10 Culture Shocks in the USA

Exchange students bring magic glasses with them to the USA. Let’s look through their lenses for fresh perspectives on ordinary American life. These are some of their biggest culture shocks.

girl looking through glasses

1. Big Sizes

Teenagers from around the world are astounded by the size of things in the USA. “I would say that one of the biggest shocks for (exchange students) was that everything is bigger," says Marta, an Italian student living in Manitowok, Michigan. Everything is big: Costco, BestBuy, Walmart…even the seats in the cinemas, the products in the stores and the portions at restaurants.

mother father and daughters in front of Christmas treeMarta, from Italy with her American host family.

2. Food Surprises

Foreign teens are shocked by snacking, walking around with food and drink in hand and, shock of all shocks: eating in class.

And often they are even a bit concerned about us, as in the Italian student who exclaimed, “Americans put meat sauce on pasta...and butter! How can you do that to pasta?” Food and eating are always an adventure when you have a foreigner in the house…

american food french fries and drinks

3. Family Lifestyle

At first, many international teens are shocked that their host family spends so much time at home. Then they discover the fun of family game or movie night. And many learn how to bake cookies, brownies, banana bread and more. Little by little, they even learn to look forward to chilling at home.

family playing board game on the floor

4. Teen Lifestyle

American teenagers drive and juggle work and school. This is shocking for most exchange students. Why? Because around the world, teens from middle class or above are often expected to focus 100% on academics – and they can't drive at such a young age.

teenager boy with keys in drivers seat

5. House Rules

Foreign teens are usually puzzled by some American family rules. If teens can drive and work, then why do they need to ask permission to meet up with friends? Why do parents need to know where they are? This is a mystery for many as they grapple with “early” curfews and parental controls that might include limiting technology time.

location gps image

6. American High School

Choosing classes is a novelty for most exchange students. Then they discover school-sponsored sports and extracurricular activities. And finally, there's a big surprise called “school spirit”! 

Most foreign teens thrive at high school in the USA. After years of rote memorization in their countries, many discover that learning can be dynamic and fascinating. As one student from Spain happily exclaimed, “They’re teaching me how to think!”

smiling students in high school cafeteria

Valentina from Colombia (second on right) with friends at school in Michigan.

Valentina from Colombia says “I think something that was hard to adapted to was how big schools are, having so many people at school it’s hard when you have to do new friendships, and meet new people, and changing classes everyday didn’t make it easy, but once you start learning how to talk to everybody and get to know new people it’s one of the best part of the year, having friends practicing sports with you and hanging around with them will do your experience the best.”

7. American Teachers

Almost unanimously, foreign teens rave about American teachers. “The relationship with teachers is more friendship-based. In Germany it’s a really formal relationship,” explains Lina, a German student studying in Alabama. Exchange students describe their US teachers as friendly, accessible, and caring. Many are impressed at how hard teachers in the USA try to make learning fun and fascinating. It’s a very happy culture shock, indeed!

teacher with students in background outside

8. Holiday Passion

After watching Americans celebrate Christmas and other holidays in movies and on Netflix, foreign teens are often in for many surprises in the USA. “My host family had fifteen Christmas trees!” reports a shocked student from Germany. Like so many international students, he loved celebrating holidays with his host family.

christmas tree with gifts and stocking by fire

9. Total Strangers

Ask any exchange student what is most shocking in the USA and inevitably you will hear about...strangers! “Strangers speak to each other while waiting in line!” “Clerks in stores ask me about my day!” and “People I don’t even know tell me they like my outfit!” These are just a few common remarks about the American custom of treating complete strangers as if they were friends.

clerk speaking with customer

Marian from Spain says, "One of the cultural shocks that I have is that while you’re walking in a public space people tell you if they like something that you’re wearing." 

10. Infinite Curiosities

Every foreign teenager has their own set of magic glasses with lenses from their own country and culture. “What really surprises me is that American drivers stop at stop signs! Unfortunately, we don’t do that in Cambodia,” laughs one student. While another one asks, “Why don’t Americans use the metric system?” And still another queries, “Why isn’t the tax included in the price?” This is the beauty of looking through a wide array of lenses.

girl looking through magnifying glass surprised

Culture Shock Benefits...

Culture shock is the best and worst part of adapting to a different country. You like or even love some things. You dislike other things. But every single cultural difference offers a chance to broaden your horizons. Suddenly life is new and different. You see possibilities you never imagined existed.

young man looking through magnifying glass

Magic Glasses

Would you like to see what foreigners see? An exchange student brings a fresh set of eyes into your home and into your life. To get your own magic glasses, click here.



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