I thought my lungs were about to collapse. I could feel everyone around me staring. I could taste the smell of salt and fat lingering in the air. My legs were about to buckle beneath me, and as I slammed my luggage on the chair, I felt tears rolling down my face. How long had I been crying?
“Are you okay ma’am?” asked a woman nearby.
“Yes thanks, just about, just- recovering,” I panted.
Stripping off my layers and ringing the sweat from my pony tail (yes, really) I felt as though I’d learnt a lifetime’s worth of lessons in just two hours- and I hadn’t even got to South Carolina.
This was my first experience of the USA. Following my 9 hour flight from Copenhagen to Washington DC, I had under two hours to make my final flight to Columbia. As customs, baggage reclaim, baggage drop-off and security took an hour and 40 minutes, I had just 16 minutes to make it to my next gate. The problem was, it was in another terminal. Five escalators, a train, and 13 straight minutes of sprinting later I made it to my gate with three minutes until take-off. Void of words, oxygen and any form of socially acceptable human interaction I slammed my ticket down on the desk and shouted, “COLUMBIA. FLIGHT. COLUMBIA. THIS GATE?”
To my greatest dismay, and utter relief, a woman in the waiting area stood up and said, “It’s delayed”. I looked on the departures board to find my flight wasn’t due for another hour.
This was my first experience of the USA. Since being here for ten days, I’ve experienced life very differently across the globe. Here are my top ten culture shocks from my first ten days living in the United States. But as in any country, or even a city, there are certain norms of behavior and rules that you must follow, I will provide a short list below (they are based on my own experience), but for a more detailed analysis of cultural phenomena, you can buy papers online cheap. Enjoy!
10) The Unwritten Rules of ‘Fashion’
One of the first things that struck me when walking round on campus was that all the girls here wear baggy Nike shorts, baggy t-shirts and flip-flops. It’s not just a craze that’s slowly catching on- it’s almost every single girl you walk past at USC. I totally understand the reasoning behind it because it’s unbearably humid most days, but even wearing a skirt and a nice blouse will provoke double-takes all day long.
9) The Weather
If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard the phrases “You’ve brought the British weather with you” and “This is our worst Summer ever,” I’d be a very rich woman indeed. The weather so far has consisted of only two days of blazing sun, and eight days of intense thunderstorms and humid showers. If it doesn’t buck up soon, I’ll be hearing the dreaded “Oh, you aren’t as tanned as I thought you would be” when I come back home for Christmas.
8) Southern Hospitality
The friendliness and warmth of the locals here has been absolutely incredible. Passers-by in the street always greet me, everyone asks how I am, whether I need a hand, a map or even a lift somewhere. Within five minutes of arriving in my dorm, my flatmate had already invited me home for Thanksgiving. It’s such a change from the hustle and bustle of UK cities, where the only thing passers-by are worrying about is how close the next Pret is and whether they’ll make the next tube.
7) Food, food, and free stuff
A large portion of my time here has been spent seeking out shops that actually sell fruit and vegetables. The nearest one is a drive away. The union here is full of greasy pizza huts, cookie and milkshake cafes and burger bars. Not only this but I’ve been inundated with invites to welcome events based solely around eating, such as the ‘Ice-Cream Kick-Off’ and ‘Pizza Welcome’ which bestow these calorific goods upon you for free. I haven’t cracked yet, but I’m determined not to come home at Christmas three stones heavier.
If almost missing my flight didn’t seem like the end of the world, crossing the roads over here certainly does. They span six lanes wide and are full of huge pick-up trucks, lorries and fraternity drivers flaunting their new wheels. Nobody seems to drive at normal speeds, and the pedestrian lights have a count-down timer which tell you how long you have to cross the road. They may as well read ‘Seconds left to live’, while the drivers behind the glass rev as they smell your fear.
5) Is she Russian?
I spent my first five days here wondering why I kept hearing the phrase “Is she Russian?” Turns out it’s actually: ‘Is she rushing?’
