Tag Archives: Culture shock

American ‘candy’!

As I faced the possibility this summer that our American adventure might be coming to an end, it suddenly struck me that I hadn’t fully explored the wealth of American candy out there. As you can see from the photo below, not all American candy is unfamiliar to the British eye. Both countries have access to Mars products like Snickers, Twix and MnMs, and I’ve definitely come across Reese’s cups in the UK. But look closely and you’ll see that American Milky Ways don’t look quite the same as British ones, and then there’s the puzzle of the intriguingly named 3 Musketeers…

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So for the good cause of this blog, I carried out some research into all the chocolate that was unfamiliar to me. I may have to wait a few months for my waistline to recover before I repeat the experiment for non-chocolate candy (or as we say in the UK, sweets)! Anyway, while I’m sure I’ve missed plenty, the preliminary results are now in. I now have a good idea what the different sorts of candy are, and which I would walk to the store to buy in the event of a sugar crisis. In other words, I’ve tasted a variety of Hersheys and other products, and scored them (highly subjectively) out of 5.

Firstly, I can report that, in fact:

  • US Milky Ways are actually like Mars Bars (I’d give them 4/5).
  • And the 3 Musketeers bars are, in a pleasantly surprising way, what UK milky ways used to be like in the 80s/early 90s (these score a perfect 5/5, partly for the nostalgia value).

Another one that made me nostalgic was the Heath bar, which I discovered is like the UK’s dime bar! Toffee in the US is pretty much always hard. Unfortunately this is Hershey’s – I don’t like the after-taste of their chocolate – so I can only score it 2/5.

The York Peppermint Patty is famous from Charlie Brown cartoons. It’s pretty good, not too sweet, and comes in mini or standard sizes. 5/5

There are a few brands that come in boxes, and seem to have been popular cinema snacks:

  •  Milk duds – not at all what I expected from the name. These are like the chocolate covered toffee you get in a tub of Quality street. After a while all the chewing gets tiring (2/5).
  • Junior mints – nice, small chocolate covered mint creams. Pleasant, but not much to write home about (4/5).
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These were devoured before I remembered to take photos…

As you might know, there’s a wealth of peanut themed sweets in the US, so I thought I’d give them their own section. Here’s my observations so far:

  • Reese’s Cups – I always loved these when I could get them in the UK. Chocolate over peanut butter cream – how can you go wrong? In the US they don’t just come in the original sized cups, but also in a large cup, and as mini-cups (eat a whole bag of these and you’ll feel very sick). Sometimes you can find them in dark chocolate. At Halloween they made pumpkin shaped cups, and for Valentines they were heart-shaped (tasty and versatile, always a good bet – 5/5).
  • Reese’s Nutrageous bar – might be my favourite. A bar of peanut butter cream plus actual peanuts, covered in chocolate (5/5).
  • Reese’s pieces – these look like MnMs, but are disappointing. They could actually do with some chocolate as they’re just sweet peanut cream in sweet candy shells (2/5)
  • Butterfinger – again, these come in regular and mini, and they recently brought out a cup version to compete with Reese’s. These remind me slightly of the old peanut cracknell that used to be in Quality Street, but I’m not sure this works so well in a large size (4/5 – mainly for the minis)
  • Baby Ruth – Seemed to me to be basically just like a Snickers, which is not bad (4/5)
  • Mr. Good bar – this is just a Hershey bar with peanuts, and, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not a fan of Hershey’s chocolate (1/5)
  • Payday – salty peanuts in a sweet corn syrup paste. This was actually rather unpleasant. (zero)
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I’m not sure what it is the York peppermint patty has 70% less fat than – a stick of butter?

Happily, as you might know if you’re a regular reader of my blog, our American adventure did not come to an end this autumn – our new visas were approved – so I still have time to try more American candy! There’s always plenty to choose from, including the seasonal treats surrounding Valentines Day, Easter, and Halloween. So if you know of an American candy bar I’ve not tried yet, do let me know. Which are your favourites?

