I really look forward to visiting sometime! I have to say that your description is in parts a little different from our life here in Colombia. I look forward to the day when B’quilla has recycling bins everywhere – for now, some more trashcans would be a great start. (Not all Colombian cities have this issue; Medellin has markedly less litter.) I also can’t say that cars here stop to let you cross the street. It’s the cars that definitely have the right-of-way. All that being said, there are lots of “pros” to outweigh “cons” here. I guess that’s what it comes down to with any place – whether the goods outweigh the bads at a very personal level. I’m so glad Portugal has been a great move for you!


      • Best thing about life in my tiny little socialist bankrupt county, seems I have been magical added to the top of the hip replacement list (the New Year Eve 12 raisins and smudging the new apartment maybe did the trick) and very soon my adventures will not be limited to short steps with a cane and a vivid imagination. Great medical care without a second mortgage! Only NOT in America.


      • Holy cow! I am so glad you got moved to the top of the list. That is truly great news.


  3. I’ve been back home here from S. Amer. (lived in Ecuador, but traveled to Peru and Colombia – will be moving here soon) and there are several things I notice. . . .The freedom of being to go outside without being sexually harassed within the about the first 10 minutes by any male that walks by me (including ones that have their significant other right next to them) is totally liberating. . .

    And similar to your cell phone comment, just feeling general safety and not feeling like I have to be afraid of being robbed (I was robbed several times in Ecuador and once in Colombia with Colombia being the most violent).

    The honesty of Westerners and monogamy. . . Telling people what you want to hear rather than the truth is prevalent in S. Amer from employers, to lovers, etc. I love the honesty of telling it like it is, this is more trusting for me. . . And Latin American men are always bragging about how many women they have on the side. Most, but not all, are cheating. They openly admit it and take pride in it, unless of course I just seem to attract these people, I think it’s sad for Latin women – the lack of respect towards them. . . .

    What do I miss about Latin America. . . .the fact that people can be late to things without getting all riled up. Now I have friends in the US who are laid back about this but as a general culture, if you aren’t on time, you are looked upon negatively.

    That there is less processed food in S. Amer. While, I don’t eat much processed food in the US and I actually eat much heathier in the US (I’m a vegetarian and this is really tough to be in S. Amer. where people don’t understand vegetarianism and they think eating chicken is ok), it’s nice that S. Americans eat more real than fake food.

    Public transportation. I love any nation that has a great and affordable (in Ecuador this was awesome, in Colombia, it’s quite expensive – esp if you are coming to Colombia with an Ecuadorian salary) public transportation, something the US sorely lacks.

    Affordable health care even if you don’t have health insurance. Health insurance in the US? Haha. That’s an oxymoron. I wanted to sign up for Obamacare (and would gladly pay for it) so that I can see a doctor (I’ve suffered from parasites, amoebas, intestinal parasites almost my whole time in S. Amer. – and no, I don’t drink the water, 🙂 )when I come to visit home. I’m not eligible because I don’t reside in the US most of the year. 😦 My European friends can be gone for years at a time, return home, and be welcome with open arms into their nationalized health care. My British friends had to return home from Ecuador after one of them caught Typhoid (from eating ceviche) and Dengue (we lived on the coast) and had a compromised immune system since being treated for those diseases.

    I could go on and on, but end it there. . . :There are good and bad in both places. I’m enjoying home while I’m here and will enjoy S. Amer. once I get back, but I won’t and don’t miss the negatives in either place.


    • Hi Tanya, I found your comments really interesting — and I hear you about not missing the negatives of either place! Regarding men and women and the fidelity issue, I read an insightful piece about that by a blogger who lives in Bogota. Here it is, in case you are interested:

      If I had to come up with a very unscientific hypothesis, I would say that men are able to do what they want fidelity-wise because women are kind of “stuck”. I’d guess that social mobility for women is lacking, and so it’s much harder for a woman to threaten to divorce a guy or whatever for his behavior. Maybe I am wrong about that, but it seems like the economics would play out that way. I think it becomes a chicken-and-egg scenario: women are kept “in their place” which means economically they have to sort of accept whatever situation men put them in, and accepting whatever situation means that men stay on top and the cycle continues – and therefore change is hard to come by. Ugh. Here in Barranquilla, I am also struck by the standards to which women must keep themselves physically — the crazy long hair and accompanying blow-outs (not to mention makeup and nails) would be enough to use up both disposable income AND time. I’ve seen that in other areas of Colombia (Medellin, for example), and definitely in some other Latin American countries, the demands on appearance for women seem a lot less (e.g., lots more women with short hair, lots more women with natural hair texture, etc.). Anyway, to my mind, these are all very important issues that affect women’s freedom and deserve more attention.

      Enjoy the positives in the US while you are there, and then let me know when you’re here — lots of positives to look forward to here as well! Thanks for adding your thoughts to this discussion.


  4. The first time I went to a Wal Mart in the States I was absolutely overwhelmed ex

    Then when I went to leave and didn’t get stopped and searched… It was so weird. I stood by the door waiting for the security guard for a good 30 seconds. It was weird


    • LOL, I can definitely see just walking out of the store feeling a little weird — although it does seem like they’re checking receipts more and more in big US cities! That being said, when I was in suburban Atlanta, I thought I had left a couple of items in a bag at the checkout (I had already paid for them) in a Kroger grocery store. I went back, and they didn’t have anything. I was stressing because they were sort of big ticket items — men’s razors and stuff — and Kroger was like, no problem, here’s some more – take them. And I was like, whaaaaa??? No line, no process — I just walked out with new stuff. Although seriously, that is pretty amazing in the US also. Anyway, I later found that I had left the original stuff in the garage! So then I had to take it back to them, which they were like, oh sure, no problem. I just couldn’t even believe the whole thing.


  5. Completely agree about the iPhone. So many times I’ve pulled it out and someone will ask me about it. I try hard not to pull it out in taxis but sometimes you have to let people know you’re on your way! I’ve been here in Bquilla for 1-week and have had a great time.

    One item to add to the list is the brightness of the fruit & vegetables that we have in the US. The oranges here aren’t all orange. I know this is because they have a better food supply but it took me a couple seconds to remember that I’ve been improperly trained by the artificial food supply in the US.


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