It was about 9AM on the 23rd of January, 2011, and I was officially in Los Angeles, California. After around thirteen hours of overnight flying with a brief stop in a very dark and rainy Tahiti, I had finally touched down on American soil for the first time in my life (this does not include the make-believe American soil of the US Embassy in Auckland, where I applied for my US Visa).
What better place to start seeing the world than the seemingly self-proclaimed centre of the globe, the United States of America. Everything I knew of America was what I’d seen and heard in films and music – cops shoot first, blow things up, and ask questions later, everybody is entitled to a gun and a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, and most black people are rappers.
I wondered to myself – is America really as sensational as it makes out, or is it all just a bit of movie magic? It was time for me to go behind the scenes and find out.
The following is a very summarised version of my first-hand research into American life.
Upon entering America, I obviously had to go through US Customs. From their reputation, I knew this would most likely be an annoying interlude of my trip, but I figured as long as I didn’t get the rubber glove, it would be worth it.
I had shaved my stubble away on the morning of our trip, just so that they wouldn’t see my facial hair and quickly assume I was some Islamic extremist, but nothing can prepare you for the intimidation brought on by these Customs guys with guns. They question every aspect of your trip, and when you answer them, they give you a glare of doubt, along with the loudest, awkward silence of your life. Tell no jokes. Don’t bother with small talk. Don’t even smile. These guys are not here to sell you anything, and they do not want to be your friend. After about five minutes of interrogation, my US Visa was stamped, and no goodbye whatsoever, I was let into the country.
After this encounter, I hoped that not all Americans would be this rude, but at least I was finally free to explore. However, before exploring, I had to relieve my bladder, and that is when I made my first real American discovery.
THE TOILETS OF AMERICA
I had heard on TV how in the northern hemisphere, when flushing a toilet, water swirls in the opposite direction to when you’re in the southern hemisphere. This claim has always baffled me, as all the standard toilets I’ve flushed don’t really swirl the water at all – there’s some splashing about, and the water is replaced. So when I flushed my first toilet in America, I was rather shocked to find that, not only does the water swirl, but it empties all together with a scary gurgling sound like the toilets on planes! And what’s more is that when it refills, it fills up so high that it had me wondering whether I was about to flood the place.
Lucky for me, and for anyone else nearby, the filling stopped, and I was feeling much wiser from the experience. Next, I had to take my empty bladder and hit the road, and this proved to be a good way to see a bit more of America and learn about their way of driving.
THE ROADS OF AMERICA
The obvious difference was that Americans drive on the left-hand side of the car, and drive on the right-hand side of the road – the complete opposite of what I’m used to back home. Because of this, remembering to pull into the right-hand lane when making a turn takes quite a lot of concentration at first, and a lot of the time it’s easier to drive in traffic because you can just follow the cars in front of you.
Another thing I noticed around Los Angeles was the amount of American cars around – Chevy, Hummer, Corvette, Mustang, and Dodge were all well represented, and our rental car was even a big Chrysler (and we had opted for the economy rental category).
The novelty of the muscle cars quickly wore off as we had to concentrate on staying alive on American freeways because indicating a lane-change in America appears to be optional. People quickly dart around, weaving in and out of traffic, like they’re in some sort of automated harmonious flow. We couldn’t figure out how people were avoiding accidents, especially when they seem to go at least ten miles an hour above the speed limit.
As dangerous as driving in America seems, the fact that I am typing this goes to show that it is possible to adapt, and a rather panicky encounter with a police officer (flashing lights, sirens, and shouting into a loud speaker included) not only taught us that you have to pull over onto the right-hand shoulder on American freeways, but that if you do get in trouble with the law, you can play the scared tourist card to get out of a fine.
As soon as you get used to the driving, you can actually peer out the window to take in the scenery without dying.
THE SCENERY OF AMERICA
All my first impressions of America’s scenery occurred around Los Angeles County, so I basically felt like I was living in a movie. Or, if you’ve played the videogame ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’, you will know exactly what Los Angeles looks like, because they got it perfect.
