Expat Life: An Appreciation of America and Britain

The following is a guest post.

I like living in America. I’ve been here for seven months and it’s all rather fun and new and interesting; just as any new experience should be.That’s why I wanted to come and live here – to appreciate fresh experiences, a different culture and a change in my way of life.

When people asked me why I wanted to leave Britain for a while and undertake this adventure, I replied that it was nothing to do with seeking greener grass, but simply about being able to smell, touch and feel a different kind of grass for a while.

And what’s really surprised me is just how different America and Britain really are, and how I am beginning to appreciate the dissimilarities.

claire bolden

British expat Claire Bolden McGill and her son.

Here’s my very random top six to date:

1. Driving etiquette

In Britain, we like rules and we particularly like rules when we are driving. For instance, I’m in the outside lane; you’re in the inside lane. I can overtake; you cannot.

Driving in America makes me feel that sometimes there are no rules as such. On highways/freeways (have not yet worked out the difference) the exits and entrances are practically one in the same thing. The only rule is zig-zag in/out and make your entrance/exit if you can by speeding up/slowing down.

The fast lane is non-existent in America – any lane is a fast lane, and sometimes cars enter into what we would call the fast lane, making it all seem quite precarious at times.

Driving here still fascinates me. The UK highway code is being slowly obliterated from my memory.

However, one of the best USA rules is turning right on red (if it is safe to do so, of course). This ensures traffic is flowing, which may be why I like driving here so much. Think about it, UK traffic people.

2. Excuse Me and Sorry

In the UK,  if we pass someone and bump into them we say ‘Sorry’ and we say it a lot. In America, they say ‘Excuse me’ even if you haven’t even bumped into them or them into you and sometimes, just sometimes, it sounds like they are a little offended and put out, like you should have said ‘Excuse me’ when you didn’t and then you feel bad, so you say ‘Sorry, sorry’ a million times and then they don’t know what you’re saying sorry for. It’s so confusing.  Are you following? If not, sorry.

3. Saying ‘How are you?’

USA people will greet you with an automatic ‘How are you?’ when they meet you in a queue or in a restaurant – just about anywhere, really. And you must reply ‘I’m good thanks.’ Any other reply just will not do.

Recently a group of women whom I had never met before, all asked me one after the other how I was. To be honest, after the fourth ‘How are you?’ I wanted to tell them that I had a headache, it was stuffy, I was homesick and just wanted to go to bed, but I, of course replied with ‘I’m good thanks.’ But it felt false and wrong, and whilst I know not one of these ladies deserved an onslaught of my woes that very day, it just didn’t feel right giving out the standard response.

What we Brits tend to respond when we’re faced with our version (‘Alright then, how’s it going?’) is a semi-honest ‘Yeah, not bad’ or ‘So, so’ or ‘Could be better’. I wonder what the American reaction to that would be….

4. High St vs The Mall

I did not appreciate enough when I had it on my doorstep the luxury, beauty and convenience of the high street of the UK towns and cities. It makes me feel totally unappreciative, and I wish I had given my high street a good old stroll up and down before I left it behind with no more than a cursory glance.

Not once have I ‘walked to the post office’ or ‘popped out for a loaf of bread and a pint of milk’ to the high street in the USofA.

I drive to the grocery store, then I get back in my car and drive to the post office, and then I get back in my car and drive to the dry cleaners. You pretty much need to get in your car and drive to each shop here, because NO ONE WALKS. It is a sad thing, and it now freaks me out to see anyone walking – they’re most probably an axe murderer is my first thought. With no high street in sight, it means there is no hub and therefore no social meeting place, as far as I can make out. Oh, but there is the mall.

The mall plays an important role – when it’s wet it works and when it’s cold it is a great place to go and when it’s too hot, well I guess you head to the mall. There are shops and there are restaurants there and they are functional. But any mall, however fantastical, does not have the character, nor the charm, nor the sociability of the UK high street.

Gawd bless ya, UK high street.

