“This is not America,” What to expect as an American traveling abroad

Get ready for a lot of bird puns, why? It’s just what I do.

Quick! Think fast (facts)

  • World population: 7.6 Billion
  • US population: 325.6 Million
  • People I’ve met traveling: Approximately too many to count
  • Americans I’ve met traveling: 8

One of the elite eight Americans… Timeout: Y’all! March Madness begins in two weeks. Naturally my excitement level has begun to soar higher than all the mountains I’ve climbed in Asia, which is saying a lot.

Take a gander at that view. On the top of Mount Ijen, East Java

You can take the girl out of North Carolina, but you can’t take the love of UNC basketball out of the girl.

Alright (court)side note over. One of the elite eight Americans I have met is the lovely Monique from Minnesota. Not only does she call the US home, but has curls like mine. Talk about a plot twist. Monique was part of the New Year’s Eve 2k17 crew. I joked we were going to have everyone on Gili Air convinced all Americans have hair spiraling out of control. When she went for a wander, some of the friends we made that night pointed to their hair as they asked, “where’s your twin!?”

Meandering back on track, us red-blooded Americans make up the third largest country by population, but since I left the heartland to begin my offbeat lifestyle I’ve met less than two hands worth. People often raise the question, “why don’t more Americans travel?” I acknowledge that cost holds many people back. We may be the land of the free, but plane tickets certainly aren’t. It can be expensive to go from domestic to free range but not for long!


To anyone out there whose mind is holding you back rather than your wallet, trust me there’s a big reward in migrating south for the winter.

Birds of a feather flock together even if you’re flying solo

Anyone on the verge of backpacking has a bit of preparation to do. I stress a bit because let’s face it, backpackers are the masters of winging it. For Americans we have more to do than packing a bag and reading a guide book… or ya know just this blog.

Me being a shameless plug

Cardinal rule: Everything will be different. From the measure of your feet to the top floor of a building, everything will have you crying this is not America Shalalalala… Well if you’re a David Bowie devotee like me you’ll add the shalalalala. If anyone is feeling a bit scared, have no fear I’m here to help. If you have a few minutes to sparrow, I’ll let you know what to expect and how to make the transition into living beyond America land easier. Consider me your canary. I’ve been in the coal mine for over four months and I’m still surviving and thriving.

Same same, but different**

Shoe Sizes: Depending on where your standing in the world, you’ll toe the line differently. As y’all know US sizes ranges from 4 to 14… unless you’re Shaquille O’Neil then the scale goes to 22.

I’ve found a lot of southeast Asian countries use European sizes, so no matter what continent you have your sights set on, go ahead and learn your European shoe size. Take it from me, you’ll feel ridiculous when the dive instructor asks what size flippers and you say, “I don’t know.”

Weight: Eating in Europe be like, “The diet where the ounces are made up, and the pounds don’t matter…” because they measure in grams and kilograms.

1 pound is 0.454 kilograms

Don’t worry I’m not suggesting that people are going to ask you how much you weigh. Some may ask how heavy your bag is. I’m proud to say I’ve gotten Bernice down to a nice trim 8.5kg (18.7 pounds.) If you decide to go with the carry-on bag route, it’s important to roughly know how much your bag weighs because airlines will allow you to carry on a bag for free up to a certain weight. In my experience, it ranges anywhere from 8kg to 20kg depending on the airline.

Height: Instead of feet and inches, people are measured in centimeters. Of all the metric measurements, count on talk about centimeters coming up the least… especially if your wingspan isn’t as great as mine.

1 inch = 2.54 centimeters

Distance: Outside of the US you don’t measure in yards or travel in miles. Instead it’s meters and kilometers. Detour: Many original UK TV shows have been remade for American TV. Some notables include; The Office, Three’s Company, Top Gear, and The Apprentice. In the spirit of converting I have reworked some American film titles.

Meters are pretty manageable: 1 meter is 3 inches longer than a yard. When people mention a distance in meters, I just think in terms of how many football fields it would be.

1 mile is 1.6 kilometers

I can only assume the Scottish duo, The Proclaimers, were singing about an American girl in their hit song, “I’m Gunna Be (500 miles)” because if they were in Europe it would go a little something like this, “I would walk 804 km and I would walk 804 more just to be the man who walks 1,608 km to fall down at your door.”

