5 things newcomers find surprising about American life

While many newcomers base their expectations of living in America on movies, they may be surprised by what they encounter in their daily lives. The United States is rich in diversity, regional differences, cuisine, and customs. Understanding the unique characteristics can help immigrants better understand and integrate into their new communities.

1. America’s diversity

The United States has many cultures, languages, and customs. Newcomers may find that the United States is not just one culture but a blend of many different cultures. This diversity is evident in the many languages spoken, the variety of foods available, and the various religious and cultural traditions celebrated. For immigrants who come from countries with more homogenous populations, this can be a very different experience.

The US Census Bureau recognizes six major racial categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Some Other Race. Additionally, the Census Bureau recognizes two categories of Hispanic or Latino origin, which can be of any race. One of the ways diversity is evident in the United States is in the many different languages spoken. According to the US Census Bureau, over 350 languages are spoken in homes nationwide. While English is the most commonly spoken language, there are many communities where other languages are spoken more frequently, such as Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog.

Religion is also an essential aspect of diversity in the United States. While Christianity is the most commonly practiced religion, there are also significant populations of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and others. In addition, many people do not identify with any religion at all, and the United States has a strong tradition of secularism.

Overall, diversity in the United States is one of its defining characteristics, and it is celebrated and valued by many people. However, despite diversity’s many benefits, challenges are associated with it. For example, discrimination and inequality can be significant issues for people of different races, ethnicities, and religions. There can also be cultural misunderstandings and tensions between different communities, particularly regarding issues like immigration and integration. Nonetheless, many people in the United States believe that the benefits of diversity far outweigh the challenges, and they continue to celebrate and value the many different cultures and traditions that make up the country.

2. The United States regions

Despite what is depicted in the movies, America is more than the big cities, flashy lights, and a fast-paced lifestyle. The United States is a large country with over 3.7 million square miles of land. This means that the distance between different cities and states can be significant, providing each region within the United States with its unique characteristics, including climate, culture, and history. Understanding these differences can help immigrants better understand and integrate into their new communities.

  • Northeast: The Northeast region includes states such as New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Maine. This region is known for its rich history, including the country’s founding, and is home to many famous landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Trail in Boston. The climate is generally cooler, with snow in the winter months, and the people are often described as direct and fast-paced.
  • Southeast: The Southeast region includes states like Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. This region is known for its warm climate, beautiful beaches, and Southern hospitality. Southern cooking heavily influences the cuisine, with dishes like fried chicken, barbecue, and sweet tea.
  • Midwest: The Midwest includes states like Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. This region is known for its friendly people, diverse agriculture, and contributions to the automotive industry. The climate is generally temperate, with cold winters and warm summers, and the people are often described as hardworking and down-to-earth.
  • Southwest: The Southwest includes states like Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. This region is known for its desert landscapes, Tex-Mex cuisine, and vibrant Hispanic culture. The climate is generally hot and dry, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months.
  • West Coast: The West Coast region includes states like California, Oregon, and Washington. This region is known for its stunning natural beauty, including the Pacific Ocean and towering mountains, as well as its diverse cultural influences. The climate varies depending on location, with some areas experiencing mild temperatures year-round while others experiencing hot summers and rainy winters.

3. American cuisine

American cuisine is known for its variety and fusion of different culinary traditions, reflecting the many different cultures that have contributed to it. However, newcomers may be surprised that some of their favorite foods from their home countries are less widely available in the United States. At the same time, they may discover new foods that they have never tried before.

American food is often characterized by its emphasis on convenience and speed. Fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s are ubiquitous nationwide, and many people rely on takeout and delivery for their meals. However, there is also a growing movement towards farm-to-table dining and locally-sourced ingredients.

When it comes to specific dishes, some of the most iconic American foods include:

  1. Hamburgers: This classic sandwich consists of a beef patty, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and condiments like ketchup and mustard.
  2. Hot dogs: Another classic sandwich, a hot dog, is a sausage served on a bun with condiments like ketchup, mustard, and relish.
  3. Barbecue: Barbecue is a cooking style involving slow-cooking meat over an open flame or in a smoker, often with a tangy sauce.
  4. Macaroni and cheese: This comfort food consists of macaroni noodles baked with a creamy cheese sauce.
  5. Pancakes and waffles: Breakfast foods like pancakes and waffles are popular nationwide, often served with syrup and butter.
  6. Clam chowder: A creamy soup made with clams, potatoes, and onions, often served in a bread bowl.
  7. Lobster rolls: A New England specialty of lobster meat served on a buttered and toasted roll.
  8. Jambalaya: A spicy Louisiana dish made with rice, sausage, seafood, and various seasonings.
  9. Philly cheesesteak: A sandwich made with thinly sliced beef, grilled onions, and melted cheese, served on a hoagie roll.
  10. Key lime pie: A dessert made with a graham cracker crust and a filling of lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, and egg yolks.

