People Who've Moved Far Away Reveal What Cultural Change Caught Them Off Guard
Moving can at all turns be exciting, exhausting, and shocking, and getting the courage to make such a drastic change is no easy feat. I am a born and raised New Yorker, and years ago, I made the decision to move to Kansas––yes, Kansas––because I was deeply in love with someone I knew and wanted to be with them. The relationship didn't last, but that didn't matter. The experiences I had were invaluable, and they never would have challenged my worldview had I not chosen to head out there in the first place. (Has anyone ever told you that the "walk like you have somewhere to be" attitude in New York just isn't a thing outside of it?! It can drive you crazy if you're used to a certain pace of life!)
These people moved far away from their hometowns. Here they share their stories of what cultural changes caught them off guard.
I moved from The Netherlands to India to study abroad. I found out that Indian people are literally always late, or don't show up at all. I would often find myself stressed because I was running late, but arrive and everyone, including professors, were at least 15 minutes later than me. The feeling of stress when running late never left, even when knowing it was accepted.
I moved to Alaska a few years back. The thing that caught me most by surprise is nearly a flip on what people consider to be personal safety. Like, in winter you wouldn't go anywhere without keeping extra blankets, water, tools, and other things in your car in case you have some sort of breakdown on the road. But when you stop at a gas station or convenience store, everyone leaves their cars unlocked and running as if unafraid of getting it stolen ... but then again, I never heard of someone getting their car stolen when they left it running somewhere.
Grew up in New England, moved to NorCal. I was amazed at how nice and friendly everyone was. People say "Good morning!" when they pass you on the sidewalk, it freaked me out at first but I got to like it. Moved back to New England and now I'm a weirdo who is friendly to strangers.
Moved to Wisconsin and it's the cheese/alcohol culture. Don't get me wrong I dove head first into it and love it but you usually think it's just a joke people say about Wisconsin. Every event or get together there are multiple cheese plates and beer/liquor everywhere. When you go to a restaurant at 8 am for breakfast 9/10 people have either beer or a bloody mary. It's the best state!
I moved to south Florida from New Jersey, before NJ I lived in Connecticut. South Florida is like a different country!
First, it is a crossroads of so many different cultures and nationalities who maintain a good deal of cultural autonomy. My first job was with a cigar company owned by Cubans in an office where practically nobody spoke English. Not chose to speak Spanish, did not know English. That was very interesting — I walked away with a much better understanding of how educational immersive environments can be for acquiring language. Also, the surrounding area operated entirely in Spanish. Except for Starbucks, almost every commercial interaction began in Spanish.
Once you get outside the Miami area there are people from all over South America and the Caribbean. At one of my jobs I worked with people from Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, a MASSIVE amount of Brazilians, people from Haiti, and Jamaica (I'm probably forgetting some nations). It is absolutely fascinating.
One thing I find interesting is that as a northerner we tend to pride ourselves on being inclusive and unprejudiced, however the view from the north tends to seem very binary (white/non-white) whereas down here there is a much more nuanced spectrum. People are from so many places and you can't necessarily tell where someone is from based on their appearance. In the north east there tends to be an idea that Spanish speaking people all look like the Indian populations of central and South America and that isn't true at all. Even the people who are descendants of the native populations look very different depending where they are from ( an indigenous person from Brazil looks different than an indigenous person from Mexico). So it seems strange to me that as proud as the north is for being "progressive" it seems to hold a very narrow or limited understanding of just how diverse South American, Central American, and Caribbean people actually are.
There is a great deal of European/Eastern European diversity as well. Lots of Russians, French Canadians, and Germans.
And I work with a Lebanese family now.
Also a little shocking is the visibly destitute populations. Where I live is right near a lot of drug treatment programs and halfway houses. People from up north are sent down for treatment and if they quit or are kicked out of their program many of them become homeless.
I love how different the animals are down here. Instead of squirrels we have lizards everywhere. At the cigar company I worked for one of the girls said to me, "You can't teach an old parrot new words" which I loved for its regional specificity. Clearly she comes from a place where contact with parrots is more common than I'm used to.
The ocean is here is the stuff of dreams. The water is sometimes crystal clear and always full of life. The first time I swam out to a reef with a dive mask and saw a sea turtle was one of the most awe inducing moments of my life.
Moved from New York to Utah. It's interesting to see such a stark difference in the cultural norm of when to get married and have kids. For Utah, the average age of marriage for women is 23, so most of my friends here are already married and thinking about children. But in New York, most of my friends are really only in semi-serious relationships, and haven't even thought about marriage yet. Neither way is better, but it's the most stark difference I've encountered.
Moved from PA to CA. A lot of things caught me by surprise, but the thing that weirded me out the most at the beginning was high quality fresh produce even in the hood out here.
When I was broke in PA, my options were canned everything (paying extra attention to sell-by dates because a lot of stock was expired), or wilted veg and moldy cheese at the corner store. Out here, even the 99 cent store has decent fresh fruits & veg.
