Recently, I’ve had some splendid conversations with a number of people from all over the world who are thinking about coming to the United States to live or – in one case – sending their nearly-adult children to live in the United States. I was surprised and interested in the questions they asked me, and I found out that many people outside the United States think of the entire United States as being a mix of Washington D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles.
This realization, along with the questions themselves, led me to prepare a list of things that a new person to the United States should know about living freely and frugally in America. Obviously, this list is far from complete, and many of the items may already be known in other areas of the world, but knowing these things can make a huge difference in the cost and in the quality of life in America. Some of these are very much cultural in nature, but being aware of them can save you a lot of money and a lot of grief. Please, if you are an American reader and believe I have left off a vital tip, leave it in the comments.
1. Know English, and work on it constantly. I have many friends from China and Korea and the biggest connection that they all have is that their English is often surprisingly weak when they first arrive in the United States. The best thing that you can do is to find native English speakers and converse with them as much as possible. Consider it a free education, because being able to speak fluent conversational English is valuable everywhere.
2. Most Americans are surprisingly outgoing and patient if you need help or have questions. When you arrive in the United States, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Use them as a resource – don’t waste time or money when the information you need is basic. Most Americans are quite willing to help others out in most situations. This is not a guarantee, of course, but I have witnessed countless times where individuals have went quite far to help out people who are unfamiliar with the culture. This especially goes for people of Arabian descent who are worried about potential discrimination – it’s simply not true in day to day life for most Americans. You will undoubtedly find a small minority of people who have some very narrow viewpoints – don’t let these people cloud your view of the openness of America.
3. Don’t wildly display your own culture until you are familiar with American life. When I travel abroad, I make it a point to dress in minimalist clothing until I understand what is going on, what is culturally acceptable, and what is not. There are lots of subtle things going on in any culture, and until you understand them, you will do well by minimizing the things you can control that might violate those small cultural rules that you are unaware of. This will almost always make interactions with others easier and make it much simpler to make connections with people. Once you’re familiar with American culture, by all means, dress and behave as you please, but while you are still learning and making little cultural mistakes, your cultural expressions may make the situation worse than it already is.
4. America is not a conservative looney-bin. Many outsiders view presidential politics as a reflection of the beliefs of the average American. This is foolish; it is much like believing that every Venezuelan believes the same things Hugo Chavez believes, or that every Iranian believes what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes. America has a very, very wide range of accepted political opinions and every American has the right to express those opinions. If you come to America and don’t like something, it is your right to complain about it and make your feelings known to whoever you wish, as long as you don’t make threatening actions. With great freedom comes great responsibility, and as more and more different cultures begin to interact with all the freedom we have, there needs to be some level of protection of individual safety. This is not an easy balancing act, and it’s something that we’re all trying to define for ourselves and for our nation. Sometimes, we might swing too far one way; at other times, we might not have safeguards at all and people get hurt. What’s the balance? I don’t know – no one does – but America does have the freedom to find out and it’s a process that everyone can participate in. And that’s as political as I’m probably ever going to get.
5. The cost of daily life varies wildly in different parts of the United States. Now that some basic cultural things are out of the way, we can start looking at some money issues. Generally, the East Coast and West Coast are extremely expensive places to live, while the interior of the country (especially outside of the largest cities) is much less expensive. If you are coming to the United States for schooling or for work, you can accept a much lower salary or stipend in the central part of the United States (Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, Mississippi, Arkansas, etc.) than you can in coastal areas (California, New York, Washington, etc.).
6. The “average” American home is incredibly nice. This is something that is surprising to both Americans and to the rest of the world. When an American thinks of an average home, they picture something that would be a very, very upper class home in almost every other part of the world, while when a non-American thinks of an average home, they view a home that would probably be torn down immediately in America. If the price of an “average” home in America is scaring you, remember that an average home in America is really quite luxurious.
7. Americans waste a lot. Many daily items in America come in packages, which is the exception rather than the rule compared to the rest of the world. As a result, most Americans waste a lot of stuff. They also tend to get rid of objects well before they are used up because of the convenience factor – and high standard of living – of simply getting a new one to replace it. Want an example? I described methods I used for eating very cheaply when I was doing my studies, and many readers were shocked by this and actually referred to me as insane. Almost all of these things are standard practice outside of the United States. If you keep many of the household things that you already do and just continue doing them when you arrive here, your cost of living will be much lower than the average American.
8. Many common items in America are quite expensive. Our system of wide-open competition helps with this (for example, British prices on most things are far higher than in America), but compared to the non-European world, prices in the United States are quite high. You can expect to pay $3 for milk, $1 for twelve eggs, and other such prices. It’s actually a shock for me to visit other nations, like Mexico, and to examine the prices there for staple foods and such – I’m almost in shock to see how low they seem.
9. However, many common items in America are completely outside the experience of non-Americans. I once had the opportunity of going with an individual from China when he visited a grocery store for the first time. We didn’t just go to a grocery store, actually, we took him to a SuperTarget, which is a grocery store and a department store all in one building. We walked around in there for fifteen minutes and the only thing he said was “I can’t believe there are this many different things in the world” (at least, that’s how it was translated). The array of options for buying everything is actually staggering to people unfamiliar with it. For example, I counted more than 250 different varieties of bread available at my local supermarket last night – countless different kinds from dozens of different manufacturers. This is normal. If you are overwhelmed by the choices, you are probably better off buying the least expensive option, then trying other options if you wish later.
10. Cultural and entertainment opportunities in America are almost infinite – and many are free. Look at the local community centers for ideas: post offices, town halls, chambers of commerce, and so forth. Check neighboring towns as well. There’s usually some sort of free entertainments available every night.