20 Culture Shocks That Indians Experience in America

Posted: September 18, 2015

From TV sitcoms to Hollywood movies, the U.S seems all familiar to us! Yet, culture shock in America can be very real for Indians travelling here.

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Photo by Anju Jayaram


America is a land of dreams and for some Indians, it is their dream and only goal in life. The US has many great things to offer but as an individual coming from an entirely different culture there are many aspects about the culture that can strike a first time traveler. For me, the distinct cultural differences I perceived were not the short dresses (TV had sufficiently prepared me for this) or public display of affection that Indians usually assign as something Western; in reality I have seen more PDA around parks in Nagpur than anywhere in the US.

A great guide for life in the Americas is a book called Inscrutable Americans that lists the maladies a naive Indian comes across on his visit to the U.S. Some exchanges with ‘the natives’ in the U.S. are embarrassing and awkward, for example when trying to return a hug from an American friend (I am quite the non-hugging type) which leads to several dives in the wrong direction and finally both parties settling for a handshake.

America is fun, interesting, dynamic and a place where many cultures merge. I have found more cuisines, cultures, races, and ethnicity in this one country than in any other country I have been to. Hence America is much more inclusive as it is said to be the land of immigrants. But America is not all roses and peaches as there are negatives and positives like any other country and is guaranteed to have its share of culture shocks for a person from a different cultural perspective.

  1. Public transport is very well connected in the cities but is very spotty in the suburbs. Hence getting from place A to B will require some intensive planning however short the distance, if one does not own a car in the US or can’t drive (rented cars however are easy to hire). Calling a cab service is the other option but they are expensive.
  2. Shops close by 8:30 pm and restaurants close pretty early too depending on which city you live in. The only happening area in a city after 8 pm is downtown which is very different to cities (read metros) in India where one might get stuck in a traffic jam at 11 pm.
  3. Cheese burger is not a vegetarian burger with cheese. It is burger with a beef patty. Most Americans can’t really comprehend a vegetarian burger save for some specialty restaurants. Also, waitresses who have experience with this faux pas will remind Indian customers and mention repeatedly that there is beef in this burger!
  4. People have dinner by 6 p.m. and you might even get used to going to sleep by 9. In Mumbai 9 pm is ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ time.
  5. America is not just its big cities but is made up of smaller towns too where life moves at its own pace. So if going to America is your life long dream, this is something you should keep in mind. America is not all big and bustling cities. It is smaller towns too where the only entertainment is a dinner theater in a diner and one street called Main street where everything happens.
  6. If you can’t drive or order online you might as well go back to India. America is all about driving and having a car so if you can’t drive and don’t live in a city you might soon get depressed enough to start packing – but remember to save money for the cab service till the airport!
  7. People smile at you and make small talk in elevators (that’s what Americans call a lift) all across America, so for someone who is new to this, keeping small talk ready for the next stranger becomes a task in itself. People smile and nod on the streets too. In India you can stare at the other person on the street till the person makes eye contact after which you look the other way and find someone else to stare at. But for all the friendliness, it is still difficult to make friends in the U.S.
  8. They have seen Indians before so you are not exotic and might not find dates just because of your ethnicity. Even then you will find people who relate India to bindi, sarees, hot, curry, yoga and Bollywood only.
  9. In the U.S. people are very particular about safety, so no dangling from bus doors and riding on the foot board of a train. Your days of adventure on the commute are over. People in the U.S. need a firework permit to light fireworks for festivals.
  10. The sky is so BIG in the U.S! The horizon in the US seems vast and is a startling difference in for someone who has lived near the equator all her life.
  11. Driving in the U.S. with its serpentine interstates and automatic vehicles is boring for a person who learned to drive in India as there are no cows to dodge, no rickshaws to honk at and knowing traffic rules in not optional.
  12. 50% of the commercials on TV are for prescription drugs and they are required to list the side effects (includes death) which takes up half the ad and usually has a video of a dog and his master playing. Though Indians are not used to seeing ads for drugs, we can easily buy them over the counter with or without prescription which is not allowed in the U.S.
  13. Getting a Doctors appointment in some cities in the U.S is next to impossible. We tried for a Doctors appointment in Pennsylvania but most were booked for more than 3 months for new patients. Finally we ended up traveling to the next state where we got an opening for an appointment. The inference is that access to medical attention seems to be similar in India as well as the US for entirely different reasons.
  14. Guns are an important part of American culture; hence owning a gun is commonplace and so are news articles of a lone gun man shooting someone or ‘some’ people.
  15. Winter and snow can get very depressing after the initial novelty wears off, as the sky looks grey and the earth turns white; but spring and autumn are an entirely different story altogether as it becomes a riot of colors.
  16. Portion sizes are HUGE! The first time I ordered a Pepsi I felt I had to be extra careful with the cup least someone drowns in it! Another time I ordered a pork chop at a diner and got a chunk of meat as big as my thigh. I considered taking a cue from tigers and burying the meat and eating it for an entire month.
  17. In India trains are the cheapest and most reliable mode of transport and one can scale the entire country traveling only in trains. This is not the case in the United States; trains can be expensive – sometimes more expensive than flights. Also, trains have limited sleeping coaches/berths and most of the train would have sitting option only.
  18. Healthcare, even basic healthcare is costly for people without insurance (Obamacare might make some difference to this). Free or charitable programs are very few hence poor people face a number of problems to avail healthcare options. Some enroll themselves in drug trials to get a shot at medical care. Emergency care though is mandatory and free for all residents in the U.S.
  19. Yes, there are homeless people and poor people in the U.S too, though lesser in number compared to India. I got to work and interact with some people at a rehabilitation center where I volunteered. It was a very enriching experience and it gave me an added perspective of the U.S and some of its underlying problems – it is not all glitz and glamour.
  20. The U.S is one of the only 4 countries along with Papua new Guinea where maternity leave is not mandatorily given to women. This along with having to wax legs at home because beauty parlours are expensive are just some of the problems women face in the U.S.

