I was brought up in Pune, India and have lived there all my life. I recently arrived in the United States to attend graduate school, and have now been here (near Washington DC) for two months.
As you can probably guess, I’ve observed quite a few changes in just these two months - more so than in my entire life so far! - both small and big.
To be fair, I haven’t experienced any culture “shock” per se. Exposure to tons of American pop culture and the internet helped make sense of a lot of things. But there have been plenty of surprises - some hilarious, some puzzling, some impressive.
Below, I’ve categorically listed, in no particular order, literally every single thing in the US that is different from the way it is in India.
The Size of Things
The very first thing you notice when you land in the US is the, umm, “bigness” of it all.
Every single thing here is at least twenty percent bigger than it is in India: street widths, road signs, cars, people, footpaths, beverage sizes, houses, wall posters, general equipment, food servings, lawns. There’s an abundance of space here, you can tell.
I've yet to see a single thing here that is physically smaller than its version in India.
When I first I landed at the Newark airport, I was shocked to hear every announcement made in English, and then repeated in Spanish.
I always knew that there’s a huge Hispanic population in the States; I just had no idea of the hugeness. Spanish seems to be almost sort of like a second official language here.
There are some streets near my house where people first address you in Spanish, then switch to English, which is kind of funny.
Sugar here is powdered, it doesn’t come in tiny cubes like I’m used to. It’s very easy to confuse salt and sugar (as I have done) because they look exactly the same.
I have to say this - for a country this obsessed with coffee, the cappuccinos really aren’t that good. In my opinion, if you want good coffee here, you have to have it black. (I love black coffee now.) Probably the one thing I miss the most from back home is Indian filter coffee.
And speaking of coffee - Starbucks is everywhere. And I mean everywhere. There comes a point where you get sick of seeing the logo no matter where you are, and then you get over it.
There’s no kiraana stores (i.e. small local stores) that sell grains and rice and vegetables here, it seems. (Or small stationery shops, or shops of any kind.) Almost all shopping has to be done at a big chain retail store like Lidl or Megamart or Target or any of the other big-names.
The class divide seems to be lesser in general. People in lesser paying jobs, like say waiters, are less timid and subservient than in India. (This is a good thing!) They're not afraid to raise their voices if needed. In general, you can tell that they have boundaries that should not be crossed.
People liberally carry coffees and soda cans to drink into flights. I’ve never seen this before. Is it even allowed in India?
Watchmen and policemen are heavily, scarily equipped.
Apparently it’s perfectly normal to walk around shirtless on campus. I’ve seen shirtless guys walking, jogging, and cycling in broad daylight. I wish I had that kind of confidence. It makes me question whether there is or isn’t an explicit law against this in India, not that it matters too much either way.
I noticed this in my first week here because the difference was striking: when you look at people, they just somehow seem a bit more free and confident. It’s hard to explain how, but you can tell. And they look very, very confident especially when driving cars. There’s a swagger to it all.
I don’t know how many people will agree, but striking up a conversation with an American stranger is much easier than it is with an Indian stranger. Americans just seem to have that natural conversational flow - I would say that talking is the one thing they're definitively better at than Indians.
I know that the US has some of the highest obesity rates in the world, but from what I’ve personally seen, it doesn’t seem that way at all. The people that I see day to day are generally extremely fit. (Or is it just students?)
This made me very happy: I’ve seen people reading books - and I mean physical books, not Kindles or iPads - in every place imaginable, from gym treadmills to trains and buses. I once even saw I guy read a book while walking. I hope he didn’t trip.
Mobile internet is much, much more expensive here. Maybe that’s because it’s less needed due to Wi-Fi ubiquity, but the difference is still staggering. Mint Mobile gives me 4 GB of mobile internet per month, while back in India, Jio gave me 1 GB of internet per day.
There's separate cards and mobile apps for everything. Every store - Target, Walmart, etc. - has their own app. There's an app for buses, metro trains, banks, etc. It’s the same in India too, but not to this extent. I don’t mind though.
Payments (1): you can’t make a physical credit or debit card transaction anywhere in India without entering your PIN code. But here, no PIN necessary! You just swipe or tap your card and boom, the transaction is done.
Payments (2): you also can’t use your card for any online transaction in India without getting an OTP (one time password) on your phone. But here, as above, no OTP necessary! Just enter your card details and the transaction’s done.
Payments (3): using cash for purchases in India is quick and convenient. Here, it’s the opposite. What makes things worse is that American coins are really, really complicated. I can’t for the life of me identify what a coin is from its look (is it just me?), and I also can’t seem to ever remember the difference between a dime and a nickel and a penny.
Payments (4): in general, payments here seems to be: a) much more cashless, b) much faster, c) much less secure. Once a card is swiped, or details entered, there’s no additional layer of security at all, which seems reckless. You really want to make sure your debit card doesn’t go missing.
The campus is seriously amazing.
It’s also extremely clean all the time, but I’ve never once seen a sweeper or janitor anywhere. Hmm.
Every single lecture is recorded by cameras in the classroom, and available online, in extremely high video and audio quality. That’s just bonkers. The tech inside the classroom is some serious stuff - multiple TV screens (two in front, two in the back), two prominent cameras, collar mics for the professors.
There’s absolutely no dress code for teachers or students. One of my professors wears bike shorts to class. In general, guys tend to prefer shorts here, and nobody seems to wear jeans. In my bachelors college in Pune, everyone wore jeans.