The roads are a light grey colour, rather than the dark tar colour back home, and they are lined with fire hydrants and tall street lights. When you stand on a street corner, it’s easy to imagine yourself being an extra in a movie.
The freeways are sometimes six lanes wide going both ways, and they cut through America like giant concrete rivers, lined with litter. They are cracked, bumpy, and worn, like ancient ruins built by aliens that up and left the planet. I’ll stop now – again, they’re just like they seem in the movies. Another thing I noticed was that all the freeways are lined with giant towering billboards, advertising everything and anything.
I didn’t see many trees or any wildlife until I got to Anaheim, and the first animals I saw were big black crows, cawing down from high up in trees. Above them, perfectly blue skies with the only signs of cloud being vapour trails from the constant flight paths of planes.
Another key thing I noticed was the number of American flags proudly swaying in the wind. Businesses fly the flag on top of their headquarters, people hang them on their front porches, and even stick them up on their car windows, accompanied with ‘GOD BLESS AMERICA’ bumper stickers. It seems typical Americans can be quite proud of their country.
THE PEOPLE OF AMERICA
I had learned from the media that Americans were known to be patriotic, but there were still plenty of surprises in store. For instance, as we entered SeaWorld in San Diego at 9AM, we were walking along with a big souvenir map when I heard a familiar song. A few seconds later, when I realised it was the American national anthem, I felt Jessie squeezing my hand. I looked up to see that everyone was suddenly frozen to the spot, with a hand over their hearts. It was as if everyone around us had been turned into American monuments, standing tall and proud in tribute to their great country. Some were even singing. As we didn’t know what to do, we simply froze on the spot too, only we were holding our big map out in front of us, and soon enough, the music stopped, and all the people returned to normal.
Americans also hold any government workers in high regard, such as military personnel, war veterans, and police. You can see this in all the discounts they get in admission fares, sometimes getting free entry to attractions, and also when all these government workers are told to stand up in the audience for the Shamu Orca Show, and the rest of the audience is told to clap and cheer for their services to the country.
Due to this patriotism, I had a feeling that this sense of pride in their country could come off as arrogant and self-indulgent, and after my experience with US Customs, I was beginning to think they could be outright rude. However, the truth turned out to be a pleasant surprise, as most of the people I met were extremely friendly (at least on the West Coast, where I got my first impressions). If we looked lost, people would approach us, and offer us directions. They made small talk with us while we waited in line, and they asked us about where we’re from. Also, they haven’t mugged us or shot us yet, which is nice.
One aspect that we found present in our first few days in America was an apparent laziness. Firstly, when researching motels, we saw many Americans complaining that they were too far from the area’s main attractions, but when we got there, we found that they were only about ten minutes walk from where we were staying. Another mark of laziness that we saw were signs at the San Diego Zoo warning people that the path they are about to take is on a slight incline, it could present a challenge to some visitors, and they may want to take another route. There were also a number of giant inclined travelators throughout the zoo covering any hills, so that no visitor has to climb a stairs or work up a sweat.
I can’t talk about the people of America without mentioning obesity. It’s a common perception that obesity and Americans go hand-in-hand, and I was looking forward to seeing if this stereotype held any truth. The signs were there: I saw many disclaimers at amusement parks about most rides not being able to fit some people due to physical limits, and most of the restaurants had calorie counts next to the prices. My eyes were on the lookout.
At first, I saw some rather large people, and it was usually in line to order fast food. However, they were not much larger than people you’d find anywhere else. Then I hit gold. In Disneyland, I saw my first real American fatty, sitting at the back of a 3D Michael Jackson film, hanging over the edge of a tiny mobility scooter. It was the stuff you see in TV documentaries, and this individual seemed to be the beginning of my view into obese America. After her, I was seeing these mega-fatties everywhere – usually on struggling mobility scooters.
