Things That Amazed Me in America (And How I Tried to Reconcile Them) (Part I)

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This article is the first in our series, Introduction to the New Editors. Nicole Liu is a new Arts and Features Editor for The Daily Gazette. The following is part one of a two part article.

Culture shock seems to be something a lot of international students experience, especially during their first year of studying in America, as Jennifer Marks-Gold, Director of International Student Services, explained to us during international orientation. Having already studied in a day school in Boston, I can personally attest to this.  I would like to add, however, that after recounting the moments in the past four years when I am acutely aware of the differences between American cities and my home city of Shen Zhen, China, I realized that some of my strongest and most lasting impressions of culture shock are often centered around very unexpected details.  Below is a selection of the most entertaining moments I experienced during my (actual) first year in America, and how I tried to explain these moments to myself.  

Dog admiration

Dogs are probably universally liked, but Americans really have taken dog admiration to a cultish level. Every American dog strutting down a mildly populated street, I have observed, could expect to be welcomed like a minor celebrity, as strangers would often greet them with smiles, delighted exclamations of recognition, attempts of physical contact, and even some not-so-subtle picture taking. Another observation: when a dog is mentioned at the American dinner table, a collective “aww” was expected from the seated; as pictures on smartphones are shown and passed around, even those who didn’t like the dog owner still feel somewhat compelled to compliment the dog.  Stranger still, those who didn’t like the dog owner felt that their compliment to the dog is genuinely enthusiastic.  

I have since concluded that dog-admiring is its own social convention, which is a conclusion that has served me especially well as I sometimes masquerade as a domestic student for kicks while a new person is introduced to my usual dinner table at Swarthmore.

Popular Movies and TV shows that I’ve never heard of (a lot of them, rather old)

It is easy to associate old movies and TV shows with bad special effects, cliche plot development, upbeat yet bland moral messages, and jokes that are no longer appropriate or funny.  Eventually, I have learned to appreciate the older movies and TV shows my Boston friends considered to be “classics,” though most of which I have never seen in any of the retail stores at home. Given how much American pop culture has captivated and influenced the Chinese public, and how hard my family has tried to keep up with American culture as a part of my preparation to come to the U.S., it simply amazes me that something I have never heard of could have such a large impact on my friends upbring. Below is a list of movies and shows that were introduced to me with the prefix “What do you mean you’ve never heard of —”

“—Rebel without a Cause (1955)!?”

“—West Side Story (1965)!?”

“—Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)!?”

“—Grease (1978)!?”

“—Monty Python and the Holy Grail/Life of Brian (1975/1979)!?”

“—Blade Runner (1982)!?”

“—Back to the Future (1985)!?”

“—The Breakfast Club (1985)!?”

“—2001: A Space Odyssey (1986)!?”

“—Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)!?”

“—The Labyrinth (1986)!?”

“—Heathers (1989)!?”

“—Twin Peaks (1990-1991)!?”

“—Seinfeld (1994-1998)!?”

“—Clueless (1995)!?”

“—Space Jam (1996)!?”

In contrast, when I talked about older western movies popular in China or what my family has bought from the “American and European classics” section, my Boston friends seemed (surprisingly) confused.  Below is a list of movies that were received with the suffix of “…wait, that was popular?”:

“The Ten Commandments (1956)?”

“Ben-Hur (1959)?”

“Rain Man (1988)?”

“Ghost (1990)?”

“Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)?”

“The Silence of the Lambs(1991)?”

“Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994)?”

“Legends of the Fall (1994)?”

“Leon: the Professional(1994)?”

“Life is Beautiful (1997)?”

“Mona Lisa Smile (2003)?”

“Becoming Jane (2007)?

I would also like to add that I’ve never seen anyone enthusiastically hating the Star Wars Prequels in China.

In addition, holiday movies are apparently a thing in America, hence the recent conversations that happened during Christmas:

“Oh my god!  You need to watch —“

“—Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer(1964)!!”

“—A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)!!”

“—How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)!!”

“—A Christmas Story (1983)!!”

“—Elf (2003)!!”

Later, when asked “wasn’t that simply wonderful?” by my friend’s family, what I really wanted to say was that watching my best friend’s 80 year old grandmother gasp and giggle at the Grinch was much more fascinating than the painfully predictable story playing on screen.  What came out, nonetheless, was “yes” and “good times.”  

Gratuitous Sugar

The sweet tooth I had growing up was probably the same one that developed cavities after only living 1 year in Boston, wrecking my once impeccable dental record and making my dentist very happy. For fellow international students who expect a purchased American treat to be reasonably sweet: don’t.  Or rather, recognize that reasonable sweetness is a privilege, not a norm.  

Common candies and treats so sweet that I don’t understand why they still have a market:

Milky Way

3 Musketeers

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup


Almost anything labelled milk chocolate

Almost any ready-made treats produced by your local supermarket

Almost any cookie the size of your palm purchasable at a cafe


Stay tuned for Nicole’s thoughts on American McDonald’s and more!

Featured image courtesy of mixednation.com

Nicole Liu

Nicole Liu '21 grew up in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China, but came of age in Boston. She has run out of cool facts about herself. (For more information, consult her bios for the English Liaison Committee, the Writing Center, and maybe the upcoming issue of Small Craft Warnings.)

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