Finding America

Me and Tarah

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There are certain things about moving to another country that no one tells you. As a British citizen relocating to the United States in 2008, I was under the impression that - despite all of the well-known spelling variations - Britain and the U.S. were pretty much similar in terms of everyday living. It's only after you move to a place, after you fully immerse yourself in it, that you realise just how naive you were. This was the case for me six years ago. The following is a list of 6 things I didn't know about the United States before moving here.

1. Visa costs
There is a common misconception among non-expats that the simple act of marriage between a Brit and an American is enough to grant the former unrestricted rights to live in the United States, free of charge. When I tell people that, actually, I had to pay considerable costs (over $1,000) just to secure a Permanent Resident Card, they appear shocked. Their astonishment is doubled when I tell them that this is true for an American citizen looking to secure the equivalent visa in the UK. Of course, until I went through the visa process myself - filling out the myriad of relevant forms, submitting evidence legitimising by marriage (photos, bank statements etc.), and sending checks to the Department of Homeland Security - I was just as in the dark as everyone else.    

2. Paid holiday leave is not the law
When I lived in the UK, I almost took for granted the fact that I was guaranteed - by law - 28 calendar days per year of paid holiday leave. In hindsight, I look back on how easy it would have been to take four week-long holidays throughout the year and, in doing so, not fear for my job. In the United States, while certain jobs will include paid vacation as part of a benefits package, paid vacation is not a guaranteed right. Indeed, the U.S. is one of the only nations in the developed world where this is the case.  

3. Public transportation can be hard to come by
Regular readers of this blog will no doubt be aware of how much I miss public transportation. Back in the day, when I still lived in England, I could hop on a train and be on the other side of the country in two hours. Moreover, no matter what town I was in, there was likely some sort of bus service. Here in the U.S., unless you live in a major city like New York, Chicago or San Fransisco, you might find it hard to get from A to B without a motor vehicle of your own. Indeed, when I lived in the town of Anderson, IN, the bus system was practically non-existent outside of the town center. As for trains, the only carriages you're likely to see in the Hoosier state are those carrying cargo rather than people.

4. High number of road accidents per year
On the subject of transportation,  I was shocked to discover (and to witness first hand) the disproportionately high number of road accidents in the United States. Indeed, in my first year living here I bore witness to two fairly major collisions. In 2011, I was involved in my first ever automobile accident. Perhaps you're thinking that I just had bad luck, that I could go another ten years and not have the same experience again. In that case I will present to you the facts (detailed in an earlier table).

In 2012, the number of road fatalities in the United Kingdom was 1,754 compared to 33,808 in the United States. I know what you're thinking; the U.S. has a much higher population than the UK. This is true. The population of the U.S. is roughly five times that of the UK. However, 33,808 is roughly nineteen times 1,754. In other words, there are approximately three times as many road fatalities per 100,000 people stateside as there are in the UK. This might have something to do with the fact that - in some states - it is legally permissible for a person to drive at 14. Moreover, the states do not mandate routine vehicle check-ups, and many of the roads in the U.S. leave a lot to be desired.

5. More spelling differences than I thought
I must confess, even with a degree in English Language, I was not fully aware of the vast number of spelling differences (and, indeed, pronunciation differences) between the two countries. Sure, everyone knows colour vs. color, metre vs. meter etc. But I was shocked to discover that words like speciality, aluminium and pyjamas have variant spellings too. Furthermore, Americans don't use the word acclimatise, but rather use the word acclimate. For a further list of lesser known spelling differences, see this article.

6. The extreme temperatures
For years, Americans had tried to convince me that - depending on which area of the United States you live in - the weather throws up far more extremes than you would experience in the UK. It was often posited to me - by friends, ex-girlfriends and later my wife - that in the northern part of America, temperatures can drop as low as −40 °C. I was skeptical; while U.S. television shows and movies had often depicted wintry scenes, I couldn't recall one that showed humans freezing to death.

In my first winter stateside (I actually touched down in snow) I realized just how naive I had been. By Christmas 2008, the temperature in central Indiana was -6 °C, which was considered normal for that time of year. I have since discovered that temperatures have indeed reached the depths of which I was warned, while Alaska holds the record for the lowest recorded temperature on Earth (−62 °C).

On the other side of the coin, the summer can bring temperatures in the low forties in many northern states, while the record temperature in the state of Indiana came in July, 1936 (47 °C (116 °F)).

Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and writes a weekly column for Anglotopia. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs this blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States. 

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  1. As an ex-pat Yank (who grew up in Indiana, by the way) now living in Buckinghamshire (almost five years now), I can relate to the feeling of discovering things about your new country that surprise you or that you'd never have believed had you not lived them. Just subscribed to your blog and looking forward to reading more. PS - I am so glad I missed the recent Polar Vortex back home...makes me grateful we've only suffered gusty winds and horizontal rain here this winter...

  2. The higher rate of traffic accidents is also due not only to the higher population, but also to the fact that, on average, Americans drive many more miles per person than Brits do.

  3. @Aiken -- that appears to indicate that Americans have fewer fatalities per km driven than Europeans.

  4. Moving to a new place would certainly be accompanied by changes. That's why taking time to research before embarking on the move is much advised. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Laurence. This would surely be of help to a lot of newcomers.

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  5. What is the deal with careening (US) & careering (UK)? I found this one out not too long ago.

  6. Apart from the spellings, which I don't mind and deal with, all your other differences listed are things I don't miss AT ALL. I love living in the UK as an American and consider myself lucky to be on the Queen's side of the pond.

  7. & paid maternity / paternity leave, of course.

  8. Don't forget that 90% of us are unconcerned with global affairs, and instead care only about provincial America. Speaking as an American (who also lives in Indianapolis, btw), I'm booking it to Europe once I get my degree hahaha


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