Australian writer reveals the strange culture shocks she faced while living in America

An Australian writer who has spent months living in the United States has shared the noticeable differences between the two countries, including how you pay for petrol, use public bathrooms and buy alcohol.

Madolline Gourley, 30, from Brisbane, Queensland, runs an online blog called One Cat At A Time, and prior to the coronavirus lockdown, spent more than two years cat sitting for families in the States.

During those lengthy stays she became acutely aware of the way Americans live their day-to-day lives and how it differs from the Australian lifestyle, from road rules to adding tax to every purchase you make.

So what are the main variances? 

Madolline Gourley runs an online blog called One Cat At A Time , and prior to the coronavirus lockdown, spent more than two years cat sitting for families in the States

Madolline Gourley runs an online blog called One Cat At A Time , and prior to the coronavirus lockdown, spent more than two years cat sitting for families in the States

1. Pay for petrol before filling up 

In Madolline’s experience Australians will always put petrol in the car first before paying at the counter, so the station attendant knows how much gas they’ve taken.  

But in the US customers swipe their EFTPOS card, enter their postcode – also called a ZIP code – and then start to fill the car up.  

‘Or you can walk into the service station and pay cash, but you still have to pay before you can fill up,’ she told FEMAIL.

‘You can also select $50 when doing the EFTPOS transaction, but if your car only takes $33, $25, or $41.90, you only get billed for that. Not the $50. 

‘This confused me a lot to begin with because I was concerned I was being billed for the full amount.’

In Madolline's experience Australians will always put petrol in the car first before paying at the counter, so the station attendant knows how much gas they've taken (stock image)

In Madolline's experience Australians will always put petrol in the car first before paying at the counter, so the station attendant knows how much gas they've taken (stock image)

In Madolline’s experience Australians will always put petrol in the car first before paying at the counter, so the station attendant knows how much gas they’ve taken (stock image)

2. Always add tax to any purchase you make

The ticket price is the price you pay at cash registers in Australia but that’s not the same in America. 

‘The shelf price is without tax. When you get to the register, they add tax to it. What originally seemed like a fair price when you saw the item on the shelf only gets more expensive once you convert the USD to AUD,’ she said.

‘I believe the tax percentage is different from state to state. So other states end up being a lot more expensive than others. Some states also have things exempt from tax. Like Massachusetts doesn’t tax clothing or food.’

3. Password protected bathrooms 

This aspect of life in America differs from state to state but almost all the larger cities have password protected – or locked – bathrooms, Madolline said.

‘Everywhere. Starbucks. Chipotle. Discount retailers like Marshalls and Ross Dress for Less. Restaurants and takeaway options like McDonald’s and Burger King. Even some of the supermarkets,’ she said.

Only paying customers can use the bathroom at cafes and restaurants, so you’ve got to buy something to even be allowed to use the bathroom. 

‘A way around this is to go to a shopping centre or big department store like Macy’s. Gas station bathrooms are also available for anyone to use,’ she said.

This aspect of life in America differs from state to state but almost all the larger cities have password protected - or locked - bathrooms, Madolline said (stock image)

This aspect of life in America differs from state to state but almost all the larger cities have password protected - or locked - bathrooms, Madolline said (stock image)

This aspect of life in America differs from state to state but almost all the larger cities have password protected – or locked – bathrooms, Madolline said (stock image)

4. Different ‘big’ supermarkets in each of the states

Australia has two big supermarkets – Woolworths and Coles – regardless of which part of the country you’re in. There are also Aldi’s dotted around each state.   

But the USA has Ralph’s, PigglyWiggly, QFC, Safeway, Albertsons, Smith’s Food and Drug, Kroger, Public, all depending on which state you’re in. 

‘There’s Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s all over the USA, but these are more alternative options like Flannerys is here,’ she said.

‘Whole Foods even has an in-store bakery that would put some Australian cake shops to shame.’

