16 bizarre things I’ve learnt as a Brit living in America: From challenger milk to wiener dogs

From being called Colin to learning the obsession with Girl Scout cookies, Holly Baxter is adapting to life in the US, one ‘kabob’ at a time

Holly Baxter
New York
Sunday 19 May 2019 17:26 BST
Pheobe from Friends makes fun of the English accent

Four months ago, I arrived on an almost-empty flight to New York from London (nobody else, it turns out, is crazy enough to visit NYC in the deep midwinter, at least after the Christmas period has passed).

As a Brit moving to live abroad, there are some things my partner and I learnt quickly: don’t ask someone whether you can “bum a fag” outside a bar on a Saturday night; the phrase “Chinese whispers” doesn’t travel well; everything you need can be found at Target, even niche garden furniture – and some we had to take more time adjusting to.

For the benefit of others who might be in my situation in future, I’ve collated some of the most startling differences I’ve found between British and American culture here.

1. Toilet cubicles

Prepare to make accidental eye contact with someone through most toilet doors. The cubicles in the US are basically barn doors and they leave very little to the imagination. You will catch unwelcome glances of your fellow toilet travellers when you sit down to pee, and everyone will studiously pretend like it didn’t happen. Oh, and because the water in the toilet bowl goes right up to the seat, you will accidentally get your maxi skirt or your long jacket wet at least twice a week. Apparently the problems are even worse for men. Let’s just leave it at that.

Micro-Trip: How to spend a day in New York City

2. You are British now

It doesn’t matter whether you’re English, Scottish or Welsh; whether you hail from Cornwall, Newcastle, London, Manchester, Liverpool or Bristol: you are now “British”. Your accent will be a “British accent” to your American peers, whether it’s Cockney or Geordie. And they will continually tell you they are “Irish”, “Swedish”, “Swiss” or “Italian”, only to later admit (after you enquire, “So where in Ireland did you grow up?”) that what they actually mean is they had an Irish relative six generations ago. Nobody will describe themselves as “American”, but they will all stand for the national anthem at the beginning of sports games and they will all have pledged allegiance to the flag at school. What can I say? It’s a confusing country.

3. Challenger milk

If you live in Brooklyn and you visit a local cafe (or “coffee shop”, as you will now be forced to call them), people will raise a judgemental eyebrow at you and say, “Dairy?” if you ask for milk in your coffee or tea. That’s because pretty much everyone in New York now drinks a milk alternative – or, as they say in start-up speak, “challenger milk”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: after all, America has a horrendous lack of animal rights legislation and a lot of its farm animals are pumped full of antibiotics so you probably don’t want to drink the milk anyway. Plus, if you ask for normal milk in a coffee shop, you will most likely be given a concoction they refer to as “half and half”: half whole milk, half heavy cream. No thanks.

As someone whose stomach can only take semi-skimmed at the best of times, I switched to no milk at all within a couple of weeks of settling. But if you like your milk challenging, you won’t find it hard to come across oat milk, rice milk, soy milk or nut milk to complement your favourite beverage.

4. Kabob

This is how they say kebab. No amount of protesting will make them change.

Americans are obsessed with Girl Scout cookies (Bright/Kauffman/Crane Production)
Americans are obsessed with Girl Scout cookies (Bright/Kauffman/Crane Production)

5. Girl Scout cookies

For reasons unbeknownst to all, Americans are obsessed with Girl Scout cookies and go crazy during Girl Scout cookie season (the beginning of spring). When one person in our office said she had a Girl Scout living in her building, she was inundated with people offering to do her favours if she’d just go down and purchase some of the beloved biscuits.

You may think this is a sweet way for children to learn about baking and share the spoils with their neighbours, but you’d be wrong. The cookies are actually mass-produced boxes from a factory which they sell for profit and then give the money back to the Girl Scout Association in exchange for recognition depending on how much cash they raked in. It’s the most corporate, American thing ever – and the cookies aren’t even that good. But don’t tell Americans that, or they will go insane: for them, nostalgia and childhood memories mean that they will proclaim these are God’s gift to confectionery against all evidence to the contrary.

6. H&M but not as you know it

Most of the stores you pass on Spring Street or elsewhere in Manhattan will be chains you recognise: Zara, H&M, Forever 21, TK Maxx (just kidding! It’s America so, for some reason, it’s TJ Maxx!). But the clothes within them will sometimes be perplexingly different. Imagine my confusion when I walked into an H&M two months after arriving, wearing a pink H&M T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Seoul” surrounded by flowers (I don’t know, I just liked it) and saw the exact same design being sold on the NYC clothes racks but with “Seoul” replaced by “Rome”. What this says about demography and exoticism is beyond me, but it did make me wonder what other strange tweaks have been made to accommodate Americanisms versus Britishisms, and indeed what might be on the same pink T-shirt in Australia.