Speed: While time tends to fly by, speed is measured in kilometers per hour. Don’t worry when you hop on the back of a scooter with someone you’ve know for half an hour and they start going 90 on a backtweet. They weren’t a stunt double in Need for Speed, y’all are only going 56 mph. ​​Here’s a trivia question, “If Roger Daltrey can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles, how many kilometers can he see?”

Road Rules: I know I keep driving home the point the US is different, but it’s important to know if you are driving home in: Australia, the Caribbean Islands, the Channel Islands, Cyprus, Japan, Hong Kong, India, Isle of Man, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Malta, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand, or the UK you will do so on the left.

There is certainly no right or wrong path to take while traveling, but make sure you always know the right of way. My first day in Indonesia I rented a scooter and followed another girl on our way to lunch. Well over five minutes passed and I finally had the realization, “Oh wow, we’re driving on the left.” This was the first time I had driven in over two months and the first time I had ever driven a scooter. Go figure I decided to start in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road… Guys I got lucky I was following someone because I was a real dodo and didn’t think to look up what side to drive on.

Country hopping will keep you’re mind spinning, but honestly I didn’t find it that weird to drive on the left. For me it was only strange that it took so long to realize, “this isn’t how we do it in America.” If you drive in any of the countries I mentioned above, take some straight advice from a Shady person, “as long as the wrong feels right, it’s like I’m in flight.”

Life below the equator had me turned all sorts of around.

Temperature: I’m currently perched on a shaded cushion at Mama and Papa’s Bar (yes I came here just because it reminded me of the band) on the island of Don Det, Laos. The temperature reads 36°, yet I am dripping in sweat. Why? Because, dun da da daaaa, Celsius. (It’s 97°F) On the centigrade scale 0 is freezing, 100 is boiling, and in my unfiltered option this makes a hell of a lot more sense. (Sorry for the fowl language.)
Speaking as a US history major, I get it. Back in 1776 the colonists were moody and pissed at Papa George III. All they wanted was a little freedom. After they successfully flew the coopthey decided to give the finger to mom and dad and do everything different, but geez I think our teen rebellion phase should be over by now. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’d be cool if we made the switch to Celcius… And no I’m not just a fan of switching because Celsius is easier to spell.

My advice is to learn a few reference points. It will make getting dressed quicker in the morning if you don’t have to look up the conversion. Also know the average temperature of your hometown in Celsius. You would not believe the number of times I get asked, “what’s the weather like where you’re from?”

Time: In the US we thought the numbers 1 through 12 were so nice we’d count them twice. The rest of the world uses the 24 clock, so 1pm is 13:00, 2pm is 14:00, and so on. When I was in England I made the mistake of saying, “oh yeah military time.” You’d think I sprouted another head with the confused glances I got. When scheduling transportation and there’s a list of departure/arrival times, it’s safe to assume 1-11 is AM and 12 is noon. Changing my phone to display the 24 hour clock helped major big time. Also memorizing 20:00 is 8pm worked for me as a eggcellent reference point.

Dates: If you are from not America the date is written: day/month/year. Second to road rules this is the biggest need to know. You’ll constantly be booking accommodation, flights, and other transportation. Let’s say you book a flight on 6/7/17. In the US that means you are traveling on June 7th. To the rest of the world you are traveling on July 6th and that is a horse of a very different colour. (I’ll leave learning spelling differences up to y’all. By this point I don’t think anyone would take me seriously as an authority on that subject.)

Floors: I swear I’m not telling y’all a story, but some countries count the floors of buildings differently. As y’all know in the US you walk in on the ground or first floor, walk up the stairs, and you’re on the second floor. (Unless you’re one of the apathetic chirps who lived in my building freshman year then you’d take the elevator.) In some countries (England’s one for sure) you walk in on the ground floor, walk up the stairs, then you’re on the first floor. Why is it important to engrave this difference in the memory bank? Well my little turtledoves you very well may be able to navigate back to your hostel after too many drinks, but if you forget how to count floors you might just walk into the wrong room!

