Fifteen Things I Could Never Get Used to in America


A little over fifteen years ago, my family and I moved to America. Fifteen years! It feels like such a long time, and yet, I can still clearly remember those first few months. But—America is home now, the treasured setting of almost all of my firstborn’s growing up years and my younger son’s birth and childhood years. We’ve planted memories all over the country, and younger versions of ourselves wait to greet us each time we revisit those places. The years have turned this land into home, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

There are times, however, when I still feel like a stranger. And I think that, if I were honest, a small part of me would always feel like a stranger, because I will continue to hold close the years I lived before coming to America. Those years are part of who I am, and forgetting them lessens who I can become.

So, here are fifteen things I can’t seem to get used to as an immigrant. And while these are strictly true to my experience, I think a lot of people can relate.

Water fountains.

So what, it shoots water at you and you’re supposed to catch it and drink it somehow? There’s a reason I don’t play sports.

Having to go by my official first name, a name I never used prior. This happens mostly at official places and such, like at the doctor’s office.

Maria? (I keep reading.)

Maria?…Is there a Maria here?

What? Oh, yeah, that’s me. Sorry.

The grocery choices. It’s too much—and I can’t take it. Marriage saver: the hubby doesn’t mind doing the grocery shopping, because…

First task: Pick a store, any store. Got one? Good. Now, it’s time to shop. Let’s start with the breakfast stuff. Yes, that’s the cereal section. 
Um, wow. Come back for me in, um, say, thirty minutes?

The menu options. Even the most basic ones. Like bread. Bread.

Would you like white bread, rye-bread, multi-grained, flat-bread, multi-grained flat-bread, marbled, nine-grained wheat, jalapeno cheese, something, something, something.

Sob. Please. I just want a sandwich…uhhh…white?

White. Got it. Now for the cheese. We have…

Next time, we’re going to an Asian restaurant.

The obsession with children playing a sport.

No, sorry, my son doesn’t want to play. He’s good at picking his nose and burping on command though. Does that count?


I do realize this is largely because of where we live, but I’ve never had to drive until we moved here. I heard there’s nothing to it, unless you count that acid-inducing anxiety I feel each time I have to get behind the wheel, greatly multiplied whenever I hear my kid say, “So Mom, R needs a ride.

Self check-outs.

Because it never works for me, ever. It’s a great idea, because the few times I agree to go to the grocery store, I dread having to suffer through awkward small talk with the cashier. But the few times I’ve tried it, it has never worked for me. Which meant someone had to come help me. Which meant drawing attention to myself. So now, no thanks, I’ll brave that lady smiling eagerly at me from Line 4.

Scary PTA mommies.

No explanation needed.

Customer service. Especially retail.

You mean I can return almost anything, as long as I have the receipt? Best news ever. As someone who thinks all fitting room mirrors hold a grudge against me, I take advantage of this.

The libraries.

I can’t get used to how awesome the libraries are in our county. A five-minute-walk and I’m at our community branch. I ask for this bestseller, it’s at another branch. But that’s okay, they’ll pull it for me and will let me know when it’s ready for pick up. Someone else has it? I can add my name to the list, and again, they’ll let me know when it is available. Not quite up to the walk? That’s what e-books are for. And yes, you can borrow those too.

That strange mix of friendliness and independence.

I’m walking at the park and most everyone takes the time to smile and say hello. Some even stop to make sure I realize what a beautiful day it is. Later that day, we’re at the parking lot of some store and I see an older lady struggling with a box. I offer to help, and she turns me down with a firm, “No, thank you, I can do this myself.”

Partisan politics.

Back in the Philippines, I have gotten used to hearing people say they take pride in being born in their religion and they expect to die in that religion. I hear it here too, only people usually mean their respective political parties.

How big America is.

A friend from the Philippines was once planning a visit to the West Coast and suggested we meet up. I told her it wasn’t a good time for us, as plane tickets that month were a bit much for our family of four. She asked why we couldn’t just drive. I had to explain that a 40-hour-drive just wasn’t something the hubby wanted to do.

How small America is.

We moved to America two months before the tragedy of 9/11 happened. I was still trying to wrap my head around the wide open spaces I was seeing. Then I witnessed how shared humanity canceled out the miles in between as people stood together in compassion and against evil.

How my ideas of America—formed before I ever even set foot on her shores and based on what I have read, watched and heard, were so accurate and yet also so wrong.

I think we often assume we can get to know a country (or person) through the information we can find about it. And maybe we can. But until we spend time in that country (or with that person), it will never be a complete picture. There are nuances that get lost in translation, and the character and depth of a place (or person) tend to get blurry or lost because often, the version we get is shaped to fit a source’s own purposes.