You can borrow laptops and MacBooks for any amount of time from the library at no extra cost. You just scan your student id (is it Id?) at the counter and ask for the laptop you want - no paperwork involved! This would be unthinkable in India.
You can sit literally anywhere on campus and do anything, and nobody will say anything to you. You could sit on a lawn, on a building ledge, on a tree, on a corridor floor, sleep in the library (I have), do whatever.
(Of all the categories, housing is the place where the differences between the two countries are widest. I’m guessing any Indians reading this section will be mildly shocked, like I was.)
Switches, door locks, and keys work the opposite way - they’re vertically or horizontally inverted from what I’m used to. (Eg. you enter a key “upside down” and so on.)
All house floors, apart from kitchen floors, obviously, are carpeted. I have no idea why, someone tell me. I don’t see any particular upside to this (maybe it prevents floor tiles getting cold during winter?), but the downside is obvious: if you accidentally spill something, you’re screwed.
Every single indoor place is air conditioned - houses, malls, banks, classrooms, libraries. If you're under a roof, you're breathing AC air. I don’t really see this as a positive or negative in particular. I’m guessing during winters it’ll prove useful.
But because everything is air conditioned, there’s almost no ceiling fans anywhere. I miss having a fan in my bedroom, it sometimes gets stale.
For some reason, our apartments don't have doorbells. Is it just because we’re poor grad students, or is no-doorbells a thing here? Will find out when I have more money.
Another huge difference: windows don’t have curtains, only vertical blinders. I hate blinders. They look worse, aren’t customizable, and are annoying to maneuver. Again, maybe it’s just our apartment complex.
Bathrooms always have a bathtub, and have no drains outside the bathtub. Know what I mean? There’s a sink, a commode, and a bathtub with a shower on top, and the only drain in the bathroom is in the tub. So if you spill water from the sink, wait for it to dry out, I guess.
There’s no concept of bathing from a bucket here, apparently. Bathing = showering. Huh.
No toilet jet sprays too, because Americans famously use toilet paper for poop stuff. But my roommate installed one even though it’s not allowed. Don’t tell our landlord.
Stoves are always electric. No lighter needed.
All taps have instant hot water available. Pretty cool.
But for bathroom taps, I don’t understand why there’s two different knobs for hot and cold. It’s binary. There should be just one knob which decides the hotness of water, depending on how much it’s moved.
The biggest difference: cars drive on the “wrong” side of the road, i.e. right instead of left. The driver’s seat within a car is also on the opposite side. Driving for the first few times is going to be a nightmare.
There's much more variety in the kind of cars you see on the streets. In India, there are about five to ten car models (like Alto, Santro, i10, Honda City, etc.) that make up more than 50% of the traffic. Not here. Also, expensive and luxury cars are not rare at all here - they're everywhere. Also also, in India generally you'll see only either drivers or old-ish men driving the high end cars, but here, it can be anyone irrespective of age or ethnicity or gender.
Most cars will immediately stop if they see you’re about to cross the street. It takes some getting used to at first. Pedestrians are given first priority, a concept alien in India.
But crossing streets is generally a huge pain: you can only do so along zebra crossings, which are always at signals, and you have to wait for the pedestrian signal to show the walking sign. (There are signals for pedestrians just as there are for cars.) At busy intersections, you sometimes have to wait for more than a minute to get to cross. I honestly prefer the “risk your life and cross from anywhere, anytime” model - it’s faster.
The police vehicle lights are extremely strong and eye catching. Not used to this.
Names are re-used to an uncomfortable extent here: streets, cities, states, suburbs, all tend to borrow from each other. There is a New York avenue in Washington DC; Washington is a separate state from DC; Baltimore is both a city and a road near my house; I could go on and list a million more examples. It’s just all very funny.
But double decker trains exist! What a marvel.
More to Come, Probably?
Since this is a list of random observations, that too collected over just two months, I’m sure I’ll have more to add to it as I continue living here.
So I don’t consider this list definitive. I’ll update it every n months as I continue exploring this country and its ways.
More Observations From The Future
I continue to notice more differences but didn’t want to make any changes to the original post. Hence this section. Last updated: April 2022.
The observations below are uncategorized but I don’t think that should matter very much.
Keep in mind that none of the discussion threads on this post or on the other links will talk about these points since they were posted later.
Our university has a movie theatre. (??!) How in the world did I forget to mention this. It’s a medium-sized multipurpose theatre with a stage and screen, but the crazy part is that it regularly screens the latest Hollywood releases for free. I watched A Quiet Place 2 there. It’s showing Dune next week. A university having an actual movie theatre on campus that shows the latest mainstream releases would be unimaginable in India. Bonkers.
Taps in the kitchen can be moved around to a certain degree. Never seen this before, very useful for cleaning the sink.
Driving - lanes matter much more than they do in India. Lots of useful signs painted on the road, you just gotta keep an eye on it. Driving for the first time wasn’t a nightmare, it was quite easy.
It snows in winter! Fun the first few times, not so much after that.
Bicycles don’t come with bells or stands. Instead, every building has bicycle parking section nearby, which consists basically of some 4-feet long metal bars against which you lock and lean your bicycle. You have to buy a stand (which you can attach to the bike) separately.
Milk comes in solid plastic containers instead of thin disposable plastic bags. (Pointed out by Atharva.)