What culture shocks do international students face in the US?

I don't even know where to start. There is much to say.

I came to the US (specifically the state of Maine) already as a Chinese immigrant from another country, and because of that, by the time when I was introduced to a group of international students from China, I found myself in a rather unique situation: I was experiencing culture shocks from both Americans and people from my motherland.

Regarding the hospitality that Ingvi has mentioned in his answer, I think it is not limited only to Southerners - It is applicable to most non-urban regions. When I first landed in the Detroit airport, I was surprised at how rude the airport staff were, but then when I arrived in Maine a few hours later, everyone's attitude was entirely opposite. I was exposed to so much friendliness to the point that my eyes were a little watery. Though it didn't take too long for me to figure out that, when a stranger on the street asks you "how are you?", they are not expecting a full-fledged response. Apparently, most new international students get this wrong.

I was enrolled as a high school senior my first year here, and here are some things in particular caught my attention:
  • I was surprised at how teenagers of my age (16) are working long hours to pay for their own expenses. Most Asian students were told by their parents to focus on education and pay less attention to everything else.
  • Oh, and the heavenly schooling hours of US high schools, which start at 7:30am~8am and end around 2pm~2:30pm. This is only about half (less than half in certain cases) of the time that Chinese students spend in school.
  • The freedom to wear clothes of your choice and to have any kind of hairstyle was also new to me. I was quite intrigued that I did nothing in the first few hours of school other than observing the other students' appearance. (In fact, I started growing my hair out because of this... It ended up becoming really, really long.)
  • Also along the line of the freedom of being a student: Extracurricular activities are taken very seriously.

When I started college:
  • I was shocked to learn how much debt that most US students have to afford in order to go to school: Average student loan debt: $29,400 (I received a full-ride scholarship so I was off the hook.)
  • Yet, a lot of students own a car and cannot seem to live without it. I know a few students that live on negative income just because of their car payments.
  • My first partial impression of the fraternities and sororities was "where parties and everything else take place." I thought: There are organizations established for the sake of partying?
  • This is more on the part of being a Chinese - I have met a handful of Chinese international students that came from an affluent (and powerful, in a some cases) family. Their luxurious lifestyle tends to create a stereotype that Chinese students are wealthy.

In general:
  • You don't have to worry about being thirsty and having to pay for water. Just walk into a grocery store, then there you have it - A water fountain. Having free potable water in most public locations is unimaginable in both the Philippines and China.
  • People own a lot of stuff (which can be a bad thing), and the quality of life is significantly better. Facilities, equipments, just things in general, are better than most of what I have seen in my home countries.
  • "Wow, this is really expensive." - I grew up in a country where $10 is enough to pay for an entire day of food, and I am not talking about fast food, but three decent and healthy meals. This is may be a common experience for students that originated from less wealthy nations.
  • Diet is greasier, sweeter, or both. The first restaurant that I visited here was one of those "American-Chinese food" restaurant, and the food was memorable in a very unpleasant way. (On the upside, I learned how to cook because of having little access to good food).
  • I know some (scarily) religious people. They possess a level of faith incomparable to any of that I have seen in the past, and the Philippines is a Christian country.

That's it for the moment... More to come.
As an Indian I have the habit of using British English because that is what I was taught since childhood. However, when you come to the United States, there are certain things that you experience in your everyday life related to general ways of communicating that are strikingly different. This is interesting because you don't realize these differences until your American counterpart fails to understand what you just tried to say.

My experiences are not just limited to the classroom but a general representation of how the American and British English could be conflicting in day to day life. Here are few such instances along with some other culture shocks that I experienced.

1. Inside the Classroom: We usually ask questions to the professor by saying the word 'Sir'. However, in the U.S., the word 'Sir' is not used as such in classrooms. Students usually say 'Professor' or 'Dr. ABC' to ask questions. And yes, they do allow food inside classrooms at a lot of universities in the U.S.! The last time I remember having lunch in my classroom in India, I was thrown out of class. Haha!