Taking stock

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed that my original 18 months in DC are nearly up. However, we’ve enjoyed our time in the States so much that we’re trying to get a new visa so we can stay a bit longer. I’ll attempt to write about our visa saga soon, when I might know more. Whatever happens, we’ll have a four week grace period, after the 18-month work placement, in which we can travel and say our goodbyes. But, as I was flying back to DC from a trip to California (also to be written about soon!) I started taking stock of a few things.

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Taking stock up in the clouds. I think this was the edge of the Rockies.

Back when I was in the midst of ex-pat culture shock I wrote lists of everything I hated about living in DC and about living in America (I later wrote one about the things that I liked). So, as I’m staring down the barrel of possible repatriation culture shock, I thought I’d write a few more lists: about what I would miss about America if we really have to leave soon, what I am looking forward to about possibly returning to London and the UK, and things that I’ve learnt about myself since moving to America.

Things I’d miss about America

  1. Diners. This one is linked to my second:
  2. Brunch. I’ve written before about my love of American brunch. Since our first experiences we’ve also sampled boozy brunches with friends, amazing home-made pop tarts at the DC institution that is Ted’s Bulletin, and a lot more Mexican themed brunch dishes. My waist-line will probably not miss this.
  3. Climate. I know I have complained about this on numerous occasions (for example, here), but I really like how in DC I don’t have to worry about a coat or even really a cardigan for about 7 months of the year. I’ve also just visited California, and their climate makes me wonder why we don’t all just move there.
  4. Variety of states to visit. There’s so much to see! I’ve visited I think 10 states in my 18 months here, which means there are 40 I haven’t had a chance to see yet. I can make a decent stab at improving this situation during our grace period, but I have enough places on my to-visit list to fill at least five different holidays.
  5. Attitude. I didn’t realize how British negativity can get you down, until I was freed of it. There’s just an assumption over here that people will be friendly, open and confident. And because this was expected of me, I found that after a few months I was friendly, open and confident – or at least a lot more than I used to be.
  6. Wine. Ok, I know we have this in Europe. Pretty good wine too. But I’d just been wine tasting in Sonoma, so it was on my mind.
  7. Fitness culture. People who knew me a long time ago will be surprised at this one. But I have found that it’s a lot easier to start running outside when everyone else is doing it.
  8. The ease of everything. This is always what R and I say about America: stuff is just easy. Apart from the bureaucracy of tax, health insurance etc., things like going out and enjoying yourself, in terms of booking, or putting your name on a list, or there just being room, just seem a lot easier over here.

Things I’m looking forward to about London/UK

  1. Knowing my way around. I love traversing London using the network of buses and tubes.
  2. M&S and Waitrose. I do miss their ready-meals and snacks.
  3. Cantonese food. I wrote recently about how hard it’s been finding the kind of Chinese food that I’m used to. I have cravings for prawn crackers and chicken chow mein in gravy.
  4. UK Holidays… in Yorkshire or Devon or the Lakes, or Wales. While it’s a small country the UK certainly has its own wealth of landscapes. I’ve been vicariously enjoying other ex-pats’ adventures in my home country (such as Amanda Afield’s adventures in Wales which made me very homesick!).
  5. Being close to Europe. I really didn’t take advantage of this enough while I was in the UK.
  6. Culture. DC does have theater and I do like the Kennedy Center, but I haven’t been able to work out how to get cheap tickets to reliably good things yet. I miss the English National Opera and National Theatre’s deals.
  7. Friends and family. Obviously.
  8. Humour. And British spelling.

That second list was hard, as I was trying to write it while flying over the Grand Canyon… It’s a bit difficult for the UK to compete with that.

