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Observations on the US after a few years in China




Bryce National Park

Bryce National Park

This is a vague followup to Observations on London after a year in China

Watching US Television

Compared to the UK, watching TV main channels live in the US is awful. Programmes segue into adverts seamlessly. 10-20% of the screen is taken up with text adverts for other programmes. There’s no swearing or nudity, but violence is fine.

Proper adverts have numerous disclaimers, ranging from deadly side effects to drugs, to reminders that cars don’t drive as well underwater, so don’t try this at home.

Coming back to the UK it’s amazing how much more swearing and nudity is allowed, and the UK is tame compared to Europe. More importantly, there is open and frank discussion or comedy about any and every subject.

Of course, getting back to China after the UK, you remember how stage managed everything on Chinese TV is.

Driving towards Monument Valley

Driving towards Monument Valley


Driving in the US is very easy compared to most places in the world. Roads are wider, parking spaces larger, most rental cars are automatics and the speed limit feels much slower.

The larger parking spaces are necessary though, as quite a few of the cars are ridiculously huge. Texas in particular is home to the pickup truck. The most popular seems to be the Ford F-150 which is pretty big, but comes in extra-large Texas or Lone Star State editions.

The quality of roads varies hugely by state, with California being particularly poorly maintained. Florida’s roads were near perfect, unlike the elderly drivers.

Drivers in LA seemed to be doing anything but driving. In one short trip along the expressway I saw a man shaving, a lady applying lipstick and many, many people reading the newspaper . No crashes though.

You can turn right on a red light, which still feels wrong after 3 months of driving about. Stop signs are also mandatory, meaning you should come to a complete halt before passing the junction.

Finally, check the distance using Google Maps or similar. There can be long expanses of almost nothing that take hours to drive through, and would contain 3 different towns in UK. This quote from a philosophical gas attendant summed it up nicely:

They say in Europe, they think 100 miles is a far distance, at which Americans laugh. On the other hands, in the United States, They think 100 years is a long time, at which Europeans laugh.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge


There must be other radio stations, but for most of the trip all we could pick up was 3 country stations, 1 Motown and lots of angry talk radio. Nothing contemporary.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park from atop Angels Landing


Obviously the internet in China is restricted, but mobile data coverage is far superior to the US. It may not be 4G just yet, but it’s possible to get a slow data connection just about everywhere. In the US we had no signal along much of the Pacific Coast Highway.

What the rest of the world is missing is how useful Google can be. In the US everything just works – navigation includes traffic status, bus routes, nearby restaurant and gas stations. Look up a place to eat and you’ll get the address, menu, opening hours etc.

Google is good in the UK, but to nowhere near the same level. Back in China it’s next to useless. Google’s Chinese equivalent is Baidu, and they’re rapidly improving, but the difference is that few businesses maintain their own web presence. If you want to know about a restaurant you need to visit the user-created review site like Dian Ping.

China essentially went to the user-created Web 2.0 without graduating from and learning from much of the owner-created Web 1.0 era. Similar could be said of a lot of people, technologies and practices in China during the push to modernity, and it explains many of the problems with manners and behaviour.

Monument Valley National Park

Monument Valley National Park

Costs and Tipping

This was a source of constant annoyance. In the UK/China/most countries there’s a price on an item or service and that’s what you pay.

The US doesn’t include sales tax on price labels, as it varies by state. As a result you wander round the supermarket thinking everything is very cheap, then get to the till and have 10-15% added on.

I get that prices are different, but don’t see why in a particular state they can’t mark the label with the price in that state.

Again in supermarkets, check the prices. It was common to see some very bad multi-buy deals: $2.50 each or 3 for $8…

Double check how much cash you’re handing over – all the notes are the same size and colour, so would be easy to confuse. Note also that a dollar is divided up into 100 cents. A 5 cent coin is called a nickel and a 25 cent coin a quarter. Reasonably straightforward, but the 10 cent coin is called a dime, and nowhere on the coin does it mention 10 cents.

Clothing is weirdly cheap. Despite having seen quite a few bumper stickers complaining about the loss of jobs to China, no one seemed to be boycotting the $12 sweatshop jeans.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Misconceptions about the US

Guns – Despite all the noise in the media, we didn’t see any civilians openly carrying guns over the course of 3 months.

ID’s – didn’t get ID’d once in bars. Maybe I just look old.

Fat People – not everyone is overweight. It is true though that when they get fat they get astronomically fat. Walmart has special parking bays for ‘people of size’ to get out of their pickup trucks and plop straight onto a waiting mobility cart.

Can’t help thinking that if they went to a supermarket where they had to walk they might buy less food.


Patriotism – There are flags everywhere. Car dealerships seem to compete with how many flags they can fit around their lot (that sells Japanese cars).

Bathrooms – Toilet stall doors have huge gaps around them, both at the bottom and the sides. Not loving that.

Incorrect political correctness – black tourists from Ghana are Ghanaians, not African Americans…

Dr Pepper is addictive. $0.49 for a 72 ounce refill only feeds the addiction.

Cheesetheir idea of cheese is a long way from that of a European. Especially when it comes from an aerosol.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

U wot m8? You’re avin a facking larf

I love the American accents. All of them.

Living in China, I tend toward Americanisms (sidewalk, gas station and garbage) when speaking English, as that’s what people were taught and understand.

In the US, after a couple of weeks of being told “Oh, I love your accent!”, I subconsciously started using more and more of the Queen’s English. Words like pavement, garage and rubbish get people all excited.

Add a plummy accent, throw in a few spiffings and it tips them over the edge.

Anyway old bean, our time inspecting the colonies was all jolly marvellous but we had to fly to blighty eventually. Pip-pip!





Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.


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