2. At Work: I was working as a part-time employee in my university and after finishing my work one day, I was waiting for the elevator. Meanwhile, an American employee came and stood next to me. I politely asked her, "Are you waiting for the lift?". She was astounded and asked me, "What? A lift? What's that? You call an elevator a lift? Haha!". It was a funny conversation later on because I ended up getting into the depths of explaining why calling an elevator a lift could be appropriate!

3. Greeting Strangers: Well at first it was awkward. You are roaming around and random people passing by greet you with a smile. But with time you get used to it. It does make you feel special sometimes.

4. High on Life Attitude: Americans enjoy everything! They live carefree. They are lively people. They will do a lot of wacky things that you will never imagine yourself doing! That is because western and eastern cultures are like two different sides of a coin. And of course the standards of living differ between developed and developing countries.

5. Meal Sizes: You go to a restaurant and you order food. What you get next is what you eat in lunch and dinner together! The meal sizes in the U.S. are massive! Thank God they invented the to-go boxes! But gradually your own appetite goes up and you end up eating as much as an average American person would eat.

6. Tips: You go to a restaurant or a bar, you pay a tip. Yes, it is a norm and you should follow it in the U.S. It is considered inappropriate if you leave the place without a tip. It comes out as a culture shock initially especially when you convert every penny you spend to your local currency when you first land in the U.S. But you soon get used to it.

7. The Girls: Oh boy. It feels like you are in a wonderland! Wherever you look, you see pretty girls with blue eyes dressed beautifully and you certainly wish you were born in this country! But sadly you will realize that most of them are taken. And when you look at all those tall, handsome American guys, you start losing hopes even more! Haha.

8. The Food: Well, Indian food has been scientifically proven to be the best cuisine in the world. Sadly, when you enter the U.S., your consumption is mainly overpowered with junk foods like fries, cheese burgers, cheese steaks and what not! The food tastes bland and after a while you start realizing the urge to have home cooked food. But you do have some great Indian restaurants to satisfy your palate. I personally like cheese steaks a lot so I don't complain!

9. When Westerners Interpret Your Culture: It is interesting how inadequately western people interpret our culture. I was once asked by an American friend, "Do you speak Hindu?". I had to explain her the difference between Hindi and Hindu. While I do appreciate some interest that some American people show in our cultures and traditions, it is usually misinterpreted because of the lots of stereotypes that have developed over years through different channels. I wouldn't censure the westerners for that. If I was an American and I saw Slumdog Millionaire, I would probably picture India as a country full of slums and poverty. Well, we all know that this is not true for the world's largest democracy which has the world's fourth largest army and the world's cheapest space missions, and I can keep going on!

It all boils down to this. You come to the United States to live your American dream. You face challenges from the first day onwards but you end up being intellectually stronger and wiser. You take the best of both worlds. You face a lot failures. Sometimes you lose hope. But it all turns well for you in the end. Because hard work always pays off remember!

There were many cultural "shocks" that I had when I came to the US for college. It was my first time in a western country, let alone the US, and so there were many differences I noticed after coming here. Fortunately, I liked the changes since I thought the culture and attitudes back home were a bit too strict for my liking. It will be hard to recall every differences here, but I will try to list as many as I can.

