A Pakistani youth experiences ‘culture shocks’ in the U.S.

By ZARNAIN SHAH — Traveling abroad is one of the best ways to step outside of your comfort zone. Everything is different – the people, the language, the food, the sight, the smell and an entirely new culture. While most of the people who travel to a foreign country experience some degree of culture shock, it is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, experiencing culture shock can be a very positive thing as it gives you the opportunity to learn about yourself, understand different kinds of people, adapt to the new surroundings, widen your horizons about diverse cultures that inhabit this planet and emerge as a global citizen.

As an international student traveling from Pakistan to the United States for the first time, I encountered many things that shocked my nerves and appetite for a while. Here I present six of the many positive things that you should expect to be shocked by when you travel to the land of opportunity:

1. The Ethnic and Cultural Diversity:

This probably is one of the best things America has to offer. America is a land having people of every nation, every ethnicity, practicing every faith. The cultural diversity is the foundation of what makes America an interesting country. People from various cultures bring different language skills, new ways of thinking, and innovative solutions to problems and negotiating skills.  In a short period of time, I had interacted with a Mexican, Iranian, Indian, German, Chinese, and Canadian. This presented me an opportunity to learn about diverse cultures and various languages. It also made me realize that we all are different and similar simultaneously.

2. The greetings and small talks:

Get ready to be bombarded with plenty of smiles, nods and greetings from strangers all along your way. From the cashier at the shopping mall to the guy throwing out your trash, everyone has the time to smile at you and make a small talk. It was a pleasant surprise to feel a sense of warmth wherever I went.

Coming from Pakistan, where we are expected to be pretty cold towards strangers and avoid eye contact, it took me some time to acclimate to this friendly gesture of Americans. But when I replicated it myself, I really enjoyed the general politeness around me. On my return to Pakistan, I had to readjust myself not to smile at random people in the streets after I had received clumsy glances as replies and a flood of fraaandship messages on my phone.

3. The American Flag and National Pride:

You would never forget which country you are in even if you wanted to – thanks to the abundance of American flags. The American flag was almost everywhere. They were on almost every house, government buildings, public buildings, gas stations, subway entrances, and all over the place. I was lucky enough to be in the US on the 4th of July (The American Independence day) and it was surprising to see everybody from the two years old babies to the eighty-two years old senior citizens wearing the colors of the American flag.

American flags displayed on houses, Photo: Zarnain Shah
American flags displayed on houses, Photo: Zarnain Shah

Another thing that amazed me was the American patriotism. It’s an important part of American culture. Americans are extremely proud to be Americans and think that USA is the best things on earth. On the other hand, they are delightfully unaware of the rest of the world. This country-centric pride looks bizarre especially when you’re coming from a third world country where people defame their own country.

4. The Food and free Refills:

America is the land of huge portions and endless choices when it comes to food. You can have Italian, Chinese, Thai, French, Mexican, Indian and any other kind of food whenever and wherever you want. You can eat any fruit and vegetable known to humankind almost every day. (But their mangoes can never beat Pakistani ones) They have small, medium, large, and jumbo size for every food type.

I could never finish my huge breakfast. Photo: Zarnain Shah
I could never finish my huge breakfast. Photo: Zarnain Shah
Gyro Platter at an Afghan restaurant, Trenton, New Jersey. Photo: Zarnain Shah
Gyro Platter at an Afghan restaurant, Trenton, New Jersey. Photo: Zarnain Shah

Another concept that was alien to me was that in the US, you’re free to unlimited servings of cold drinks. Just in about every place you dine in the US, you will be able to get free soda refills as many times as your self-respect permits. Free refills are not a norm in Pakistan and were a pleasant surprise for me.

5. The Traffic system and driving etiquettes:

The US has very developed highway systems with many lanes and intersections. After landing in America, I recognized how critical a well-organized traffic and transport system is for a country’s socioeconomic progress. The road preference (which I really appreciated) was like this: Pedestrians> Bikes> Rest of the vehicles. I was amazed by the way the traffic behaved without any intervention from the traffic policeman.

A view from the Reunion Tower Dallas, Texas. Photo: Zarnain Shah
A view from the Reunion Tower Dallas, Texas. Photo: Zarnain Shah

Another noticeable thing was the high pollution control. No vehicle emitted even a puff of hazardous smoke. But what absolutely shocked my nerves was the non-existent noise pollution! Honking is considered rude in America. The number of times I heard the sound of a horn in America was zero. In some States, honking is even prohibited unless it’s done to promote safe driving and prevent accidents.

It shocked me as a Pakistani where honking is considered a birthright. Driving peacefully to my destination was not a norm for me and sometimes I would literally miss the varieties of horns found in Pakistan – especially the one which sounds like a barking dog.

6. The Pet culture and love for animals:

Americans are obsessed with pets. The pet owners think of their cats and dogs as members of the family. They carry their pictures and talk about them with their friends and co-workers. They spend money on their meals and healthcare as if they were their children. It was shocking for me to know that in countries like the US, animals are as valuable as humans.


But I was also saddened by the fact that in my country, in some places, even humans are treated like animals. Stray dogs are eradicated by shooting with guns.

In the US, I understood the meaning of Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” and I was disappointed to realize that Pakistan still has a long way to go.

These were some of the many pleasant surprises and culture shocks that I experienced in the US. They changed my perspective of the world, helped me grow up in unexpected ways and broadened my horizons. I was proud of being courageous enough to travel more than eleven thousand kilometers away from my home at the age of twenty. I was proud of learning different languages, meeting new people, making lifelong friends in just one trip and I returned home with a better attitude and a new outlook on my life. I realized what we need to change in order to move forward in this competitive world.

If you want to fill your life with some amazing experiences, I encourage you to leave your comfort zone, overcome your fears and embark on a journey. Stop living life through a lens and go out, see it for yourself. Be it a new town, a new city or a new country, exploring an alien destination is an experience unlike any other. You’ll realize that all the struggles and adjustments are worth it. After all, who doesn’t like free refills?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of DesPardes

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