Newcomers are encouraged to try new foods to broaden their culinary horizons, exposing them to new flavors and ingredients that they may not have experienced before. In addition, food can be a way to connect with others and build relationships, as sharing meals with friends and family is an important part of many cultures.

4. Distinctive features of the American legal system

The American legal system may differ greatly from what newcomers are used to in their home countries. It is often complex, involving a lot of documentation and waiting periods, and it may take some time for immigrants to understand the laws and regulations that apply to them. It can also be expensive, which may surprise those used to a more streamlined or affordable system in their home countries.

The legal system in the United States is subject to federal and state laws, and learning how to navigate it can be challenging and daunting for those with no legal background. The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land. It provides the framework for the legal system, including the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. Each state in the United States also has its own laws and courts, which can vary widely from state to state. 

In addition, there are both criminal and civil courts. Criminal courts deal with cases where individuals or organizations are accused of committing crimes. In contrast, civil courts handle disputes between individuals or organizations, such as lawsuits over contract disputes or personal injury claims. There are also a variety of specialized courts and administrative agencies, such as immigration courts, tax courts, and regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

One of the most distinctive features of the American legal system is the common law system, which relies heavily on precedent and the decisions of previous courts. Judges are often responsible for interpreting and applying the law in individual cases, and their decisions can significantly impact the law’s development over time. The United States legal system is also distinguished by its principle of due process, which requires that individuals be afforded certain rights and protections under the law. These rights include the right to a fair trial, the right to an attorney, and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Overall, the legal system in the United States is a complex and dynamic system that plays a critical role in shaping society and protecting individual rights and freedoms.

5. The complexity of the American healthcare system

The healthcare system in the United States is often very different from what immigrants are used to in their home countries. For example, in many countries, healthcare is offered by the government, while in the United States, it is often provided by private insurance companies. Immigrants in the United States have access to healthcare, but the level of access can vary depending on their immigration status and other factors. In addition, the cost of healthcare can be high, and newcomers to the United States may be surprised by the complexity involved in accessing healthcare.

Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  1. Insurance: Most Americans and legal residents have health insurance through their employer, a private insurance plan, or a government program such as Medicare or Medicaid. It is essential to understand what type of insurance you have and what it covers.
  2. Cost: Healthcare in the US can be expensive, even with insurance. Check with your insurance company about copays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses.
  3. Access: Access to healthcare can vary depending on your immigration status, location, and insurance plan. Some areas may have more healthcare providers and better access to care than others.
  4. Emergency care: In the US, emergency care is available to anyone regardless of their ability to pay. If you have a medical emergency, go to the nearest hospital or call 911.
  5. Preventive care: Many insurance plans cover preventive care, such as annual physicals and screenings. Take advantage of these services to stay healthy.
  6. Language barriers: If you are not fluent in English, it is recommended to find a healthcare provider who can communicate with you in your native language or use an interpreter.
  7. Prescription medication: Prescription medication can also be expensive in the US, especially if you do not have insurance or have a plan that does not cover your specific medication. Some pharmacies offer discounts and generic options, so shopping around and comparing prices is important.
  8. Health literacy: Health literacy refers to understanding and using health information to make informed decisions about your care. If you have limited health literacy, it is essential to ask your healthcare provider questions and make sure you understand your care plan.
  9. Preventable diseases: Some diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, can be prevented or managed with lifestyle changes such as exercise and healthy eating. It is important to take steps to prevent these diseases and manage any existing conditions.
  10. Public health: Public health measures such as vaccinations, hand hygiene, and wearing masks can help prevent the spreading of infectious diseases. Stay up-to-date on public health recommendations and follow them to protect yourself and others.

In summary, understanding the unique characteristics of American culture can be helpful for newcomers to better integrate into their new communities. They may be surprised by the diversity of the country, the significant differences between regions, and the fusion of different culinary traditions. But by understanding and embracing these differences, newcomers can connect with others and develop a deeper appreciation for the country’s rich culture.

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