Things I’ve learnt about myself  since moving to America

  1. I actually quite like patriotism and earnestness. In moderation.
  2. I can get along with most people – and I’ve met a lot of very different people.
  3. I love road trips. Though, as we’ve only really done one proper road trip, this might just have been the novelty. We’re planning to take a couple of weeks of our grace period and drive out West, that should be the real test.
  4. I really like motels/American hotels. This is partly because of the ease and friendliness of all my experiences so far.
  5. Traveling doesn’t have to be a big deal/stressful for me. I used to be a terrible traveler, stressing about a few hours’ train journey. Now that I’ve driven with R for days in the South and traveled on my own to conferences in cities I’d never heard of – and enjoyed these experiences – I’m a far more confident traveler. And finally…
  6. I can run! The fitness culture of DC, the easily available sports gear, and the variety of trails/courses to run have turned me into a runner (at least when it’s not too humid).

The Downsides to Living in Washington DC

There are ups and downs to living in any city. These are the things that began to annoy me about three months into my stay in DC.

  1. The metro. Coming from London, the DC metro has not impressed. Granted, it’s a striking design – the symmetry and concrete grandeur can’t help but impress – but it’s not really a system. What I mean by that is that it’s not really designed for circumnavigating the city, changing trains quickly and easily in a plethora of choice and efficiency (as I fondly remember the London tube). It was designed to get people into the city from their homes in suburbia, and then get them out again – quickly. So there are usually plenty of trains at rush hour, but in the middle of the day you can quite easily wait 10 minutes for a connection. All of which means it’s usually more efficient to take the line you can (you very rarely have a choice of more than one line except at one of the 3 or 4 interchanges) to as close to your destination as that line will get you and then walk or catch a bus above ground, rather than changing. Given the paucity of train lines, it also means that if something goes wrong on one line, you’re stuck. And something does go wrong – very often. Also, I’m not sure if I’m imagining this, but the escalators – many of which are interminably long, as the metro is inexplicably deep underground – seem to go much more slowly during the day than at rush hour. In good news, most people know how to use the escalators – stand on the right! – but there will always be a few people who don’t know the rule, and people here have a lot more patience with these offenders than we did in London. Finally, there’s so little information that it’s amazing I haven’t ended up on the wrong train more often; they’re clearly so protective of the lovely clean lines of their metro design that they don’t want to mess it up with useful things like signs and maps. Overall, I’d say they could learn a lot from TfL.
  2. The rats. I know that in London you’re supposedly never more than a few feet from a rat. But that statistic is based on the fact that they’re usually in the sewers far beneath your feet. In DC they have alleyways – proper alleyways with rubbish lining them and mysterious substances oozing down the middle of them – and that’s where the rats live. In three months of being here I saw three rats – more than I had in about a year in London – and that’s not counting the squished ones that lie on the pavement until the flies finish them off.
  3. The climate. Granted, I’ve not experienced much of this, but when it was hot and humid those couple of months in the summer, when we didn’t have proper air conditioning yet, it was not fun. I’m somewhat dreading the winter. And when it rains, often out of the blue, it really rains.
  4. Lack of good Chinese takeaway. So far every Chinese I’ve tried has been bland. Generally American food seems to steer away from being too hot (apart from some good Buffalo sauce on chicken wings or pizza). In terms of Chinese, there seems to be a greater emphasis on healthy preparation – so lots of steamed rice and not enough fried rice or noodles. Prawn crackers don’t seem to be a thing here either – the only time I’ve seen them was at an American seafood restaurant. I have heard that many Chinese families moved out to the suburbs a little while ago, which might explain the dearth of good takeaway in the centre. Of course the silver lining to this issue is that I’m not eating much takeaway, for which my wallet is certainly grateful.
  5. Homelessness/panhandling. This was very noticeable in DC when we arrived, especially around 18th street and Columbia Road NW, where we were staying. Around here there’s a particularly aggressive style to the begging, and an ambitiousness to it too – one person demanded I give him $20, another sits outside a deli and shouts at customers to buy him a sandwich. Sometimes they just shout abuse. As well as the annoyance that the begging causes, and the distressing spectacle of it, we found some local attitudes towards the homeless rather hard to take as well. Because there’s so much emphasis on freedom and individualism there’s not much suggestion that the state or city should do much about it. The most sympathetic analysis we came across was that the majority of the homeless are mentally ill and that the cause of a lot of the problem was the shutting down of mental institutions, begun by Reagan (Thatcher in the UK) in the 80s. When two homeless men died of hypothermia in DC, one newspaper journalist reported that one of the men ‘liked wine’ and therefore chose to avoid the homeless shelters where alcohol was forbidden. Saying that someone who was in all likelihood suffering from alcoholism ‘likes’ wine just shows that you don’t know – or don’t want to know – anything about it. But if it can be believed that personal, individual, free choices led to this man’s death then obviously the city gets to duck the blame.
  6. The water. This smells and tastes weirdly of earth. After years of living in London and ridiculing people who used bottled or filtered water we have finally moved to a place where we need a Brita filter. While a great invention it adds expense and hassle to tap water.
  7. Lack of good gyms. This is a common complaint. There are not very many gyms and so we are rather a captive market to be exploited by fitness giants such as Washington Sports Club. We spend what we used to on our nice little gym/spa in Bermondsey, with its steam room, sauna, Jacuzzi and swimming pool, in order to use old machines, 50% of which don’t work, in a cavernous warehouse that has used space that could have accommodated a pool for a ‘Turkish hamam’ – basically some heated benches in a cold room with a shower.

