What can Polish students teach us about our American culture? Plenty! What surprises them? What are their own particular culture shocks? We asked five exchange students to share their impressions of life in the USA. Compared to Poland, it’s…different!
Every single one of our Polish students are pleasantly surprised by the US version of friendly and polite. “People are generally friendly and curious, but they sometimes ask weird questions (like do we have cinemas or where is Europe),” says Marta, who did her exchange year in 2006-07.
“I like that Americans are polite in everyday situations,” notes Marta's sister Magda who did her exchange in 2013-14.
I really love American people who usually are very positive, smiling, and respectful,” says Julia in Michigan this year. “When I meet new people, they welcome me saying, ‘Welcome to America! Hope you will have great year’. It’s very kind.”
“The thing that is completely different, but in a good way, compared to Poland,” notes another Polish student in the USA, “is the kindness and open-minded people who smile, and ask how your day is. Being really friendly is something that makes life easier and also just nicer.
And finally, our fifth participant says, “[I like] the kindness and hospitality of American people who smile all the time and make your mood better.”
High School Classes
One thing is clear: Students from Poland love American high school. “I loved that I could choose subjects that I wanted to learn. It let me develop my interests and passions,” says Magda. The rest of the students heartily agree with her.
High School Size
It’s hard for students from Poland to imagine just how large some US high schools are, as one student explains, “I was surprised by how big the school was. I was expecting it to be much bigger than my Polish school, but not that it would be four times the size of mine!”
High School Fun
All five students agree that high school in the USA is just plain fun. “I really love the way people live here, especially what huge fun American high school is. I can’t imagine now coming back to normal Polish high school,” one student states. Marta agrees and says, “I could experience those American experience moments I know from pop culture, like school dances, graduation etc. making friends from other countries…but also American students.”
High School Sports
“I go to a big high school,” explains Julia from her post in Michigan, “And surprising for me is that sport here is very important, even more important than normal school and study.” (There’s nothing like a newcomer’s point of view, is there?)
Even a high school cafeteria catches the attention of curious Polish students, “At the beginning I was also surprised about choices during lunch time,” says Julia student. “It’s not only fast food but also fruits, vegetables and nutrition meals for a good price.”
“I loved teachers’ attitude where I felt important and respected,” says Magda. Other students are quick to agree. “[I like] the relationship between students and teachers. American teachers treat you like your friends, and they are very helpful and supportive,” says one, Julia concurs, saying that “in my opinion American high school is very friendly for everyone. Teachers are helpful, supportive and treat you as your friend.”
Sadly, our students from Poland say they are disappointed by those American students who choose to misbehave at school. “For me something very frustrating is the approach of American students to school and teachers. Sometimes they are very disrespectful,” says Julia. Another Polish student observes, “[I don’t like] the way some American students approach school and teachers. I can’t stand it when students go to class without saying anything, sleep all the time, don’t pay attention, behave inappropriately, and have no respect for a Chromebook and teachers.”
Like so many Europeans, Polish students are surprised that Americans spend so much time at home. “It was hard for me to get used to the student lifestyle. Everyone just goes home after school (maybe it was just my school), but they don’t even go for a coffee after school and that was hard for me,” explains one student.
"Compared to school in Poland, the amount of homework seems like nothing,” says one very happy Polish student. This concurs with reports from students around the world who enjoy more free time during their year in the USA.
Marta was impressed with full-time mothers. “Many American homes have a stay-at-home mom which is nice,” she points out. While Magda observed just how hard moms work. “I noticed that mothers had to take care of everything at home and remember about everything, from housework to taking care of kids.”
And while many American mothers double as taxi drivers, students from Poland point out how difficult it can be to get around in the USA. “There is a lack of public transport,” says Marta. “You need a lift everywhere and unless someone can take you, you can’t walk anywhere yourself.” Another student agrees with her: “There is no public transportation in smaller cities. You need a car to get anywhere while in Poland you can just take a bus or train.”
Teenagers don’t drive at 16 in Poland, so this is something to write home about. “It’s still kind of funny for me that a 16-year-old person has a car and is going everywhere in it,” says one student while Marta notes that this “gives some taste of freedom and flexibility”.
Work in the USA
The American work ethic also stands out. “It surprised me how Americans work so much,” says Magda. “People work long hours, have a long commute and come back home very late,” reports Marta, but that’s not all. She finds another surprise in this department: “Many teenagers work for pocket money.”
Compared to Polish fare, American food is heavy duty. “It was very hard to maintain healthy weight,” recalls Marta. “The food is packed with sugar and unhealthy. In general, healthy and fresh food is more expensive than junk food.” And portion size doesn’t help. Magda was surprised by the “big portions in the restaurants, and generally big amounts of food”.
American Dress Codes
Americans are famous for dressing casually, showing up in jeans, t-shirts and tennis shoes at a wide array of venues and events. And this surprises students from Poland. “You can wear sweatpants outside your house, even to go to school,” muses Marta.
Grocery shopping can be an adventure for foreigners in any country. This is what Polish students notice in the USA: “Americans bulk buy groceries. They don’t go to the shop every day to buy fresh meat, vegetables or bread,” says Marta, while Magda notes that “the most surprising is that everything here is huge and that in grocery shops you can get whatever you want. It’s very big choice.”
Who would have thought that Polish students would be surprised by the way we use our credit cards! “Giving a waiter or someone your credit card to pay for something…” says one student. “It’s definitely something that is really weird for me, and I still can’t understand how people trust a stranger.”
Or rather…a lack of trash cans. The public waste management plan must be different in Poland because one student points out that, “Trash cans aren’t that common in public spaces whereas in Poland you can find them on every corner.”
Or once again, shall we say, lack of transparency? Americans are proud that we “put our cards and the table” and “say it like it is”, “getting to the point” and making things clear. But many foreigners would disagree. “I didn’t like people being afraid of saying something straight,” explains Magda. “I mean saying ‘everything is fine’ when it was not. I think Americans are worried about offending someone with saying what they think.”
Polish students come from a country with a social welfare system that works hard not to leave anyone out in the cold – literally. The homeless in the USA do not go unnoticed by Polish students. “It’s very sad that a lot of people In the USA are homeless and have to stay outside even if it’s very cold,” says Julia, while another student laments that “in the US there are a lot of homeless people who suffer, especially during the winter.”
Is rigid punctuality good or bad? It depends on where you are from, but at least one Polish student admires the American way. “American people are usually on time or arrive in advance. In my opinion it’s a good advantage that allows you to manage your time.”
In every country around the world, families have their own particular ways of interacting and having fun together. The American way can be a big surprise for foreigner teenagers. “In family life [in the USA] I also enjoyed board game evenings and eating dinners together. It was always a nice way of spending time,” recalls Magda.
Thanksgiving surprises foreign exchange students from around the world. This was Magda’s impression: “I like their food. Thanksgiving when the whole family gathers around, all these little things bring joy to life and make it easier. I learned that being in the US. I will be always grateful for that.”
Would you like to see your life through Polish eyes? Host an exchange student from Poland and change the way you see yourself, your family and your world – forever!