5. Old stuff

It may just be where I live, in Maryland, but I’ve developed a yearning to see some old British stuff, like chocolate box cottages and Cotswold stone houses and a proper, ramshackle pub. It’s funny the things you yearn for, and I never thought I would feel a need to cast my eyes upon such things, but I do, and I know that when I do see them again, I will lap up their beauty and try never to forget them again.

In the meantime, there is some pretty cool American culture and history to indulge in, but I can’t get rid of that image of an 18th century mansion in the rolling hills of England….one day we will meet again and I will breathe in your history.

6. Britain gets the best of both worlds

Bizarrely, I have developed an appreciation of the European influences on the UK whilst living in America.

Europe now feels soooo much more liberal. Nudity, drinking, swearing – they go for it in Europe! Yikes, these are all things that ruffle the feathers of my American friends. For a country that has based most of its movie industry on the aforementioned, I get the impression that long may it stay on screen, because there is a degree of feeling very uncomfortable with my American friends when any of these things are brought to the fore in ‘real life’ (not that I do it just to get a reaction, of course) :)

We Brits have the benefit of both American and European cultural influences, and we seem to pick and choose which ones we want to adopt. It may seem odd that I miss and appreciate that European chilled-ness now, but I do, facts are facts. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit and have a cocktail in the nude whilst swearing like a navvy in America – I know my limitations, and that sort of behaviour just reeks of jail time!

Claire McGill is a British expat living in Maryland, which means she still drinks tea, but now has it with a corn muffin instead of a crumpet.  Claire has two blogs – one which observes the amusing and confusing cultural differences between living in America and Britain (www.ukdesperatehousewifeusa.wordpress.com) and her fitness blog (www.fortyshadesoffitness.wordpress.com)

Comments

  1. Frances says

    Here in Canada nothing gets done. Everyone is too busy saying sorry for pretty much everything. I find I do it myself too. I’m a Scot living in Ontario and it is definitely different here than in the US even

  2. Maxine says

    FYI … you can only turn right (when safe to do so) at a red light in SOME states. Also you have to come to a complete stop and then make the turn or you will get a ticket! ;)

    Lovely article!

  3. British American says

    Ahhh, you just made me really homesick. I’m from Merseyside, but have lived in the midwest for coming up on 12 years. Not been ‘home’ since 2003. I totally want to go walk down a high street and look at old stuff now.

    I sometimes tell the checkout assistant at Walmart if I have a headache or I’m frazzled from the kids, when she asks “How are you?”

  4. Nancy Kelley says

    I must confess, I veer toward honesty when answering the ubiquitous, “How are you?” Even if I say, “Okay, thanks,” people can tell from my tone of voice and ask further questions.

    Why is that the standard greeting? I really don’t understand. We don’t really want to know how everyone is doing, nor do we want strangers to know that much about us. It’s rather nonsensical, when you think about it.

  5. says

    I’m a Yank but my hubby is English. You put it all to a T in your article. I was very lucky to spend time in England and I love the high street where I could do everything on one street and walk there. Us, Yanks have become lazy, which is sad. Many of my. Family and friends from the UK and I have always agreed US and UK is similar but still so different. As we raise our daughter, poor child gets confused of how at home we speak British English and than in the American English in our really world around others, except other Brits. Enjoy your journey here in the US. I home you get a chance to go to Boston or New England states, they will remind you of home. Cheers!

  6. Emma says

    Loved this :) I miss the high street like crazy..I used to live in a town in MA where I could walk to the bank, PO, library & even tho’ that wasn’t what I consider a fully fledged High Street I miss that too. Still don’t get the standard “How are you?” greeting but working in retail seem to havee fallen in to the habit myself!! I often answer “so so” or “could be better” & some people just aren’t sure of it!! I would also add sarcasm to your list….I find I have to bite my lip alot to curb my sarcastic sense of humour as many people take offense!!!!!