When I first started dating my now-husband, he thought I was racist for bypassing a Mexican grocer in favor of the 7-11 next door. He didn't truly get it until I took him back east for Thanksgiving one year and gave him a tour of the neighborhood I lived in before I lucked into a stable, fulltime job.
I moved to the American South, Like the DEEP south, back in the early 90s when I graduated high school. I grew up in a pretty integrated low class neighborhood in a major city in the North. I moved with my best friend because his father was living there temporarily while helping his friend set up a new business. He got us both jobs for the startup. Anyway, we were both really shocked by the casual racism and the fact that it was more or less "out in the open".
What shocked us even more was when we met some black dudes and were partying with them and the conversation came around to this very subject of what two Northern white boys found weird about the south. When we both said "all the racism" without even thinking about it for a second they all freaked out. "Aw, hell no. Ain't no racist around here" and "Shit, I'd fight a motherfuckin' racist if I saw one". I realized that shit was so normalized down there that they had no idea what it was like in other places. That shit was crazy to us. Like if any of our black friends from back home went with us they who knows what might have happened to them if they didn't adapt to the culture down there? At least that was what I was thinking.
A few years later I moved back to my hometown and went to college. I became very close to, and had a "mentor/mentee" relationship, with one of my college professors, who happened to be a black man. I remember telling him about my experiences down there and how weird it felt for me. He said something else that shocked the hell out of me. "I actually prefer the south to the north. Because down there it's all in the open so you know right away who is and isn't a racist. Up here you never know". That was a real eye opener for me and something I never forgot, all these years later.
When I was abroad in Mexico, there were two big things that really surprised me. One was the way that Mexicans signal to waiters in restaurants that they need something, which was to literally wave the waiter over. The first time I saw someone do that, I was horrified, but it turned out to be a totally normal thing there and the waiters were never offended.
The second was the complete lack of respect for the sanctity of an occupied public bathroom stall. I cannot count the number of times that I had someone hammer on the stall door while I was taking a shit in a public restroom, and then continue knocking every thirty seconds even after I yelled "Ocupado!" at them each time. To be clear, there were always plenty of other stalls in these bathrooms, and I don't take a long time to shit unless there's a fucking Mexican SWAT team pounding on the door every thirty seconds, causing my asshole to knot up each time and drawing out the process.
Moved to a smaller community from the suburbs. We wanted a little more land and our suburbs doubled in population and was turning into an absolute zoo.
This smaller community (not really that small, but not the 300k population area we left), EVERYONE KNOWS EVERYTHING. We kind of knew that going in, we knew what to expect, but I didn't realize the extent of it.
Every single person has history with every other person. This person was that person's first kiss. This group hates that group since grade 5, and it continues as adults to this day. Kids from one hockey team will get cut, just because the kid's parent and the coach didn't get along in grade 9. It's absolutely ridiculous.
A picture goes up on facebook and all of a sudden my wife is getting texts "oh, you are friends with that person?", that kind of thing. Man - we're just nice to everyone, and we don't really care about who likes who, and what us hanging out with this or that person implies. It implies nothing more than we are just nice people that get along with everyone.
It's bonkers and out of control. Bury the hatchet, move on, be rad to each other.
How much more of a sense of community neighbourhoods have in America.
I was born in Britain, where it is not uncommon to have never met your neighbours in 10+ years of living next door to each other. We moved to Texas and basically everyone on the street introduced themselves within the first week.
So I've had a few cultural shock experiences, I left my native land of Northern California when I was 18 to join the military and now at 30 live in Australia.
The first big one happened before I even left the state. While in boot camp in Southern California I was confronted by the bizarre fact that not everyone uses or understands the word "hella", which to me was used as often as "um" or "uh".
Living in Australia, the weirdest cultural revelation is that Aussies are basically the same as Americans (even if they don't want to admit it and will probably complain to anyone that listens that they aren't as bad as that). The moment of revelation for this one came when I was working with some guys and they were talking about somebody that had complained about too many Australian flags on Australia Day, their final response was literally "If you don't like Australia, then you can get out." Which felt obscenely American.
Pittsburgh is weirdly insular and isolated and totally unaware that the entire country isn't familiar with their local culture, or even that they have a local culture unique to the rest of the country. They use bizarre slang or reference local dishes apropos of nothing and their minds are blown when you explain you don't know what they're talking about. I've lost count of the number of interactions I've had that are like, "Really??? You don't have chipped ham where you're from?" And it's like, how do you not know this? We all have TV, we've all seen movies, if you have something here that you literally never see anywhere in the media, you should probably assume it's specific to this area.
