Being a Brit living in America is full of surprises, and you never know where the next one will come from. I was alone in the house the other day and became aware of the sound of water running. It was one of those things that slowly crept into the consciousness, and eventually surfaced as a question – why is there water running when I’m the only one in the house, and everything should be shut off? With a sigh, I went around to find the source of the noise, eventually locating it to the downstairs bathroom, and specifically to the toilet. I pushed the handle to see if that would help, but no, it continued to run, so I lifted the lid of the cistern to see what was happening.Now, I’m not a great do-it-yourselfer, but I’ve done a bit of house maintenance in my time, and I’m familiar with how a toilet system works. Or at least I thought I was until I looked down into this American one and realized that it was constructed in an entirely different way than I’d ever seen. Back in the UK I was familiar with the siphon system where water is pulled up and then flows down into the toilet. What I was looking at was entirely different – it didn’t have a siphon, so how did it work?
Luckily the University of Google soon answered that question, and I was introduced for the first time to the “flapper” style of cistern. Once I got the idea and looked at diagrams online, I understood what I was seeing, and where the problem was. I went to the store to buy the part I needed, and the toilet was soon working properly again. But it was another kind of culture shock; who knew that a simple toilet cistern would work fundamentally differently either side of the Atlantic?
I face a similar thing with driving. Just recently there has been some road construction in my area, and a roundabout has been placed at a junction. Anyone who has driven in the UK knows that roundabouts are a common scene along almost any road, but here they are something of an oddity. I fear to turn onto that part of the road because many drivers have no idea how they are supposed to act. As I approach, I wonder it the driver in front will realize that they have to turn right onto the roundabout, and will the car approaching from the junction know that I have the right of way?
I’m not blaming the American drivers because I know it all depends on what we are used to. I am still in trepidation when I approach the ubiquitous 4 way stop sign. In my driving career before I moved here, a stop sign meant that you are coming to a major road which had right of way. Coming up to one meant that I had to stop and wait for there to be a gap in the traffic going past my road. Here the 4 way stop means that everyone halts, and then the first one at the junction move first. The actual operation is simple, if not always easy, you just have to note the order the vehicles stop, and then take your turn. I’m sure that if I’d grown up with this system I’d be as instinctively aware as all the other drivers seem to be.
The most difficult thing for me is to override my instincts. Say I’ve come to the junction, stopped, and it’s my turn to move. I start off, and then spot a car coming along from my right. Back in the UK I should have stopped for them, because I had a stop sign, and my instinct is to slam on the breaks and say sorry for getting in the way. But it’s my turn and I have to carry on regardless.
Sometimes, culture shock comes in a strange way. The fact that the UK talks about floors in a building as Ground 1st and 2nd while the US calls them 1,2 and 3 is well known. I knew that long before I moved over here, so it wasn’s a surprise. But when I stepped into an elevator, turned to the buttons and saw one for “Ground” as well as one for “1” I was utterly confused. I wanted to go to the floor which had the doors to the street on, which is Ground in the UK and 1 in the US, my mind told me. Here I was in the US and so there shouldn’t be a Ground button, there hadn’t been a Ground button in any US elevator I’d used before, but here one was now. I was paralyzed with indecision.
I apparently looked as confused as I felt, and someone quickly came to my rescue. It turned out, this building was on a hill, and both the first and ground floors had exits at street level. Quite why the use of the G-word still puzzles me, but at least I managed to get out of the building.
I’m sure in time my culture shock feelings will diminish, which is sad because it’s exciting to be discovering unexpected new things. I am looking forward to the next time something mundane makes me stop and think.
Derek was raised on the UK's South Coast, and has lived in London, England, Edinburgh, Scotland, and the East Anglia region of England. He is now a resident of St Louis, Missouri, USA. He is an author and blogger, and you can also follow Derek's adventures on his blog and Facebook page.