One week into living in the United States, I took a train from New York to Philadelphia.
I sat next to an older gentleman. I felt comfortable, until he started delving in and asking me many personal questions, including where I’m from and what my parents do for a living.
He went even further: he asked why I came here and where I will live.
I was on a high alert. This small talk is such an American invention to me.
At home, we barely make eye contact with strangers, let alone start conversations with them. My mom had always warned me to not talk to strangers, but that went out the window once I landed in the U.S.
My experiences caught in small talk since have shown me that it does not frequently lead to friendships. So I take the culture as friendly, but very superficial. Even asking, “How are you?” does not require an honest answer or an answer at all. It’s just part of a greeting.
The father of my host family often came home and said, “Hey, Pavlina, how are you?”
But before I answered, he was out of the room. Where I’m from, we don’t ask everyone that, and when we do ask, we are truly interested.
I often get asked: “What is the biggest difference between living in the U.S. and the Czech Republic?” At this point, I recite answers nearly robotically.
Saying that coming to the U.S. nearly six years ago was a culture shock does not do justice to the awe and nervousness I felt.
I was aware of some differences before I crossed the ocean. Where I’m from, we have health care for all, college is free up until you turn 26 years old, the legal drinking age is 18 and we follow the metric system (which makes more sense to me).
But there are differences that I was not ready for.
Looking at restaurant menus, I was surprised to find the number of calories next to each item. I was even more surprised to find a suggested tip on my check. Tipping in the Czech Republic depends on my satisfaction and is definitely not required.
And what is with the sizes?
There is no real such thing as a small salad, small popcorn, small Coke or small ice cream. Everything comes in a huge amount. I am afraid to see the quantity in a large size.
I learned that without a car, I’ll never get anywhere in this country. At home, public transportation works well and is cheap. Buses and trains connect all, even the small cities. I can go anywhere.
One of my favorite things at home for sentimental reasons, are Kinder Surprise eggs — German chocolate eggs with a little toy in the middle. To my surprise, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration forbids them because of the toy inside.
And I find it funny that a country with a Second Amendment thinks chocolate eggs are too unsafe.
Overall, American culture revolves around convenience. There are dryers for clothes and pre-cut vegetables at grocery stores — things I don’t see much of in the Czech Republic.
Now, after almost six years here, these things don’t seem so alien to me. I’ve gotten used to it.
That is, I’ve gotten used to everything but Hershey chocolate. Compared to Milka, Ferrero, Orion and other delicious European brands, it doesn’t deserve to be called chocolate.
Funny enough, I feel more alien when I visit home now.
I expect services that don’t exist in my small country and sometimes intuitively start a conversation with a random passerby to both of our surprise. Living in the U.S. has made me more open-minded, more accepting and less judgmental when it comes to adapting to new customs and rules.
I have been Americanized in many ways, but at heart, I will forever remain Czech.