  7. Jan says

    Oh, dear. I thought you started out saying you liked living here, but you didn’t sound like it in your post! I can tell you that one of the best things about the US (it really isn’t correct to just call us America) is that we are a HUGE country and each region is vastly different. Where you are in the stuffy east coast is one of the ultimate dichotomies of old traditions and new liberalists. It is as different from where I live in rural Indiana as it is from Great Britain. And probably more like it than anywhere else in the US (which might blow your mind…) There is something here for everyone! I like your blog because as a born and bred US cit, I love this country dearly, but I am fascinated by the incredibly long history and rich traditions born from that depth of culture. And the romance…we just don’t have it! Thanks for the blog – it’s a fun read!

  8. Harry says

    Dear Claire, Marvelous article. I would always wonder why my grandparents came to the US. Obviously to make a new life. Your article gave me a glimpse of wat they may have been thinking. Although we remained, I always felt my family missed the UK. Grandma (Nanna) would constanlt speak about her horses. Whenever I visit, I always fell I’m back home ( even though born here). I do hope you enjoy your stay and do try Massachusetts, seems somewhat more English than any other part of the country and I always tease my friends in pointing out how England stole the names of all our New England towns (Boston, Manchester, Weymouth, Plymouth, Hingham)… Thank you

  9. Melissa says

    Jan, please don’t confuse this blog with this guest post. This guest post was written by someone different than the person running this blog, which is me. At the same time, I’m an American who lives on the East Coast (not too far from Claire as a matter of fact) and wasn’t too happy about being called “stuffy.” I have lived in different areas across the U.S. and abroad and I can honestly say that “stuffy” people live everywhere! Also, you would be surprised at how un-liberal people are in my area.

  10. says

    It’s so interesting to read the comments, because I have only experienced a slice of America up till now.

    I love my home country of the UK very, very much, and it’s the appreciation of the differences between Britain that really fascinates me. I like living in America – every day I encounter something new and different and that’s why I came to live here for a while. I may not always like what I experience, but sometimes I may love it! And I continue to be surprised by such striking differences. Thus, by appreciating the differences you begin to appreciate both sides of the pond for what they offer.

    That said, there’s no place like home :)

  11. Sally says

    Claire, I enjoy both your blog and your guest post here. Years ago I lived as an American expat in Spain and I think that is part of why I’m drawn to your blog and others like it – it is so much fun to observe cultures through others’ eyes.

    Regarding the High Street and old stuff, I agree that these areas where everything involves a drive are depressing and disheartening. Bear in mind that HoCo is by no means representative of the whole country (and that even for Maryland it is particularly exurban/car-oriented), and that many areas (notably New England, where I am from) have bona fide town centers in honest-to-goodness towns (as opposed to sprawling counties), as well as old (for us) buildings (e.g. 200+ years old) everywhere.

    You must do a driving trip to New England before you go back home!

  12. says

    I could bore the pants (trousers) off all of us by listing the multitude of things I adore about living in the US, and the equally long list I miss about the UK.
    But the point from other comments is well made: just as different states (and regions within states) are different, I’m sure there are huge differences between, say, life in Chelsea and life in Cley-next-the-Sea.
    The thing to celebrate, I’d suggest, is that we have the opportunity to experience different ‘homes’ and fully appreciate the good bits about each place.

  13. Lisa says

    I reckon you are stereotyping Americans and their towns. I’m Canadian and go to university in the U.S. and live in a beautiful town call Ridgewood in New Jersey. in Ridgewood they have a lovely high street/ main street. and Americans do walk. I know that the British love slating the Yanks. you should get out of your house and meet the Yanks, they are very nice people. Kind regards Lisa

  14. Mary Lou says

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this blog. I am an american, but my friends tease me that I am a trasplanted Brit because I love the UK so much. I have been there several times, and not only LONDON like most tourists do. I love thecharm and the “common sense” of it all. A very good friend of mine (from London) is coming over to the US for her first ever visit, and she is excited. I tried to warn her that our (US) history is nothing compared to the history of the UK, but that we have a “different” kind of history and it is rich and interwsting as well. I live in Coastal GA and she is already thrilled at the prospect of being able to be in three different states in a day (SC/FL/GA). I’m so excited for her visit I can’t stand it, and hopefully she will like it enough to come back again (several times) She already knows I will come to England often. GREAT POST GREAT BLOG

  15. Melissa says

    Lisa, I live about an hour from where Claire lives and she is correct to say that in our area we have lost our high streets. I don’t think she ever said that Americans are not nice people and she is surrounded by them so I’m sure she’s met plenty! We’re Americans here in Maryland.