Volume: Need a drink after taking all that in? Or are y’all feeling owl right? Well… elsewhere drinks are measured in milliliters and liters. Your typical 12oz beer is 355 ml and a pint holds 16oz. Have a handle on that? Good because a handle of liquor is just an American thing. In case anyone asks, a handle is 1.75 liters. Also you can’t plead the fifth of liquor to avoid being incriminated for your drunken shenanigans because a fifth is strictly American. If anyone asks, a fifth is 753 ml.

I know it’s easier to avoid change and stick your head in the ground. But I promise if you take this information to heart it will help you get ahead… Was that a bit of an ostrich?

Some things to expect:

  • “Where are you from?” Thanks to the accent, I’ve found most people in Europe have already figured out I’m from the USA so I answer, “North Carolina.” When I began traveling throughout Asia this answer got some confused looks. I’m guessing because far less Americans travel to Asia some of the locals are not as familiar with our accent, so I’ve begun to say, “America.”
  • “Canadian or American?” I get asked this a fair amount of the time. It’s funny because when I’m talking to a Canadian all I can think is, “why does anyone think we sound alike?” But for someone not as familiar with either accent this is a fair question. **Results may very based on region.** For example, you Bostonians there’s no denying your wicked awesome identity.
  • Some people will tell you they love your American accent. This happened to me a few times in England. At first I thought people were pulling my chicken leg, but in fact, they were sincere. Trust me ladies it’s never a bad thing when a cute British boy tells you they love your accent. (Hopefully you’ll manage to say less cockamamy things than I tend to.)
  • Sports ball yeah: Mentally prepare for jabs about football vs soccer. The topic of American football has the tendency to turn some Europeans into mocking birds. I’ve even met a few people who refer to American football as hand egg.
  • Talking about politics. I thought I might have to walk on egg shells after E day, but no one has victimized me in the post-POTUS Obama era. As I said in a previous post, virtually everyone you meet is open minded and understanding which leads to healthy, constructive discussions. With that being said, as an American traveling Trump becomes an unshakable part of your identity. Discussions about US politics are often unavoidable. Many times after I tell someone I’m American they say, “oh Trump.” Or less often, but more favorably, “Obama.”
  • People smoke a lot more in public places. To anyone out there thinking the $420.00 question, “smoke what?” I’m talking about cigarettes.
  • Your mental math game will become unflappable. You will constantly be converting prices into US currency. Indonesia got me back into my 13 multiplication table (13,000 Indonesian Rupiahs =$1) and Laos has me practicing my 8s daily. (8,000 kip = $1) On the plus side, in a cents the longer you travel the cheaper it becomes. You’ll make friends in various cities in an array of countries just begging you to come visit. Couch surfing certainly helps cushion the nest egg.
  • Being out of the loop: Virtually everyone you meet will speak English quite well. However, if you find yourself in a group of people who are all the same nationality they will probably speak in their native language from time to time. No worries because I’ve hatched a way to stay emusued for when you have no idea what’s going on: Go back to a childlike state when imagination was your primary state of mind and make up a ridiculous “backstory.” After traveling with two Dutch guys for a few days I told them every time they had a conversation I imagined they were talking about how they were madly in love with each other and planning to move to Switzerland to open a homemade cheese farm. I told this to the three Swedish people I traveled with for a while. At one point we ran into a group of about eight other Swedes. While they were all talking one of my friends turned to me, laughed, and said, “working on the backstory?” When I was with a few German girls I imagined they were in Asia to collect all the fresh ginger and spices to make gingerbread as an offering to the evil witch to keep her from eating their family… Ahh, I’m always quacking myself up.
  • Learning bits of other languages: On the flip side it’s fun to constantly be surrounded by people who speak various languages because you’ll begin to learn foreign words and phrases. Most useful, I’ve begun to rack up on ways to say, “cheers. ” Also I can; count from 1 to 10, say some phrases not suitable for audiences under 18, and curse in Dutch. By the time I come home I’ll probably be able to tell people to duck off in at least 6 languages… forever building the world’s most useless resume. Traveling has sincerely fueled my desire to speak a second language. To anyone else who has the same urge, you toucan learn. Duolingo is a great app for learning another language.

Y’all are on step closer to being ready to flamingo, but first… Our stereotypes.