‘Rushing’ is the two-week period when sororities and fraternities pick their new recruits. When a girl is rushing, she has to meet with representatives for each sorority who will give her a grade from 1-5 based on how much they like her. Sorority members are not allowed to go out or use Facebook during this period, as not to tip the scales in their favour. The results ceremony is called ‘The Running of the Pigs’. The recruits line up with their eyes closed and are handed a t-shirt belonging to the sorority that has accepted them. They put on the t-shirt and run to that sorority as fast as they can, while the frat boys try and trip them up along the way.
The frat houses here are located in their own area of campus known as ‘Greek Village’, where you will find £3million (party) mansions- just like the movies. I find this giant popularity contest fascinating, but it’s not for me. The only entrance criteria for joining my societies back home is that you like having a laugh, you like to have fun, and you like to party.
4) The Mighty Gamecocks
The ‘Gamecocks’ are the University of South Carolina’s resident American Football team. They. Are. Huge. Before each game, students and locals gather in the stadium car park to ‘tailgate’, whereby they gather round TVs, drink and have BBQs all day long. The stadium is almost as big as Wembley, and the games are so popular they’re broadcast on ESPN without fail. When I arrived I was asked the question ‘Have you seen THE HIT?’, which is footage of star player Jadeveon Clowney tackling his opponent so hard he knocked his helmet clean off.
But its not the culture surrounding the Gamecocks that’s so much of a shock. It’s the casual use of the word ‘cock’ that’s so strange. T-shirts, caps, hoodies, pencil cases, keyrings, towels, duvets- any form of merchandise sold in the shops around campus all feature the word ‘cock’. Whether it’s ‘party like a cockstar’, or ‘cocks, cocks, go cocks!’, the word just doesn’t seem to be phallic over here. I wonder how long it will be until I stop cringing every time I hear it…
The legislation against drinking under the age of 21 is tighter than I ever could have imagined. We had a seven-hour orientation session this week, half of which consisted of warning after warning about drinking fines and penalties. Yet, the legal smoking age is 18 and it’s even younger to be able to drive. So a 17-year-old can jump in a car, but a 20-year-old can’t consume certain liquids. We aren’t allowed any posters with pictures of alcohol on them, and there will be regular room inspections in our halls. Even if you are 21, you aren’t allowed to drink around minors and the only place you can drink on campus is in your own room. I can’t decide whether coming to the land of the dry or going home for Christmas for mulled wine, champagne and vodka will shock me more.
2) Size Matters
One of the first things I thought to myself when I landed in America was, ‘Why is everything so big?’ Despite the fact that I’ve moved to a city that’s smaller than Leeds, it feels ten times bigger than what I’m used to. First of all, the cars are huge. Scrap Ford KAs, minis, and smart cars and exchange them for Jeeps, Hummers and Land Rovers. Then there’s the shops. Before entering WalMart we were given a map of it’s store plan so we didn’t get lost. But the biggest shock of all has been the food portions. Having bought a salad at my student union on Monday, I kept it in the fridge and ate it for lunch for the next three days. Even my Starbucks order is bigger than usual, and trying to find a sandwich that doesn’t have 10 slices of ham wedged in the middle is becoming a daily mission.
1) Do you know the Queen?
Everyone warned me about this. Being British in the USA is like being One Direction at a One Direction concert. I first noticed it on the plane to Columbia, when I spoke to the man next to me and at least ten people turned around to stare. Everyone swoons over my accent, and I find myself speaking Queen’s English just to ham it up. People have asked me if I know ‘Wills’ and Kate, and when I tell them I’m from a small town in the North they say, ‘Oh yeah, near London, right?’ It does have its benefits, too. A man in the book shop gave me a $26 discount, and I made a friend purely because a guy wanted to talk about the English Premier League with me.
I hope the culture shocks continue because after all, I’ve come on study abroad to learn and to plunge myself in at the deep end. I’m in the Deep South for a while now, and can’t wait to see where my next ten days take me.