  16. Linda says

    I really enjoyed your article! The “high street” you are missing was a part of our lives sixty years ago. Most smaller cities had a “main street” which would have everything from dress shops to lunch counters at the drugstore or five and dime.
    As we grew and began moving to the suburbs, the mall became the new gathering spot for convenience. There remain only a few small towns that have remained unaffected by change.

  17. says

    I know it is terrible that in most cities in US you cannot walk to a high street for love nor money. But you probably also live in the suburbs which was designed for the car. Sometimes I cry with longing for the stinky old London tube piss smelling tramps and all. ho hum.

    When I go walking around Baltimore people always look at me like I am nuts! Claire you are much more considerate of the culture here I think, when people ask me how I am I always ask British-style ie ‘Yeah, not bad’ or ‘So, so’ or ‘I’m PMSing like crazy so watch out’. So far no one has punched my lights out!!! Try it and see what happens

  18. says

    Melissa is right in every respect! I have made a concerted effort to meet Americans in all my daily practices – blog parties, teaching Zumba and everything else I do. I am probably one of the most proactive Brits out here in terms of getting in with the ‘natives’ – and we have a lot of fun talking about our differences. I love they way they respond to their own idiosyncrasies and they joke with me about our British ones too, of which I am well aware!

    I know there are places in America that are different from where I live right now, and my plan is experience of much as the place as I can whilst we are here – we have a long, long ‘to do’ list!

    Funnily enough we visited a high street today in Gaithersburg….we walked and it was very, very pleasant!

  19. Jan says

    Well, I didn’t mean to offend anyone, but why would someone begin a post by saying they “like living in America” and then not list a single reason why she actually likes it, listing, instead, several ways the UK/England/Europe are better? Her blatant stereotyping was my point: she stereotyped the US and I stereotyped the East Coast. That you took offense to the “stuffy” comment sorta bears it out, by the way…

  20. Melissa says

    I agree Linda. Our downtowns have all but disappeared and it’s sad. I remember walking to town to buy records, visit the library and the 5 and 10 store. I think some towns are making a concerted effort to rejuvenate their high streets but for the most part indoor malls and strip malls still dominated.

  21. Melissa says

    Harry, I’ve been to New England and I got the biggest kick out of pointing out all the English town names and street names to my husband. Here in Maryland we have a few county names with English influence like Kent County and Queen Anne County.

  22. says

    Jan – read the article again and read my blog….I mention several times snapshots of what I like about living in America. It’s all new and different, that’s what I’m saying, and I am not stereotyping, just observing behaviour in the small part of HoCo that I live in.

    It really is all intended to be very light-hearted…… :)

  23. says

    I loved this article. So, when you refer to High Street, the street isn’t actually called “High” is it? I always assumed that the street was called “High” and thought it was a coincidence that every city and town had a street called “High Street” Is it just the street where all the different stores and restaurants are? I’ve always just referred to that area as “downtown”. I’m probably not making any sense.

  24. says

    Hi, Claire, I really enjoyed your post! My parents grew up in a village in the Peak District of Derbyshire, moved to Cambridge then, when I was three, moved to the US. Luckily, my father was a professor so we spent 3 months every year back home in England, mostly on my grandparents’ farm.

    I’m currently living in Boston, MA, but spent last year in Cambridge, England, with my two daughters, aged 8 and 16. What a culture shock it was for them! A really wonderful year, documented in my blog, The Year of Living Englishly, http://www.theyearoflivingenglishly.wordpress.com. You might enjoy these two posts which relate to what you have written above. Now that I have discovered you, I will keep reading! Best wishes, Virginia Smith
    http://theyearoflivingenglishly.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/us-vs-uk-what-each-does-best/
    http://theyearoflivingenglishly.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/us-vs-uk-walkies/

  25. says

    I am English living in Lincoln, England.