One: We are all gun crazy. From your 2 year old brother to your 97 year old grandpa, every American is thought to have a revolver tucked in their diaper. Just kidding, nobody thinks we all wear diapers… But really, we are perceived to all be fanatics for firearms.

: We are terrible at grammar. If anyone is thinking, “I could care less about grammar,” I hope you care a bit, but the phrase you might be looking for is, “I couldn’t care less about grammar.”

Three. When it comes to beer, all we drink is Budweiser. Not hating on Budweiser, but if you like to fill your beak with a beer that has more bite, you’re in luck. US imports are European domestics and vice versa. When I studied aboard, I was delighted to learn a case of Guinness was cheaper than bud.

Four. We take holidays way too seriously. When I was studying in England, I should have counted the numbers of times I was told, “oh you’re American? We don’t celebrate holidays like you guys do” immediately after meeting someone. It probably would have been more than 12 drummers, 11 pipers, 10 leaping lords, and 9 ladies dancing combined. I admit we go a little batshit crazy for Halloween with the decorations and whatnot, but let’s talk about Christmas in the U.K. for a second. Walking around both England and Scotland in ~October~ a cornucopia of pubs and restaurants displayed signs advertising for people to book them for a holiday (Christmas) party. Sounds like some serious holiday build up to me…

Five. We have more pride in the USA USA USA than all the lions in Africa put together. I’ve been told the idea of pledging to the flag and the fact that it’s possible to buy any article of clothing in a stars and stripes print is weird. Due to our immense patriotism, we are all thought of as Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty’s love child. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be proud to be an American but please leave the, “back to back world war champs” tank top at home.

Six. We are terrible with geography. I always offer the explanation, the US has so much ground to cover of our own so European geography is not heavily focused on in school. However, it doesn’t hurt to break a few stereotypes. Take a peepat a map of Europe and Asia before jetting off.

Seven. We are good at drinking games… Ehh no need to break all stereotypes, wouldn’t want to send anyone into a confused tailspin.

Alright I hope no one is too shell shocked. It’s a lot to take in, but don’t worry if you don’t have a firm grasp on everything at first. It may seem like it’s a wild world, but to contradict Cat Stevens, it is possible to get by on just a smile. Backpackers are good natured. Nobody will shun you if your understanding of metric units isn’t impeckableJust send out good vibes and you’ll get them in return.

Fun fact: My cousin backpacked throughout Europe the summer before I studied abroad. I remember saying to him, “I could never do what you did.” Well would you look at me now.

A cage is no place to sing a swan song

Everything is a mental state. I’ve found the ability to believe in yourself and go after what you want comes down to saying it out loud. Even if you think the sentence, “I’m going to travel the world” is a lie as it leave your lips, the more you say it, the more you will believe it. When I first thought about writing as a career and people asked what I was going to do after I graduated I’d say, “I’m a history major. I’m probably going to go to grad school for museum work and write on the side.” Then it was, “I’m a history major, but I would like to be a writer.” Finally I began to say, “I’m going be a writer” and you know what? I really started to believe it myself. Trust me, if you start saying “when I travel” instead of, “if I travel” your self-doubt will quickly become extinct.

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy said that.

“Half of the people can be part right all of the time, some of the people can be all right part of the time, but all of the people can’t be all right all of the time.” Bob Dylan thinks Abraham Lincoln said that.

“My fellow Americans the best things you can do for your country is to travel the world.” I said that.

I know I keep raven about backpacking  but it’s because my knowledge and world views are expanding everyday in ways a classroom could never offer. I’m learning about various cultures firsthand as well as the way the US is viewed through the lens of foreign eyes. With every step I take, I feel like less of a US citizen and more a citizen of the world… Sorry I don’t mean to get too crunchy on y’all, but you are what you eat and I love granola!


**”Same same, but different” a very common saying in many parts of southeast Asia


  1. Just getting on here, was searching travel blogs and came across this wonderful post!!! Some very good info! I am also in NC, Durham to be exact. I am just starting to travel in my thirties and am very excited for the extra enrichment. I am some bilingual in Spanish and so may start with Spain or South of the US but hope to do much more in the not too distant future. Tenga un buen dia!


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