I had a great time traveling in the U.S and I was lucky to see many parts of this amazing country. Some of this is written as an attempt at wry humour and some of it is of course true. Anyone traveling to a new culture is bound to have some culture shock whether it is Indians visiting the U.S or Americans visiting India. I also believe that such culture shocks are what make travelling to a new country exciting.

This article was first published here.

Header image by Anju Jayaram.

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Comments

3 Comments


  1. As a US-born Indian-American woman, I agree with what you’ve stated about portion sizes, spotty public transport, and drug ads.

    But with all due respect, there are some points I disagree with here. There are cities like Las Vegas (where I live for many years) where some shops and restaurants are open 24 hours, 7 days a week. While most people do eat dinner by 6pm or so, I personally don’t know a single person who is in bed before 9pm, unless they need to be at work very early or are a senior citizen. Small talk can be avoided altogether if one is in a cramped intimate space such as an elevator. I myself prefer not to go beyond “Hi, how are you?” and use this chance play with my phone. The majority of people do this in other crowded places such as waiting rooms, bus stops, or when standing in line. One big advantage of having a mobile phone! Emergency care is NOT free for all US residents, though there are a vast number of patients who are unable to pay for emergency care; hence many ER facilities are forced to give “uncompensated care” to the medically uninsured. Patients who can pay, do, and are expected to. Incidentally, even ambulance rides are billed.

    You are very correct in stating that culture shock can take many forms and are inevitable when being in a different place. I experienced this firsthand when I lived in Kerala for 3 years in my early 20s. But it really does make the stay a great learning opportunity. Cheers!

    • I agree on most of your points Jen. Personally I adapt easily and don’t really have any issues with any of the points I have written about except for the hugging and small talk which took some getting used to though I don’t mind it really. One of the ideas I wanted to bring forth though on a lighter vein was that the US or any of the so called promised lands are not homogenous, there are big cities like LA, NY and Philly where it is always happening and the bulk of America that lives in the suburbs and smaller cities and towns where shops and people sign off early. You are right about the emergency care not being free but gets waived of for people who cannot afford. The place where I volunteered had people coming from low income groups and that was the route most of them took when they needed medical attention along with signing up for free trials.

    • People with their noses in their phones All Day are very annoying. Talk to people And stop worrying about your dumb phone. I don’t even own a smartphone.

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