    Interesting article to see the differences but us and out American “cousins”, thank you.

    Just one question, totally unrelated to the article, why are English people more often than not portrayed in American films as crooks or posh idiots, and often have “cockney” accent? It’s time for the stereotypes to be cast off.

  26. Terry says

    I’m from Ridgewood, NJ as well and immediately it came to mind how we do, in fact, have a proper High Street! I miss it. I now live on a lake 45 min away where I have to drive everywhere and I miss just “walking to town” to Starbuck’s (none here…nearest is 15 miles away!) Many Brits live in Ridgewood…they used to have 2 British stores there (proper chippy!) and there are a few in the area (Montclair has 2 and NYC has a whole British section in the village). Even being an American, but loving all things English (family is from Sunderland), I can understand your yearning for the old. We don’t have much beyond 200 years here…I wish we did. Highways/freeways/turnpikes…just depends on where you live…freeways are mostly what it’s called in say, California and larger due to their traffic…mind you driving in the fast lane over 3 miles can get you a ticket, it’s really for passing only (I did get pulled over once with a copper following me…bugger ha!) You should have moved to New Jersey! lol! Listen, enjoy your stay and if you meet some great friends, you will have loads of laughs and talk all sorts, even stuff you think ruffle American feathers…my friends and I don’t hold back! We can be right dirty, little minxes! And if one is feeling crap…it’s not “I’m okay, thanks!” It’s “Today my life just SUCKS!” haha! Great post!! xxxxxx

  27. says

    All of the comments are interesting & somewhat correct. Most US towns had a “High Street” when I was growing up 50 years ago. The town I live in now, Beaufort, NC ,still has no chain stores or restaurants on their main street & it’s it’s fun & safe to walk- it’s waterfront! However, you have to drive to the grocery store, etc, & outside downtown we have all the chains & sprawl that most of America has. But our historic section has great pre- & post-Revolutionary & Antebellum homes that are lovingly cared for.
    We don’t walk like Europeans do which is one reason we have weight problems! We walk for excercise rather than to get places- ironic, I know.
    But any travel helps you appreciate what you have as well as what other areas have. It’s such an enriching experience. And to live for a while in another country would be so enlightening. I love most things about the UK & do feel my roots there. I wish you the best of luck & try to visit some of the “Old South” as well as New England to get some of that English feel.

  28. Anna says

    Loved this post. I’m actually from Cley-Next-The-Sea in England (thanks, Pauline!) and live in Brooklyn, NY. I don’t have a car and can indeed pop out to our local high street for some milk or bread. It’s amazing and feels very European. Beautiful houses and parks too. I’ve been here for 12 years now and love it here even though I do miss Blighty of course. But being in an international city like NYC is a wonderful place and exciting for my British American children too. I don’t miss subtle English snobbery and the class system and feel very free here in many senses of the word. Enjoy your time in the USA!

  29. Christine says

    Love the post. I had the good fortune to spend my early childhood in NYC, where in our neighborhoods in Queens there WAS the opportunity to “pop round to the shops” on foot (daily!) for bread, tea, jam, whatever. I also spent most of my growing up years in a small town in Connecticut where, yes, everything was miles from home and required use of a car, but a number of the shops were in small shopping centers where we could walk from the dry cleaner’s to the stationer’s and the local Italian deli without having to move the car from its parking spot. Then I spent three years in the UK with my husband and OH! how I fell in love with being able to walk from home to the High Street shops and get everything we needed in a single morning without starting anything more mechanical than our son’s pram. :) I can easily relate to your mixed emotions; indeed, I share them.

