The Cambridge dictionary defines a culture shock as:
a feeling of confusion felt by someone visiting a country or place that they do not know
And this is exactly what this section is about: surprises and confusions of a European in California.
1) GRAMS AND POUNDS: WHY DON’T THEY USE THE METRIC SYSTEM?
The day after arriving in San Francisco I walked into a Safeway store to do my first grocery shopping. All went well until I approached the cold meat counter and ordered:
- “250 grams of roasted turkey”- I said.
- “What?”- responded the Safeway shopkeeper.
- “250 grams of roasted turkey” – I repeated.
- “What? Do you mean two pounds?” – asked the Safeway shopkeeper.
Did I mean two pounds? I had no idea! It was my first morning in California and of course I didn’t remember that they don’t use grams in the US. I had no reference at all that morning and there was a line behind me, where people had started to stare at me like I was an alien. So I said yes: “Two pounds, please!”
How much is two pounds? Let me tell you: far more roasted turkey that a person can eat! 1 pound = 453.6 grams. So I ended up taking home one kilo of roasted turkey. Guess what I had for dinner all week?
2) ARE YOU IN YOUR THIRTIES OR OLDER? SHOW YOUR ID TO PURCHASE ALCOHOL
American grocery stores sell a surprising wide range of beer brands, even wider than any store/bar in Germany that I have ever seen. They have Paulaner and Hofbräu Bier, they even have Oktoberfest versions of the HB!. I wasn’t expecting it… as I wasn’t expecting to be asked to show an ID as proof of my age when paying for it.
Really? ID? I’m in my thirties for God’s sake! Some people say I look a couple of years younger, but under no circumstances I look like under 21. So why the ID? The cashier then pointed at a small sign that claimed that “according to a new California law, staff is required to ask for a proof of age for all alcoholic beverage purchases, unless you look 50 years old or older“.
3) ARE YOU KIDDING ME? REALLY? STILL PAYING WITH CHECKS?
I was left flabbergasted: paying your groceries with a check, really? But the best part is that the cashier didn’t seem surprised at all. He accepted it with a smile, opened the cash register and placed it on the top of a pile!!! So this lady wasn’t the first, nor the second one today that was paying at the supermarket with a check!
4) APPARENTLY I’M EXPOSED TO SERIOUS TOXICS
This is the first sign that you see at the entrance of my apartment building:
Apparently California has a regulation that requires businesses (including corporate apartments) to display clear signs (like the above) informing consumers (or tenants in my case) that in the area there are chemicals that cause cancer and other defects. This is the so called Proposition 65: the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.
I don’t want to be informed! Are they all crazy? I live here, I eat and sleep here! I don’t want to be exposed to anything that can affect my health!. Is this feasible? apparently not. This sign is not only at the entrance of my corporate apartment, it’s pretty much everywhere in Silicon Valley: in the car dealer where I purchased my car; outside the bank where I applied for a credit card; at the front entrance of the supermarket where I shop…. I’m going to need to do some digging on this. I’ll keep you posted.
5) THE STORE PRICES ARE A LIE
Why? because they don’t include the VAT!
Right after arriving in California from Europe, I realized that my wonderful corporate apartment and full equipped kitchen only had one frying pan, which was huge (and not very practical). So I decided I needed a smaller one and I went shopping.
I didn’t want to spend a fortune in a frying pan nor I wanted to go home with the cheapest option, so I picked one in the middle-range. It was labeled as: ” 8″ frying pan of xxx brand for $9.97″. I took it and went to pay with a $10 note in my hand. When my turn came, the cashier scanned the pan, turn to me and and said: “ten dollars and eighty four cents”.
$10.84? but the price was $9.97!
Yes my friend, $9.97 is the price WITHOUT taxes. On top of the label price I had to add 8.750% of tax. And what tax is this? this is called the Sales Tax, which is equivalent to the VAT in Europe. The rate depends on the county, in Silicon Valley is 8.750%.
Unfortunately and as a general rule: US stores do not include the Sales Tax in their store prices. So keep that in mind when you shop. The tax on a frying pan is not a big deal but it is when you are purchasing something more pricey like your new TV, a sofa…
6) GO PRESS THE PEDESTRIAN CROSSING BUTTON
Pedestrians are an endangered specie in Silicon Valley. Why? because locals prefer to drive rather than to walk. I honestly think that the sidewalks were barely used until I arrived. But this is not what shocks me more, what does is the fact that in some areas, such as Mountain View, in Los Gatos, etc. where they have pedestrian crossing buttons.
Really? Pedestrian crossing buttons? this sends a very clear message: cars are welcome, you, pedestrian, are not.
7) CALIFORNIA: NO PLASTIC BAGS and pay FOR THE PAPER BAGS
I honestly wasn’t expecting to find a policy against plastic bags in California that is stronger than the one we had in Germany. In California shopping bags are not free anymore. If you need one, you pay for it. But even if you’re ready to pay, the stores won’t sell you plastic bags anymore. They sell paper bags instead and each of them cost $0.10.
Do you want my insight and opinion after a month here? I’ve shopped in probably 65% of all the grocery stores in the area and in 99% of the cases: the customers before me in line brought their own bag. WELL DONE CALIFORNIANS!! Moreover, in California some stores reward you for bringing your own bag or allow you to donate your reward to a charity. For example: Sprouts gave me a $0.05 discount for bringing my own bag.
8) I FINALLY HAVE MY US MOBILE NUMBER… AND NOW I’M ERICA??
You can buy a pre-paid card almost everywhere in California, but if you want a contract, then you need to apply and you won’t get it unless you have a social security number, a credit card and your verification of employment letter.
Once you get your new mobile number in the US, you can then go and send the usual:
Hi, this is Elena from my new mobile number in the US. Please save the num and delete the old ones. Looking forward to hearing from you. Happy 2014!
I did that, so did my husband. We received many responses as expected, but we also got a strange message:
Hey Erica, it’s been a long time since we last spoke but I’m back in California. Do you have plans for Saturday?
The Erica message wasn’t meant for me… it was for my husband and his brand new mobile number. We thought it was a mistake, but when Erica kept receiving messages from Safeway and others, then we starting suspecting. We went online and confirmed that unfortunately the mobile companies in the US reuse old numbers!!
So yes, our brand new US mobile number comes with baggage… we do not like to receive sms for Erica… so we block Erica. There are applications for Iphone and Android that work very well for that.
Have you had a culture shock when moving from Europe to the US? Let me know!