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Tips for the Newcomer to the US
chillibreeze writer — Susan Alexander
If you’re totally new to the US, there are lots of small and seemingly irrelevant things that you need to know if visiting for the first time. If I’d known some of them, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. When I asked people who’d been to graduate school in the US what life was like there, they’d shrug off my questions with an airy wave and say, “Oh, you’ll settle down, don’t worry.” That was very reassuring but it didn’t really answer my questions! Here is a random list of things encountered in daily life that one may not always be aware of. This is by no means a comprehensive list, though. Some of them seem so simple but it’s the minor things we often overlook, right?
1. Casual touching such as a pat on the arm is much more common in India than it is in the US. Remember to keep a certain distance between yourself and the next person when joining a queue. In the US, you’d never reach out to touch a person’s hand or dress without asking for permission first. Just watch people around you in these situations so that you can gauge for yourself how to handle it next time round.
2. There are certain words not in usage in the US such as queue (they use the word ‘line’ instead!) or lakh (saying one hundred thousand is easier understood!). Remember to use the corresponding equivalents instead.
3. US spellings are different from the ones we use in India too – you would spell “maximise” as “maximize” or “cheque” as “check”. Observe how things are spelt and familiarize yourself with the differences.
4. When writing out a cheque for nineteen dollars and 4 cents, it would be written as ‘Nineteen dollars and 4/100’. While here in India, we would write “Nineteen and 4 only” – not so in the US.
5. At a fast food restaurant, you will be asked if the food is for “here or to go”. ‘Here’ means eating in the restaurant and ‘to go’ means you’d like it packed to carry away with you. Answering this question in any other way may get you confused looks.
6. Most cities/towns have an Indian grocery store in the vicinity. If you plan to stay for a longish period and plan to cook Indian food, you need to arrange for a trip to an Indian grocery store. Since the closest Indian grocery store could be miles away from where you live, make a list of grocery items before you leave for the US preferably with your mother or someone who handles the kitchen at home so that small things are not left out of this list. Or else it could be a nightmare trying to get back to the grocery store for just those few small items.
7. If planning to live there for a year or two at least, you need to outfit yourself comprehensively with everything needed for a complete basic kitchen. I remember not taking along cutlery though I had all the pots and pans and I had to struggle to cook complete meals because of the lack of cutlery in my kitchen. Take along a complete set of cutlery and knives as those items are expensive in the US.
8. While cities and bigger towns in the US have a public transport system, smaller places do not. As a university student in a very small town in the US, I was dependant on people with cars for a trip to grocery stores that were not within walking distance from my home. Keep in mind the difficulties with getting around from one place to another (barring big cities like New York with a comprehensive public transport system) if planning to travel/live across the US. However, one word of advice. DO NOT try hitchhiking as a way of getting across the country; it’s just too dangerous! It’s probably far better to come armed with an international driving license and rent a car in the cities you’re going to be in.
9. You do not drop in at anyone’s home without an invitation, even if it is your neighbor. People tend to be much more private than in India and the idea of dropping in unannounced on a neighbor/friend as we are often wont to do in India, is totally unacceptable in the US. If someone you know would like you to visit, they will call in advance and ask if you can drop in and suggest when it would be convenient to do so.
10. The general US date format is the reverse of the Indian date format and is represented by: Month/Date/Year. So 05/04/2006 refers to 4 May, 2006 and not 5 April 2006, as it would in India.
11. If you can, try and wear color-resistant western clothes when in the US rather than Indian wear such as saris or salwar kameez. They are easier to wash and dry as most flats have no drying space such as a balcony or terrace area like Indian flats do. In addition, pack lots of socks if taking along shoes. Clothes don’t get as dirty in the US if the weather is cooler but socks need to be changed daily as they smell after a day’s use.
12. Don’t take along hankies! You’ve got tissues/paper napkins everywhere. You find them in cars, in dispensers in bathrooms in malls and university campuses plus every house stocks them.
13. Most Americans have washing machines at home or take their clothes to a laundromat once a week. If you plan to use a laundromat, keep some small change in the form of quarters ready to insert in the laundromat machine. The machine accepts only quarters and both the wash and dry cycle need a couple of quarters each. I know that some laundromats have quarter change machines for fixed amounts of cash. Or you could try asking one of the cashiers at the check-out line at your grocery store or at a bank for a sealed roll of quarters for 10 dollars and use this for your washing alone.
14. Questions about one’s personal life are not welcomed in the US. When in casual conversation, stick to generalities.
15. Watches are reset twice a year in some US states and this is often referred to as setting the clock forward or setting the clock back. This happens in March/April and October/November and is done for daylight saving reasons.
16. If shopping for footwear for someone else, you need to know that sizes are completely different.
17. Petrol is referred to as gas and is sold by the gallon, not by the litre as in India.
18. If you bring electrical appliances from India such as a hair dryer for example, you will also need a converter to be able to use it in the US as the voltage systems in both countries are different.
19. Domestic help is not used here except by extremely rich people. You will have to do all your work yourself right from lifting something heavy to washing up to cleaning your house or even changing your light bulb. Similarly, there are no Xerox centers as in India manned by people who do your Xeroxing for you. However, you can get to a copy centre and make copies of whatever documents you need.
20. And finally, last but not least, before you travel to the US whether as a visitor or on a longer stay as a student, don’t forget to get yourself health insurance as the US health system does not cover foreigners. If anything out of the ordinary happens requiring hospitalization, you’re covered and you’ve just saved yourself a lot of stress. But there are different kinds of plans for those going as a tourist and those staying for longer periods, so do your homework before settling on something.
Bon voyage, folks! There’s nothing like venturing into the unknown, albeit with a plan! Happy traveling!
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