I know there are aspects of every city that are annoying – I probably complained plenty about London when I was living there – and that DC is much more live-able than it has probably ever been, but right here and now these are the things that are affecting me and I felt I had to get them off my chest. Rant over (for now).

Culture shock

This blog was started in the excitement of experiencing another country for the first time and of exploring a new city. Because I had no permission to work here my life was being lived largely online, as I continued to collaborate with UK colleagues on a special issue of a journal, applied to and prepared for conferences back home, communicated with UK friends on Twitter and Facebook – and of course carried on this blog.

Then between July and September things changed. We had just moved into our more permanent DC apartment, spent nearly all our money on the deposit and on furnishing it as sparsely as possible (while still being able to accommodate all our stuff that had just arrived in boxes), and I had applied – and paid for – permission to work. I guess you could say that things had begun to get real.

People with experience of living abroad had warned me of the potential roller-coaster of a trajectory my moods might take following the first flush of ex-pat excitement. I think I dismissed it because I believed I would still be so connected to the UK and the virtual world of academia. But actually my conference trips back to the UK made things rather worse than better. After just under two weeks of whirlwind travel and bingeing on London, friends and family I found myself back in the US exhausted and more homesick than ever.

The fact that it was summer was both positive and negative. We had vacations to enjoy, but it was difficult to build up routines and social networks in DC. It was also the prime time to apply for adjunct teaching work – but I still hadn’t received permission to work. For those few months of Spring I had enjoyed the holiday feel of life as the spouse of a J1. Now, though I couldn’t believe it was possible, I was bored of being on vacation.

[Vacation – to vacate your previous life in favour of a life of vacancy?]

All this is really in order to introduce the following couple of blog posts that deal with the more negative side of expat life and the phases of culture shock that can be experienced. There were times when everything about setting up life here was exhausting and I was angry with everyone who seemed to be going out of their way to make things difficult. There were times when, at the slightest provocation, I loudly proclaimed my hatred of DC.

Things have improved; Pret has now opened near the Library of Congress and I know where I can buy chocolate hobnobs. After six months here I’ve got to grips with my local buses. And I’ve begun to develop something of a social network.

It’s important though, I think, not to expunge the more negative experiences of these eighteen months from the record. Some readers in similar positions may take comfort in not being alone in their reactions to life in a foreign country and others preparing to move to the US might be better prepared to face the privations and incivilities of life here. Just to be clear, settling in DC is probably a cakewalk compared with trying to make a new life in a small town in America’s interior, but no matter how often people say that cities like DC or Boston are ‘European’ it’s important not to forget that they are at heart American. And no matter how acculturated we might imagine ourselves – all those Hollywood films and episodes of Friends – America can still be very foreign.