  1. Schedule of classes - This was one of the most noticeable differences between studying in India and the US. In India, going to school or college is very similar to workplace. Students wake up around 6am or so and are in college by 8 or 9am. Students spend about 8 hours in classes every weekday, just like in workplace. However after coming to the US, I would at most have 3 classes a day lasting little more than an hour each. So in total, I would spend only between 3–4 hours in classes every day. And most of the classes were in the afternoon or evening. That meant we could easily sleep until 8am or more every day and not miss a single class. Things were even more relaxing in graduate school when all my classes were in the afternoon or evening. I could easily sleep late and wake up around noon and have time for everything. It was definitely convenient then, but now I struggle to go back to the initial schedule of waking up early morning. So I wonder if this relaxed schedule is a good or bad thing.
  2. Convenience of classes - On top of the increase in free time, the classes were mostly scheduled in such a way that there was always some time in between them. Sometimes there would only be 10 or 15 mins between classes, but at other times, they would be hours apart. As an example, if my first class was at 10, the next class could be at 2pm or even 7pm. There were also many days in which I had only 1 or 2 classes. The only long classes were for labs, which were about 3 hours long. Thankfully they were only once a week or so. Things became even more convenient in graduate school. They had a privilege of recorded classes for long distance students. So a student doesn't have to be physically present in the class. That way even students from another city or country could attend the same class online. While this schedule is convenient, it also made students including myself lazy and we would skip many classes since we know that we will find the same lecture online later in the same day. But it was a pleasant surprise nevertheless.
  3. Attitudes towards the professors and elders - In India, students always address professors with "Good Morning Professor" or "Good Morning Teacher" etc. Students would stand up in unison when the professor arrived and wished them. But in the US, I have never seen a single such instance. People keep sitting in their seats and doing their things until the class began. Also the term "Sir" is seldom used in the US. I guess it is a British thing. Also people call the elders with their first names in the US. In India, elders are always addressed with a respectful title like "Sir" etc. People never call elders with their names. So that is also a considerable difference between the places.
  4. Friendly people - I have found Americans in general to be very approachable, friendly and helpful. I have had to move in and out of places many times in the US and I have always had someone to help me including total strangers. People do expect the same of you as well. Of course, Iam only speaking in general and there are many exceptions. In general, Americans are easy to get along with. Also the women are friendly and approachable. I was surprised to know that if you were interested in a girl, you could ask her out on a date even if you weren't friends beforehand etc. In India, that would be a dream. In many places outside the big cities, guys and girls hardly mingle with each other and a guy approaching a girl for a date etc would be considered creepy. Many people still believe you cannot just be friends with the opposite sex as young people. It was refreshing to see this change in the US. I must admit I was initially a bit awkward around girls, but eventually I did go out with them to restaurants and formal events. Iam still learning to become a better partner.
  5. Pork, ham and bacon everywhere - I have been to many cities and 3 different countries before going to the US. I only heard of pork and related meats until then, but had never seen or tasted it. However once I was in the US, I very soon had pork and soon found that it is everywhere. It was as common as beef and chicken if not even more. I saw bacon for the first time and soon realized why people liked it so much. I then tried staying away from beef and soon I found myself having either pork or chicken as my meat sources. Eventually I ventured into the vegetarian options and was just as surprised at the choices available. Then I started having more vegetarian meals and eating meat only 2–3 days a week. It has been almost 3 years since I left the US and there should be no surprises when I say I have never had pork since then.
  6. High speed and unlimited internet everywhere - This was also a surprise since US is the only place where I have seen such high speed and unlimited internet. In India and other places, there has always been data plans with data restrictions. For example, 10 or 15 GB monthly for a certain cost. If you exceed the 10 GBs, you will need to pay again. Due to the unlimited internet in the US, it was very easy to stream full movies or watch live sport events online. It almost felt like a revolution.
  7. Lack of use of the metric system - This was one of the first differences I noticed as an international student in the US. I had only used kilograms, meter and degrees celcius as units of mass, length and temperature. So it was surprising to see pounds, feet and fahrenheit. The metric system was more convenient and easy for me since the units are always in multiples of tens. It was difficult for me to understand the new units since they were not easy decimals and often involved conversions. I continued to use the metric system for years and converting only when necessary. Eventually I was able to comprehend the new system, but I still favor the metric system more.

These are the differences or as you say "culture shocks" that I witnessed after going to US as an international student. Please know that they weren't necessarily shocks for me since I had been to different countries before and I had learned to embrace differences by then. So it was a smooth ride for me for most part. Thanks for all the love and support USA and Americans. You will always have a special place in my heart :)


This is the list of cultural shocks which I face in general and not specifically as a student... Being from India visiting for the first time, it took me some time to adjust although I had been to other countries and lived there for more than 6 months. My list goes like this:

1. Casually greeting everyone around you. I think this is the first major cultural difference I found where people greet each other as a normal practice. In India a little smile is enough for the people you know and meet on the road. Else we keep to ourselves pretty much. It was a big change for me to keep aware of everything around me and greet people or respond to them when you enter an elevator or see then near the door, etc. I was not at all used to this greeting thing before.