Now these fatties could be a result of some sort of genetic disorder, but it’s most likely that they’re the result of eating too much food. To be honest, it’s hard to blame them with the types of food available in America. In the land of opportunity, if there’s a larger meal size available, chances are that these people will go for it, and the problem for these people is that America seems to have a love for all things bigger and better, with the ‘better’ part not applying to food.
THE CULTURE OF AMERICA
In America, unless you’re talking about some sort of personal gadget, bigger is always better. The freeways are full of Hummers and pickup trucks that look like monster-truck hybrids. If you ask for a small sized meal in McDonald’s, you’ll receive a confused look in return. Don’t be surprised if the server has to ask their manager if they even do small sizes.
Another thing about food and beverage in America is the range. There are endless flavours of juice and soda and potato chips and all beverages seem to come in a cherry variety, which I think is the greatest thing since the MP3. However, these American beverages nearly always contain a special magical ingredient called high fructose corn syrup, which makes things taste good, but can make stomachs feel bad. Indulge in moderation.
American culture also seems to be one of supersized, shameless commercialism. If you’re watching television, expect to find that most of the commercials on TV are for various drugs and personal products, such as Vagisil and birth control. Another interesting thing that stood out about these ads was that most of the ad’s timeslot was spent listing health warnings and possible side effects. I guess lawsuits are another central part of American culture, and if you don’t put it in the small print, people can sue you for all you’re worth.
THE MONEY OF AMERICA
Pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and one dollar bills – with such small change, even a bum can afford to have a bulging wallet (provided that someone gives them a wallet). With a wad of paper one dollar bills building up in your wallet, it’s easy to throw money out accidentally like receipts, and conveniently for American workers, it’s easy to give away as tip.
After arriving in the United States, unless you’re a hermit, you’ll know that tipping (or leaving a “gratuity”) is customary. What you might not know is who deserves a tip, or how much they are generally entitled to. I’m still unclear on this myself, so I’m probably leaving an inconsistent trail of disgruntled employees. In my case, friendly tour guides get twenty percent on top, while shuttle bus drivers get an awkward, rushed ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’, with a silent look of ‘helping with my bags was unnecessary’, and this brings me to the next problem with tipping: employees trying too hard.
It may seem difficult to imagine how an employee really trying to please you could be a negative thing, but when your shuttle bus driver decides to be extra helpful and take you on a detour so you can get the perfect snapshot of the Hollywood sign that a tour guide showed you just the day before, it gets annoying. All you get out of it is a late arrival at your destination, and then he expects a tip. After a while, you get the feeling that everyone is just going out of their way in order to boost their tip. Ask for directions, and receive a shoeshine, followed by expected gratuities.
The easiest way to work out tip is apparently to double the tax you’ve just paid, and tax is just another annoying aspect of American currency.
Unlike in New Zealand, where tax is almost always included in the noted price, tax is generally excluded in the United States, as the tax rate changes from state to state. This means you never really know what you’re about to pay. You check out the prices of what you’re planning to order, get the money ready to hand over, and then suddenly it adds up to a bit more than you’ve got ready. You stumble a bit with your words as you realise it’s that damn tax again, and you quickly try to get out the additional correct change, but with all those miniscule currencies in your wallet, it’s just too difficult – the lady is waiting and the pressure is building. You give up on the correct change, and just hand over a larger amount in bills. You receive yet more miniscule coins and dollar bills to add to your collection, and it all goes full circle. There is no escaping it. Your wallet is destined to burst at its seams. You’d have to be a savant to add up the total with tax and foresee the correct amount of change.
ONWARDS AND THROUGHWARDS INTO AMERICA
And so my journey into American life has begun. It’s a new life, cherry flavoured, with dollar bills, unnecessary tips, and fatties on mobility scooters. With my time here being short, I intend to use most of this year exploring numerous places and ways of life around this giant theme park known as America. This vast land of opportunity. This land of the free, and the brave, and the patriotic. I’m coming, America, so I hope you’ve got your best bits out on display, because I’m not calling ahead. I’ll see you soon.