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The America that International Students Can’t Learn from Movies (Part I)


By Snezana Stojilkovic; Chicago, Illinois

Coming to the USA wasn’t an easiest decision for an international student. But, once I did it I had to prepare myself for a completely different way of life style, for the new culture, the new people, and of course the new language. The good thing was that I grow up watching American movies, so I was very familiar with many customs. Given that the real life is far away from any movie I have seen, I still have hard time understanding some things. I believe we all have the same feeling. Here is my list of interesting stuff that are vastly different that how things in my country work.


First thing: You CAN NOT drink alcohol unless you are 21! Period. You cannot even enter a bar or a club if you are a minor!

What a surprise was for me to be asked to show my ID everywhere I go if I wanted to have a drink, or if I wanted to buy an alcoholic beverage in the store. It didn’t matter that I looked old enough, the same rules applied even for much older people. I witnessed the situation in the Pigly Wigly local store in Wisconsin when a lady who was at least 70 years old had to give her ID to the cashier because she had a bottle of wine in her cart. I was in disbelief!

There is no need for me to tell you that in my country the minimum drinking age is 18, but unofficial – teenagers younger than that drink in clubs and bars, and no one is controlling them. I am not saying that this is right. In contrary. But what surprises me here is that anyone who is 16 can drive a car, anyone who is 18 can vote and join military (and yes, maybe kill someone), go to college, but can’t have a glass of wine or a bottle of beer when celebrating something? It’s beyond my comprehension.


Second thing: Tax is not built in the price

Wouldn’t it be nice when you see a laptop on sale for $699 that is actually means IT IS $699, and not $770? Yea, it is very deceitful and plus it is very annoying when you have to do the math in your head when you are buying something. Why they don’t just put the final price altogether with all sort of taxes they do and make people’s lives easier?

I have heard stories of the immigrants going to the store with exact amount of money for some products and being short once they got to the register. What a surprise, ha!

It’s very easy to calculate small amounts, but if you do a bigger purchase the 10% tax can quickly change the look of your bill. You better be ready.

Of course, I am sure that for Americans this is normal, since they don’t know for a different way, but for many foreign people it is just irritating.

Third thing: Food is really important

Going out and having food in the restaurant is SUCH A BIG THING in the USA. From my restaurant experience, I can tell that Americans intend to be overexcited when ordering and getting their meals. They would pull out their cameras, phones and making thousands of pictures, going straight to the Yelp to share their experience about the food, the service and the prices. Sometimes they would just scream and smile and look at each other – while I am standing and not believing what I am seeing and how to react. “Just walk away” – I am telling myself. Let them enjoy.

Since I am talking about food, let me tell you something: where I am coming from, we buy fresh bread from the local bakery EVERY single morning. It can be usable for only one or two more days, after that is garbage. Same for vegetables and fruit. It cannot sit on the table for two weeks and still look the way it looked like when you bought. No, no, no.

So, I would say that quality of the food is not the same here and in my country, and no, I do not suffer from nostalgia. Although my mom is the best cook in the world and I miss her meals.

Fourth: Tipping culture

All employees in Serbia have monthly salary, even the people working in the service industry. Although some servers could get small tip (usually it’s just rounding the bill, famous “keep the change”) no one actually expect to get extra cash.

This country has a tipping culture that I do not understand. And, tipping is not the part I have problem with. It is actually percentage that’s problematic. It is unwritten rule that wait staff get anywhere between 15-20% of the bill (some people would say it is 10%, which is NOT). But, could anyone explain why? Is it fair that some server who is working in a cheap place will get less money for the same effort he/she is making than the person in high-rise restaurant/bar for the same level of customer service? No logic in there. That’s why I am a strong supporter of an idea that establishment should be responsible for employees pay check, not customers.

How about couple of more things that don’t require explanation:

  • Most of apartments come without furniture
  • Knobs on the door are weird
  • There is no ceiling mounted lights in rooms in American houses and apartments
  • Every householder in my country has a wash machine. However, we do not use dryer machine, and clothes smell better!
  • Metric system. I still don’t know how tall I am. And I will never learn 🙂

To Be Continued