Discovering the US – Identity, Metric System, Driving.

I am not myself anymore.

I almost became schizophrenic. My husband’s former roommate was named Smith. The cable TV and phone subscriptions were in his name. The caller ID that appeared to others announced ‘Smith’. Therefore all the cold calls from telemarketing companies were easily identifiable. They would always start by ‘Hello Mrs. Smith”. After the first few calls which surprised me, I would just play around with them and take all kinds of heavy accents pretending that I didn’t speak English well enough to understand their annoying speech.

More permanent is the fact that one of my many given names is Minh. In Europe it is common in some families to have two or three middle names. When the consulate gave me my immigrant visa, they had no space to write Minh since the space is planned for a typical American person who has only one middle name. The last letter, the H, was truncated and all you could read was ‘Mini’. When the driving license service established my license in Virginia, instead of looking at the first page of my passport where my name is well written in full, they copied the visa page. My very official driving license, valid for ten years, bears the wrong name! Calling me ‘mini’ is nice but after breaking my back one week before the move and gaining a good 16 pounds due to the lack of exercise, I was not exactly ‘mini’ when I arrived in Virginia.

Metric system

When I shop, to find the price per kilo, which is my reference, I have to double every price because everything is stated in pounds. But the pound is no half a kilo here, it would be too easy, it only 450 grams. Once doubled, prices seem very expensive.

I have to remember a few basics: 1 gallon (3.78 liters) = 4 quarters (1 quart = almost 1 liter) and there are 2 pints in a quarter and 2 cups (cups) in a pint. So for those who have followed a “cup” is a little less than 250 grams and there are 16 ounces per pound. Instead of pinch, ounce, pound, quart, gallon, etc. it is so much easier to go 10, 100, 1000 grams or liters. The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world (others are Liberia and Burma) who has not adopted the metric system – why?!

And what about Celsius versus Fahrenheit? This is a tricky matter, not only for the climate but more importantly for bakers. When we travel with the Foreign Service sometimes the house is equipped with American appliances in Fahrenheit and sometimes not! We all need a conversion table near the oven.

Driving everywhere

We kept Anna and Lisa two friends of ours kids overnight. Anna was surprised to not find our daughter at 7:00 AM the next morning.

– “Where is she?” she asked with great concern.

– “Gone to school!” I replied.

– “On foot?!? ” she exclaimed indignantly.

I explained that her middle school bus was less than 100 meters (300 feet) away. This did not seem to convince her – a good mom would have driven her child and polluted the air to avoid the poor little girl a mere 2-minute walk.

Around 7:30 AM, when it was time for Anna, her little sister Lisa, and our son to leave for primary school, I started to walk with them. Anna thought we were probably going to get The Car. We had not walked for a minute yet when Anna exclaimed “you do not have a car?!” I replied that I had one but not for 500 meters (about 1/3 of a mile), thus less than ten minutes by foot.

“But my satchel is very heavy,” she grimaced. Without playing her game, I told her that it was the end of the school year and that teachers did not ask satchels to be full therefore they should not be heavy. I concluded by something like ‘a small walk is good for your health’. I think that these friends will not want to sleep at our home the night before a school day again!

Discovering life in the United States – First Month

If you have been American all your life, living in the United States, culture shock will come only when you move out. For me, it hit me when I moved in since I had lived in France all my life. I had traveled many times to the U.S. but there is a huge difference between the superficial view of the tourist or the business traveler and the view of the expat. So here we come Virginia, my number one ‘overseas’ post!

When I landed with the kids in May to join new diplomat hubby who had been in training for several months we went from 20 degrees Celsius (68F) in Paris to 33C (92F) in Arlington this day. Temperature shock!

Television boasted 600 channels! Even if you only kept the free ones you still got 300 – no wonder Americans invented the term ‘couch potatoes’. The kids only cared about number 44: the Disney Channel. I found eight Spanish networks, two Chinese, two Russian, and zero French!

We were in temporary housing; I discovered the common laundry room. The machine was massive, almost twice as large as a European machine. It did not spin much and pretended to be finished in 30 minutes. Where I come from it takes over an hour to wash a load.

Kids are encouraged to work early in the U.S. As soon as I printed business cards for my 12-year-old daughter, she found a pet sitter’s job! She needed to feed cats Mishu and Pasha for three days.

We toured DC to show the kids the principal sights. Our nine-year-old son found the White House too small. He liked the Capitol better.

I had an Arizona driver’s license. For $9 I received my Virginian version of it. I had broken my back just before we moved (indeed joining the Foreign Service was too simple, I had to spice it up!), so I flew in a cast that I needed to keep for several months so we also got a handicapped person placard – this felt weird!

We went to register the kids to school for the one month remaining of class. Despite being in North Arlington, we were in a very Hispanic neighborhood. When we entered the primary school with our white-blond-haired son, a kid exclaimed: ‘Oh! A white kid!’ I had never felt like a minority before. France is a true melting pot, marriages between people of different colors are common, much more so than in the U.S. so I had never heard anything like this nor its opposite. Also in France Hispanics are considered white, I discovered that it is a brand new ‘color’ here. In our son’s school there were about 70% Hispanics and at least 15% Blacks, Chinese, Nepalese, Indians, etc. In middle school, our daughter was assigned a Swedish school sponsor. Actually the Arlington school system caters to about 128 nationalities. A good start for the Foreign Service!

I was surprised to see so many bilingual English-Spanish signs everywhere: schools, supermarkets, bus, metro, department stores. I had not noticed this in Arizona which is much closer to Mexico.

Since the family was reunited again we needed much more furniture than when my husband was a ‘bachelor’ so I discovered Craigslist and FreeCycle. We did not want to buy anything new since our furniture was on a boat on its way. The beauty of Craigslist is that anything we bought there we sold for the same price or more three months later!

When you join the Foreign Service there is two important numbers to remember: 18,000 and 7,200. 18,000 pounds is the maximum belongings the Department of State will take care of for you for free whether in your house overseas or in storage and 7,200 pounds is the maximum you are allowed to ship overseas for free.