7. Cheques

Cheques are basically obsolete in Britain. Nobody in their twenties or indeed thirties would be seen dead with a cheque-book. A supermarket would kindly escort you to the door if you attempted to buy your groceries that way. Not so in America, where your clients will expect you to pay them by cheque and where your landlord will ask you to pay your rent with one. Because of their tipping system (cause for a whole other article entirely), their banking system works extremely slowly and depends on outdated methods of transferring money. Say goodbye to free and easy digital transfers from bank to bank: they don’t exist here. Your only solution is Venmo, which a lot of people treat as a second social media feed.

8. Full-size and twin beds

No, you don’t have a double bed. You have a “full-size bed” now (is this because full-size Americans are the same size as two Brits? Who knows?) If you want a single bed, in America you’ll have to ask for a twin-size, which is doubly confusing because that makes it sounds like it should two beds for two people who are probably related or colleagues. Upsum: avoid bed-shopping online.

9. No halloumi

If you, like me, are a British vegetarian, you will probably have a low-key halloumi addiction and certainly a penchant for the Leon breakfast muffin with halloumi and avocado (I don’t work there, I just love it that much). It takes a move to another country to make you realise that halloumi isn’t actually globally available. In fact, the UK is the biggest consumer of halloumi in the world bar Cyprus, where it’s made. In New York it’s a niche food which you’ll only find in certain restaurants and certainly not in the supermarket. At summer barbeques, you will have to make do with a sad, rubbery substitute called queso blanco instead.

10. Order your lunch in advance

OK, this is something that America is way ahead of us on. Rather than queue up in Pret like some kind of chump, in New York you can simply go to the website of your favourite lunch place and order in advance, then pick it up from a shelf inside where it’s tagged with your name. So much more convenient than battling the inner-city lunch stampede, and so much more civilised. But…

Prepare to change your name, if not your accent (Universal Pictures)
Prepare to change your name, if not your accent (Universal Pictures)

11. You might get called Colin

English O’s are difficult for Americans to understand, especially in noisy environments, and apparently our H’s are as well. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have said “Holly” over and over again at a counter and received a coffee or a sandwich with “Colin” written on the bag (“Colleen”, “Chloe” and “Claudia” have also occurred). I now use an easy-to-remember pseudonym (Ivy, since it goes naturally with Holly) in order to avoid confusion in shops and restaurants.

12. Prepare to get ID’d absolutely everywhere

You may not have been ID’d since you were in your second year of university, but in America you will be ID’d right up into your forties and sometimes into them. You will be having brunch with people in their mid-thirties and order a Bloody Mary and someone will demand you get your passport out over your eggs benedict. You will be refused entry to bars for a drink after work if you forget to bring your licence with you. And you are absolutely not allowed to take a bottle of wine or a couple of beers to a picnic: alcohol is completely banned from parks, beaches, and basically anywhere it’s particularly fun to drink. And yes, they do enforce it (but they’re sometimes understanding if you put your drink inside a brown paper bag.)

13. Corn syrup

It’s in beer. It’s in soft drinks. It’s in pretzels. It’s in chocolate. It’s in crisps. It’s in things you didn’t even know they could put it in. Avoiding corn syrup is basically impossible. Prepare for a small juice to have 300 calories in it, and for it to taste like pick’n’mix.

14. The electricity is problematic

Because there’s no earthing in their plugs, apartment fires in New York are surprisingly common and you will see fire engines attending emergencies a lot more often than you have ever seen something similar happening in Britain. Also because they lack earthing in their plugs, their electricity is a lot less powerful than it is in Britain – so kettles take 15 minutes to boil (seriously; most people just have kettles that sit on the stove instead because it’s marginally quicker) and your UK hairdryer will now only function as a small desk fan. For a while I continued stoically holding it to my head and refusing to believe it would never so much as dry my fringe (sorry, “bangs”) but eventually I had to give in and buy an American appliance. It’s a good job I did, because American hairdressers won’t blowdry your hair after a cut and colour unless you add on $60.

15. Telling the time gets confusing

Americans only tell you the time in completely literal, to-the-minute numerical terms: if someone asks the time and it’s 7.42pm, you are expected to say 7.42. They don’t say “quarter to” (I once told someone it was “quarter to seven” and he looked at me like I was insane), nor “quarter past” or even “half past”. Some people will very occasionally say the time is “a quarter of seven”, and that will confuse you even more.

16. Wiener dogs

That’s what they call sausage dogs. And they will say “gesundheit” when you sneeze. Oh, and your “fanny” is not what you think it is. That is a mix-up you make once.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in