Moved from Minnesota to Kentucky to a particularly poor area with a lot of people with minimal education. People down here are fucking obsessed with "grandbabies", to the extent that I have interacted with women who were totally fine with their daughters getting pregnant and dropping out of high school because it meant they would have "grandbabies". Also the style of speaking in this part of the state (just north of the TN line), it's totally normal and accepted that everyone, male or female, will probably address everyone else as "honey". My dad was caught off guard the first few times he was called "honey" by other straight, married men. Rampant tobacco use. A lot of older people will tell you that diseases like lung cancer are just lies made up by doctors trying to make money. Tons of cigarette smokers and people using chewing tobacco. Spit everywhere. Guys carry "spit bottles" indoors, usually empty soda bottles that they can spit in. Racism. It's shocking and horrifying how common and accepted racism is. People use terrible racial slurs and then proudly announce "we're not politically correct around here". Honestly, I think the biggest shock is the overall lack of education and perspective of the larger world. Parts of this state are great but other parts are still 50 to 60 years behind. I talked to a guy a few years ago who didn't know Minnesota was a state. Someone else who made it through high school and had never heard of JFK. It's just unreal.
Being from the midwest, I grew up assuming everyone has very cold winters and fairly hot summers, and weather sucked everywhere. I now know differently and realize that not everyone considers a Chicagoland winter as "normal." But now that I'm in the southeast, I don't think I'll ever stop ragging on these Carolinians for their full blown deep rooted fear of slick roads.
This is basically the conversation the three times a year it dips below freezing for a few hours:
Good ol' boy: Shut down the school! The roads could get icy overnight! It's going to get down to 30 degrees!
Me: You can still drive if you need to, though, you just have to slow down and give yourself a lot more time to brake at intersections
GOB: We don't have salt trucks like y'all have up north. We aren't prepared!
Me: Dude, I grew up in the country where there was no salt. It's totally not a big deal. Just slow down, like, a lot, and assume it'll take you four times as long to stop. If you do that you won't end up in the ditch. And if you do, just stay calm and we'll get someone to pull you out eventually.
GOB: The roads will become a desolate wasteland of twisted metal and severed human limbs!! There is not stopping the cold hand of death upon us!! Every man for himself!!
Me: For a little reassurance, you could throw a bag of kitty litter or sand into the trunk, that way......
GOB: (running away) NO TIME I HAVE TO GO BUY BREAD AND DIAPERS BEFORE THEY SHUT DOWN THE PUBLIX!!!!
When I lived in Pittsburgh: Italian food was considered exotic, anything else was a rarity that was hard to find (downtown of course had a bit, but out in the suburbs there wasn't much at all)
- people say "needs washed" instead of "that needs to be washed"
When I lived in Los Angeles: Locals are afraid of the rain. I had coworkers who lived 2-3 miles away use sick days when it rained "so I don't have to drive in it". meanwhile I was riding my motorcycle every day to work.
when I lived in Japan: The bus drivers have a specific voice and kinda whisper to you it's the most relaxing thing in the world. Also the train station attendants point a lot.
In russia: I've never seen so many day drinkers and functional alcoholics in my life, legit 10am and people drinking while walking to work.
In Dubai: They changed the visa rules and limited many households to only 1 maid, the local newspaper had a big section where (stay at home) housewives were complaining about how it was impossible to run a household with only 1 maid. Like really? you don't have a job and it's too much work to take care of your own kid or cook?
In michigan: people say "pop" that's it, michigan is awesome.
The amount of walking my new friends in California were willing to do. Even friends that were not in good shape would assume that us going out meant everyone would be doing a lot of walking, and no complaining about it. The theater is ten blocks from here? Let's walk it.
My friends in Mississippi won't even park at the back of parking lots when they're full they are so against walking more than *absolutely* necessary.
American regional food preferences surprise me more than some foreign differences.
New England's food is incredibly bland, and they have a general aversion to spices. Unlike every other region known for unique styles of cooking, nobody in New England actually seems to notice this until it's pointed out. Ethnic restaurants even tone down the amount of spice in the food they serve to accomodate the preference.
New Englanders love coffee, but don't agree with the rest of the country about what makes decent coffee. The regional preference is so strong that McDonald's actually had to create a custom blend for New England in order to sell any.
Decent french fries are hard to find in the Southwest. Adding toppings to them is common, so the potato is often not the focus. Leaving them completely unsalted isn't rare.
I grew up in Utah. People are very conservative and very anti-science when it comes to things like evolution, LGBT issues and Sex-Ed.
I moved to Portland, Oregon when I was 23 and found that people are very liberal but still anti-science but it is a different flavor. People here are afraid of GMO's, vaccines and fluoride.
The differences are vast but the similarities are eerie.
When I moved from Oregon to Sweden when I was 8 years old, I was shocked at how nice adults were to children. I remember going to school and I was asking the teacher what the word for "Mrs." was so I knew what to call her. But you just called everyone by their first names. In the US, teachers were so mean to some students—like looking back on it, I feel it was a type of bullying. They would pigeonhole them. I actually went to an elementary school that still used corporal punishment, whereas Sweden was the first country in the world to outlaw it. I never remember students being punished in Sweden. I can remember a teacher saying to a student something like, "You seem frustrated. You can go kick the ball against the wall outside." And the student could just leave during class and kick a ball outside. It was so different. Instead of being in a huge cafeteria, we ate in a real dining room, and our teachers ate with us at small nice tables. Also we took our shoes off inside the school and wore either socks or slippers, which seemed so mysig (cozy) compared to the US with everyone wearing their sneakers everywhere.