Corner stores or convenience stores is what the Americans call a ‘bodega’ and most of these are family-owned unlike the traditional convenience stores like 7 Eleven.

5. Pharmacies can be one-stop-shop for cigarettes and alcohol

Pharmacies, or ‘drugstores’, in the USA sell alcohol and cigarettes. 

‘Beer, spirits, cider, you name it. This seems to contradict what Australians use a pharmacy for… which is to get medication and supplements to get better and stay healthy,’ she said.

‘Or you go to the pharmacy to buy nicotine patches, not to buy a pouch of tobacco.’

Depending on the city, some of the pharmacies also have a proper supermarket component which fresh fruit and a deli too.

'Beer, spirits, cider, you name it. This seems to contradict what Australians use a pharmacy for... which is to get medication and supplements to get better and stay healthy,' she said

'Beer, spirits, cider, you name it. This seems to contradict what Australians use a pharmacy for... which is to get medication and supplements to get better and stay healthy,' she said

‘Beer, spirits, cider, you name it. This seems to contradict what Australians use a pharmacy for… which is to get medication and supplements to get better and stay healthy,’ she said

6. Refunds on cosmetics you’ve opened

Madolline said this is an amazing part about living in America. 

If you’ve opened your lipstick, mascara or foundation, you can’t return it in Australia or exchange it either.   

‘Most of the big American drugstores and department stores let you return your products as long as you’ve got a receipt,’ she said.

‘Most department stores have testers whereas pharmacies in US states don’t, but you’re still allowed to get a refund even if you tested the foundation in store.’

If you've opened your lipstick, mascara or foundation, you can't return it in Australia or exchange it either (stock image)

If you've opened your lipstick, mascara or foundation, you can't return it in Australia or exchange it either (stock image)

If you’ve opened your lipstick, mascara or foundation, you can’t return it in Australia or exchange it either (stock image)

7. It’s okay to turn right at a red light

Australia is implementing this in some parts of the country (it’s turn left instead), but it’s not something you know as a tourist with an international license. 

‘This isn’t a signed road rule either so expect to get beeped at if you sit at a red light when it’s safe to turn right,’ she said.

It’s only feasible to turn when there aren’t any pedestrians crossing though. 

8. What ‘chips’ actually are

In Australia ‘chips’ can mean French fries, any kind of deep fried potato or a bag of potato chips. 

When you see ‘chips’ on an American menu, it’s literally a bag of potato chips to eat with your burger or toasted sandwich, Madolline said.

Any kind of deep fried potato – crinkle cut or otherwise – is ‘French fries’ to an American.

In Australia 'chips' can mean French fries, any kind of deep fried potato or a bag of potato chips

In Australia 'chips' can mean French fries, any kind of deep fried potato or a bag of potato chips

In Australia ‘chips’ can mean French fries, any kind of deep fried potato or a bag of potato chips

9. Pedestrian traffic lights don’t make a sound

Pedestrian lights don’t make any noise when it’s OK for you to cross in America, you have to keep your eyes peeled otherwise you won’t know when it’s safe.

Some also have a button you have to press while others are automated. 

‘In most parts of Australia, you have to press the button for it to acknowledge your presence. Some cities have automated this since COVID so there’s no need to touch a germy button,’ she said. 

‘There’s also this thing in parts of the US where you press what looks like a pedestrian crossing light and the cars are expected to stop on the spot to let you cross. 

‘It’s actually really dangerous on Melrose Ave where there’s a lot of traffic and LA drivers don’t like to stop for anyone.’

10. Electronic receipts are given

Stores like Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom will ask for your email address so they can email you a copy of your receipt. 

‘This is both good and bad. Good because you’ve got a copy of your receipt in your inbox. But bad because you have to spell out your name and really long email address every time,’ Madolline said.

‘Americans also have difficulty understanding when Australians say “O” or “R”. That makes it even more complicated and you end up repeating yourself several times before they realise what you’re trying to say.’

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