2. While crossing the road, I stopped before crossing to let the cars go. In US, the cars stop to let you cross the road which was not that shocking since I knew  it is very different from what we have here in India. But on top of stopping the car, the driver usually waves hand to make a gesture that I should cross. I find the gesture to be as if I should be quick in crossing the road and not that humble one, which is contradictory to stopping of the car in the first place. Nothing derogatory about it, it is just I feel it that way and now I have got used to it as a usual gesture.

3. This was very shocking - in the men's room, you can go full Monty without any piece of cloth around you and roam around while you shower, change and get dressed and that is normal. I found it shocking as we don't do that here in India (at least I have not seen it anywhere I have been to). We usually wrap a towel or something.

4. Tipping was a shock too but I was aware of it a little so could handle that well. But not on all instances. I was told that tipping is a norm due to minimum wages. So once I was checking out in Costco and the guys who checkout are usually fully focused on their work and I was thinking these people will also be on minimum wages. That guy was a doing things pretty fast and when I paid in cash, he returned me some change and suddenly said very loudly "can I have some change please". I said sure and left what he gave me back thinking it as a tip. Later I realized he was asking for some guy on the other checkout lane to get some change as he was out of it. Later, I laughed a lot on myself to not be able to understand these cultural differences.

5. Another positive shock was the level of professionalism. It was so awesome to see that. I first faced it when I visited a busy restaurant when we had to wait. We told the girl who received us and she told us it will be 20 minutes. One of my US friends was with me. While waiting when about 10 minutes were done, I saw many people entering and we were getting far from the reception and I asked my US friend if we should check about our table/turn since many people have come. He was surprised to hear that and told me that these guys are very good at tracking this and as they said, they will call us in 20 mins or so. And that is exactly what happened.

6. This was also a shock initially for me even though I work in payments industry. While checking from a retail store you have to swipe your card yourself. These terminals are not here in India. By practice, initially, I always offered my card to them and they pointed me to swipe it in the machine in front of me. With Apple Pay, this is changing again from swiping to tapping... But this was new for me initially.

There are more shocks one gets here such as always booking your calendar for a lunch or dinner meeting even with close friends and the way car culture is there that one cannot survive without a car and the way car rentals which are so common.

Hope I covered some...


The US isn't just the US. It's 50 different states and hundred different ethnicities, cultures, etc. I, however, went to the Southern States and did my bachelor studies in Alabama, which was quite the shock coming from Iceland.

What was so shocking is the so called ´Southern Hospitalityð' as every time you are outside walking, strangers will greet you and say "hey, how's it going", "how do you do" "how are you" and these general nice comments. The funny thing is that by the time you have figured out that a random person is interested in your mood or feelings they are already gone. So at the beginning as you are meeting strangers, you are stumbling to answer and say "hi, i am good and you?" and they will already have walked past you.

It was quite the shock to begin with but in the end, it's a pretty nice gesture and funny to think about two strangers meeting and saying "hey how do you do" and just answer with "how's it going" and that's it. I got used to it and liked it, but going back to Europe you sense how Fake it is.

Mixed feelings, but it was definitely a shock to begin with.
The southern part is also very religious and it is shocking to speak about some theories and bible stuff which you don't believe with people who are raised on these virtues and go to church on Sundays.

This technically isn't a "culture shock" per se, just one of the ways life is different in the two countries.

In the first few months, it is just staggering to see the number of options available, when shopping in a grocery store, even for things like medicines! In India, all of us have our "go-to" medications for different ailments, and we don't necessarily shop around looking for the best option. It's possible that the same is true for Americans, as well. However, my experience has been very different.

The first I went to a Walgreens, I was literally writhing in pain due to a toothache. Now, I'm all for the freedom of choice, but juggling a debilitating pain with the mental act of comparing different gels/pills and figuring out the best option isn't something I'd recommend. This confusion happens every time I visit a pharmacy for a new kind of medication. I spend anywhere between 10–30 mins figuring out the best possible alternative.

With time, I've become better at figuring out a "go-to" alternative for different symptoms, but every now & then, I get hit by a new ailment, and then it's back to the old routine :)

#FirstWorldProblems


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