I grew up in Bombay, wrote and spoke English fluently, watched Hollywood movies and consumed US media. I knew Joey’s tagline, “How you doin’?”, Vicky from Small Wonder and Charles from Charles in Charge. Yet, several things surprised me when I moved to the US. I went to Grinnell College in Iowa, lived in the US for 11 years, and loved every second of it. But had I known some of the things I am about to share with you, I would have been off to a smoother start.
Here are 19 things you should know before your first semester in a US college:
1) You can only “meet” a person once:
In US English, you “meet” someone for the first time but then you “see” or “hang out with” them in subsequent encounters. For example, “I met my friend Joey in the courtyard on Monday, but then I saw him every day that week in class.”
2) How to respond to “what’s up?”
In the US, “what’s up” is not a question or a response. It can mean “hi” or simply be the equivalent of a wave or a head nod. Many international students see this phrase as an invitation to stop and start a conversation, which it is not.
3) Beef is the default meat, not chicken:
Non-vegetarians take note. In the US, meat is beef, not chicken, unless specified. A friend of mine went an entire semester without realising she was eating beef! Remember, Wendy’s and barbeques serve beef.
4) Take a writing class in your first semester:
You will thank me for this piece of advice. There is a vast difference between American and British English. The American writing style is more direct and less flowery. Adapting to it will do wonders for your thesis.
5) Remind your parents to send you “care packages”
American parents send their kids care packages with homemade brownies, ramen noodles, microwavable lasagnas, winter wear, and more. I wish my parents knew better. It doesn’t matter what the package comprises. But it feels good to go to the mailroom and take a heavy box back to your dorm.
6) Visit your family or plan a trip during your breaks:
If you do not have an internship, come home for summer and winter break and let your parents spoil you rotten. You could also visit relatives in the US or take a trip during your vacation. I loved living on the campus, but it sucked when kids went home for the holidays because the campus felt deserted.
7) Buy your winter clothes from the US:
You may find them cheaper here, but Indian winter wear cannot withstand the low temperatures of America and Canada. To be honest, they aren’t fashionable either. As a teenager, “fitting in” really matters. So, save up a little and buy your winter wear from there. The best time to shop is during the Fall break.
8) There are two kinds of Americans and two Americas:
Most of you will meet liberal folk who welcome foreigners. But you may encounter the conservative lot who may occasionally spew racial slurs. While one needs to be aware of them, there is no need to live in fear. Yes, a few stray incidents do get amplified on social media. But use your sense of discretion when you come across those stories. Also, if it helps, I only encountered these people during my 11 years in the US when I accidentally stumbled upon Fox News.
9) American meat and vegetables are B-L-A-N-D
You will notice that American produce, especially in dining halls and low-cost sandwich shops like Subway, is flavourless. Although, I have observed that organic vegetables and produce from California and Oregon have more flavour. While they are priced at a premium, you will find them at farmers’ markets.
10) The Freshman 15 is a real thing:
What no one tells you is that most freshmen gain 15 pounds. Buffets, desserts, whole-fat chocolate milk, and high-calorie ranch dressing are staples in campus dining halls. I was a skinny kid, and I took two years to lose the Freshman 15 and correct my eating habits.
11) Take your stationery from India:
I used stationery from India throughout my college and professional life in the US. It had less to do with price and more to do with quality and ease of use. Not only do Indian pens work for my cursive writing style, but the stationery is far superior to what’s available at Walmart and the campus bookstores.
12) Don’t brag about your chauffeurs and domestic help:
Average Americans cannot afford labour at home because it’s too expensive. So, when we talk about the privileges we enjoy at home, we come across as spoilt brats. Also, the word “servant” is archaic and derogatory. Please don’t use it. You will get much further with the Americans if you’re modest.
13) Learn to make your bed and do your laundry:
Before you leave for the US, get a quick laundry lesson and get into the habit of making your bed. This way, you won’t ruin your clothes by mixing whites and colours (like I did), and you’ll return to a bed ready for you at the end of the day. Also, making your bed every morning is linked with higher productivity and an increased sense of wellbeing.
14) There are multiple types of milk, bread and cheese:
When you order your first sandwich from a Subway, you’ll notice an array of different breads, cheeses, and spreads. They have more options than we do in India. It took me a year to try them all and find my favourites. Also, they specify the percentage of fat in their milk. Whole milk tastes better, but you’ll gain your Freshman 15 faster. So, if you are a milk drinker, opt for skimmed milk or low-fat options.
15) Pack at least one Indian outfit for cultural events:
Almost all American campuses have a day where you will get to celebrate an Indian festival. At Grinnell College, we had an international fashion show once a year, where we all got to parade in “ethnic wear”.
16) Forget words like “sir”, “madam”, “uncle”, and “aunty”
You can address professors, administrative staff, and your friend’s parents by their first name. If this makes you uncomfortable, you may use titles like Mr, Mrs or Miss. Most people will ask you to address them casually. However, when managing people of Indian origin, you may have to revert to using “aunty” and “uncle”.
17) The drinking age is 21, and they are serious about it:
Unlike India, where mommy and daddy can bail you out of most situations, the US and your campus are extremely strict about their laws. If you break the law, you will have to face the consequences.
18) Learn to use toilet paper:
Enough said. I don’t want to get to the bottom of it (pun intended). But I will recommend wet wipes. They are lifesavers and are available at any grocery store.
19) Finally, remember that you don’t represent “the majority” in India:
You are privileged. You can afford a plane ticket to the US and study there. Most Indians cannot. Americans are keenly aware of the poverty rate in India. They have seen the plight of our villages, and they know about the caste system and the practice of Sati. So be prepared for questions. Try not to take offence. I remember my host family asking me if I knew what a potato was a day after landing in the US. It ticked me off a little. But I realised later that they don’t know better, and as ambassadors of Indian culture, it is our job to educate them.
But no matter what, go ahead and enjoy yourself. As a student and an employee, I loved every second of my time in the US and wouldn’t change a thing, and I hope you have the same experience.
Feel free to write to us if you have any questions.
Puran Parsani is the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at The Red Pen. He has experience in entrepreneurship, CPG, economics & international diplomacy. At INSEAD, Puran was on the leadership team of the Entrepreneurship and TMT clubs, in addition to being selected for the Abu Dhabi module. He has lived in the USA, India, France, Germany, and Canada and his professional background includes experience as a marketer working with e-commerce, telecom, education and home automation.