Growing up anywhere in the world – with perhaps the exception of Iran, North Korea, Burma and Cuba – you are inundated with impressions of US culture. My first impressions were probably from the Coca Cola ads on TV in New Zealand in the 1970s, with all these impossibly gorgeous, unnaturally-white-teethed, smiling teenagers (were they also the Real Thing in the US?).
With the arrival of KFC
(I can still sing the first KFC ads –
“and Hugo said “you go”
and I said “no you go”
and soon he was back
with a pack …” )
and then MacDonald’s, Jaws, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy and Bonanza etc, the US of A seemed as familiar to us as other parts of New Zealand.
So a visit there is a strange mix of the familiar and the foreign, a realisation of how much we share, and yet how different we are too.
Unfortunately, most travellers from Asia and the Pacific arrive in the US in LAX, one of the most unpleasant and inefficient airports I’ve been to. On top of this, all arrivals seem to be treated with suspicion and hostility, the simple use of the word “alien” puts us in our place. Transferring at LAX is a dodgy experience at best. However, once I am safely through immigration and customs and out of LAX, my experiences in the US have been invariably positive. Americans seem very open and engaging, with an innate confidence. At home in New Zealand, that confidence on a national basis comes across as brash, insular, and arrogant. Face-to-face and individually, it is very different; pleasant, relaxed and friendly.
Of course, the US is a huge country and extremely diverse, demographically, geographically, economically, climatically. I remember my friend Sharon, from Wilmington Delaware, telling me to my amazement that she’d met people from the West Coast who did not know where Delaware was. So years later, in Florida, I was not so offended when a woman shop owner, after learning I was from New Zealand, said knowledgeably, “oh yes, my daughter has been to Africa.”
The West Coast, Midwest and the East feel very different, but they all feel familiar. (Warning: I am about to make gross generalisations). The East Coast, especially the streets of Bethesda where my friend Christine lived, was the America of TV Christmas shows, affluent, warm and cosy, wreaths on the doors, snowmen on the front lawns. The America of Dayton was the US of neighbourhoods, porches and barbecues in the backyard. The America I saw in California was the US of Weeds or Desperate Housewives or Edward Scissorhands – suburbia and big cars. I haven’t yet been to the south (Florida doesn’t count) or Texas, even though I have a Texan sister-in-law, or a million places in between.
The size of the country is overwhelming. I’ve been there about eight times, only lightly scratching the surface. Arriving in LA from New Zealand after a gruelling 12-14 hour flight, you feel as if you should be at your destination. But if you’re going east, there is another long four to five hour flight ahead, with the added indignity of a transfer in LAX. This is a big country. Flying across the US I saw how close Los Angeles has spread into the forest, enjoyed the thrill of flying across the Grand Canyon on a clear day, was bewildered by the circles on the landscape in the middle of what seems like desert (until I realised they were irrigation circles), then I’d settle down to watch a movie. When it’s over, I’m still flying over the US.
Driving here is a must-do. It is of course a country built around the vehicle. It is generally easy to navigate, especially on the well-marked freeways – even driving into LA is not too hard – and there’s the added bonus of being able to rent a red Mustang convertible (not available in NZ) to sightsee. Christmas Day 1995 was spent in just such a convertible driving around Oahu.
The West Coast reminds you of just how vast this country is. We drove once from San Francisco to LA, and I was surprised by the emptiness of the country between Monterey and Santa Barbara. At a camp in Big Sur we saw redwoods and blue birds (not sure what they were but they were blue!) for the first time, not to forget our first raccoon on New Year’s Day 1996 just outside San Francisco (who knew from the Disney cartoons that they were so big?!).
It feels much more manageable on the East Coast. Only a few hours from Washington DC and you can be on the coast or in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I was about 11 at school, I had to learn John Denver’s song Almost Heaven, and the words stuck. So yes, I’m afraid I sang it … over and over again…to my husband’s horror and my not-so-secret-now shame.
Of course, it’s not all positive, but my grumbles are few. Tipping is a constant pain to someone from a no-tipping culture. The stress of figuring out whether to tip or not, how much, etc can get to a traveller. In one hotel in LA which catered to a lot of NZ and Australian tourists we were handed a tip calculation” chart! “The cheek!” we thought! Why don’t they just pay their waiters/housemaids etc a living wage?! Not to mention that if we encountered good service, my husband would cynically say “they’re just after a good tip.”
Also frustrating is the strange system of adding taxes to goods only at the till, rather than including them in the original marked price. The constant presence of fast food chains can be a bit depressing. It is often harder for travellers to hunt out the smaller, unique, boutique cafes and restaurants that exist in local neighbourhoods. Occasionally I was lucky enough to be directed to local favourites by friends or colleagues, and discovered some wonderful food as a result; wonderful up-market Vietnamese restaurant in Bethesda, excellent Italian in Cape May, etc.
I find I usually leave the US having picked up a version of an American accent. It’s a survival mechanism. Whilst I am very familiar with US accents and have no problem understanding Americans, they have real difficulty understanding me at times. I learned to do this first as a student in Thailand, when the only people I spoke to in English were American students. They taught me how to change my vowels, adjusting my “park the car in the yard” to an understandable US version. (Mine completely lacks pronunciation of any R). I usually realise I need to start adjusting my vowels on the flight from LA to Dulles. “Water” said in kiwi is met with a blank look. “Worh terh” I say. “Oh,” the flight attendant will say, “Wuw– durrrr!”
There is so much more to see and do in the US. On my list (but not only) are Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, New York (for longer), New Orleans, Seattle, Monument Valley, deserts, Savannah, Chicago, Boston, New England in autumn (oops I mean Fall), more of Florida, more of everywhere, more, more. I have a brother-in-law and nieces who live in California. We need to visit them. I have good friends in Dayton, Delaware, DC and Florida. I don’t want to lose touch with them. There might even be others much further north (or in the deep south) I might search out in the future. The joy of travelling with friends is living in the neighbourhoods, seeing their lives, observing the culture. Even though I don’t travel there for business any more, I know I will be back. After all, I’ve only just begun to explore.