  30. Sharon says

    I can really relate to how you can say you like being here and then go on about all the things you miss. I’m from Kent, been here (Virginia) 6 years and now I’m crying because I miss my old high street, pub, and not having someone say “Oh, I love the way you talk. Say something!”
    Thanks for reminding me I’m not the only one that feels like this.

  31. Ann Marie Tuffnell says

    Thankyou for all your interesting comments. I am from Hampshire England. I just walk 10minutes to the shops in the village where I live. Sorry you do not have this pleasure in some parts of The United States. Even in the Uk lots of shops have boarded up due to the big supermarkets selling everything you need. I love my country very much and grew up in Somerset. I have been to The United Stated to Texas in the late eighties where my brother used to live but he now lives in Atlanta. Georgia which would be lovely to visit one day.finance permitting. Good luck Claire, you know the old saying ” you can take the girl out of the UK” but “you can”t take the UK out of the girl.x

  32. Tonya McCall says

    This is an interesting blog as I am an American living in Surrey, UK. I like hearing your perspective. My husband and I laugh and wink at each other when ALL of the British in our town greet everyone with “You alright?” And the reponse is always, “Yeah, I’m alright…”. We have had to learn that response. Very similar really to the American “How are you?” It is such a learning experience living in another country and always makes one appreciate home as well as their new country and surrounding countries.

  33. says

    It’s funny to read this now that I have been in the USA for 18 months. A lot still applies – I love both countries for very different reasons. I don’t want to go home just yet, cos I’m having a ball, but I still miss the high street for sure!

  34. Alana Little says

    I would love to see what it is Like in England, and all over the UK..much of my ancesters are from the UK..I no nothing different than the USA I would like to see something different, for a change…

  35. Clive Fromenton says

    I’m from North London and have lived in the States for almost 50 years. People ask me all the time why do I still have my English accent? I tell them that it is because I go “home” every year for a refresher course in English.

  36. Anita Smith says

    Claire – feel free to come and visit Virginia. We have lots of “old stuff”, and I’d be glad to share it! I volunteer at Thomas Jefferson’s retreat home. (I even have Doc Martin series 6 if you’ve got a hankering for some smarmy comments.) I am an American, but I love so many things about the UK, except for the fact that I’ve never been there! My daughter is a huge Sherlock fan (BBC), so we must get a trip planned. Enjoy your time here.

  37. paui says

    Just want to start off by saying that I love this article! I think my reasons for having lived in the UK for 2 years was because I wanted to see greener pastures (both figuratively and literately -I have never seen such bright leaves and grass! That color is neon green!) Being from California I found myself as the odd woman out, people here aren’t everything portrayed in the movies, but there are some aspects-some people can be shallow, especially in college. What I loved about the UK was how down to earth people were, even the uni students. Every time I would find myself alone at pub or simply resting my feet at a club I was invited to join a another group. I would never have expected that back home, even if people were really pissed. I do miss the high street in Leicester and everything being walking distance. More so would be the sights! Every building is not only a canvass but a history book. And lastly, I do miss the english lads, far more talkative than the guys here, although shy at times. Overall I am crossing my fingers to go back for postgraduate studies next year! Also, if you want to find people who are as liberal as the Brits, check out San Francisco- nudity and drinking are always a good topic up there.

  38. Linda says

    LOL, how about New Jersey? Somerset, Bedminster, Essex, Sussex, Monmouth, Middlesex, Camden, Gloucester, just to name a few?

  39. Fay Jelliman Harger says

    I came from Merseyside too. Liverpool to be exact, many years ago when I married a G.I. Been divorced for years. This article has made me terribly homesick. It explains so well the differences in the U.S and U.K. Using a car all the time is terribly isolating. Most of my relative are gone now so I probably wont be going home again. Too expensive! Also, my kids and grandkids are all here. There is no answer. Just have to make the best of what may have been a bad choice!

  40. Melissa says

    Fay, this is Melissa (Smitten by Britain.) I’m American but lived in England for three years and I couldn’t agree more about how ‘isolating’ our car culture is. I think it’s one reason why so many of us feel disconnected from others, which leads to other problems, some very serious.