11 Things I Didn’t Expect In America

11 Things I Didn’t Expect In America

December 13, 2011

By Allan Stevo

I love sitting with Slovaks who’ve just returned from the U.S. and hearing their observations about my homeland.  As long as I can avoid feeling offended about anything and can create an open atmosphere for an exchange of ideas, I often hear some fascinating observations about the United States.  Below I will share just a few of them.  Maybe in the comments section below, you can add a few of your own.

1. ) In American movies everyone is so beautiful, but no one in America actually looks the way they do in the movies. This perhaps says something about the low quality of the Slovak film industry – the people they cast look like regular people.  At the same time, it may say something about the high quality of the Slovak gene pool – the people on the street look like they could be in movies. In America, it’s normal to expect that an average person won’t spend four hours in a gym each day; he or she has other things to do.  A professional actor can, however.  I don’t think this is a criticism of American people, but more a realization that the American film industry is so effective at finding actors and actresses that fit its description of “talent” – looks, brains, ability, appeal, feel.

2. ) The bread has too much sugar in it. Two weeks ago, in honor of Thanksgiving, I went into this issue further in this piece on sweet potatoes.  American food tastes too sweet to a lot of Slovaks.  And it would probably taste too sweet even to an American who lived 40 years ago.  Annually, our per capita consumption of sugar grows.  The average American is estimated to take in an extra half pound of sugars and sweeteners a week as compared to the average American of 40 years ago.  This article can get you started on that topic, but googling “Annual U.S. Sugar Consumption” will produce plenty of interesting results as well.

3.) America is a police state. For those Slovaks who lived during communist Czechoslovakia, this seems particularly to be a sensitive issue.  America, the land they long dreamed of as being free was not really as free as they had imagined.  There are plenty of comments I hear about the U.S. from people who claim expert knowledge of my country from reading the newspaper.  I’ve only heard Slovaks make this comment about American being a police state after actually traveling to the United States.  This is a crushing blow for some Slovaks, because the thinking for many is if freedom can’t work in America then it probably can’t work anywhere.

4.) American girls weigh too much. This is most often pointed out, not by Slovak guys, but by Slovak girls.  One day, I would love to have someone write in these pages about Slovak weight management techniques.  As I’m not a Slovak girl with a Slovak mother who taught me how to maintain my figure, I’m not privy to such techniques.  I think that the way some Slovak women eat would be called an “eating disorder” in the U.S.  It’s not always easy to draw a line between disordered eating and cultural norms. Both cultures can easily point a finger at the other culture for not being “(fill in your own adjective) enough.”   I imagine genes must also play a role in this. I think many in the Slovak gene pool tend to have slender bodies that do not easily gain weight.  Genes are probably not the only factor however.

5.) Everyone eats fast food. A fascinating extension of this is that everyone, even Slovak visitors to the U.S., eat fast food.  Knowing that Slovaks come from a country where a wholesome home-cooked meal is the norm, it’s always a surprise to me how often a Slovak visitor will gorge himself or herself on a visit to America by trying every fast food option that’s out there.  Taco Bell is often preferred to whatever great neighborhood Mexican place exists.  Burger King is preferred to local hamburger joints that use fire instead of lots of “fire flavor” to make a burger taste good.

In Slovakia there are very limited fast food options and eating out with the family is an uncommon event, usually just reserved for a special occasion.  Home is where food is consumed in Slovakia.  Americans not only go to restaurants often, they take it a step further and even go to fast food places often. Because I recognize the trend that Slovaks travelling to the U.S. consume more calories than they normally do at home, I almost always ask any man or women who recently traveled to the U.S., even for just a week, how much weight he or she gained. It’s not that polite of a question, but it gets down to the heart of what many Slovaks think about travel to the U.S.  I think travelling to America is connected to weight gain in the minds of many Slovaks.

6.) Black people are the only ones who work in America. I still have no idea what this statement was supposed to mean.  I think the guy who made the comment to me just missed something in his travels to the U.S.

Black Americans make up 12.6% of the population.  What kind of country can function on just 12.6% of the people working?  This statement demonstrates that some people have no clue even about things that are right in front of their eyes.  Some people (me included) might be missing something as they try to argue their points.  I hope that anyone who reads today’s post and feels something is incorrectly depicted will chime in and leave their own viewpoints in the comments section.

7.) Chicago is full of horrible concrete tenements.  The whole downtown is full of ugly concrete “panelaky.” This is a matter of perspective.  I think downtown Chicago is beautiful; I love the variety of the architecture, but some people prefer a Montana-style landscape to an urban setting.  For an urban-North American setting, I think Chicago is hard to beat. I think it’s common sense to go to Chicago if you want urban and to go to Montana if you want Yellowstone, Big Sky Country, and Indian reservations.

An angry Slovak once sought me out several times a day so that he could repeat the above statement numerous times for days.  He’s the only person who ever told me that I came from an ugly place and he said it so many times and so angrily.  Sometimes when a person talks about your home, you know that he is expressing something not about your home, but rather about himself.  This poor guy had a chip on his shoulder about the U.S. that I didn’t stick around long enough to understand.  A few instances of hearing what a bad place I came from was enough for me.  I quickly learned to keep away from that guy.  It was the same man who insisted that #6 was a 100% true about America.

8.) The educational system is much more open to creative thinking. Slovak schools seem to stress the memorization and regurgitation of facts.  American schools don’t seem to do so.  The focus on group work and individual accomplishment seems to be beneficial to students in the U.S.

The differences in educational styles and the positives and negatives of the two systems is a great passion of mine and is a discussion that I consider to be important as it relates to preparing youth for their futures.  I have yet to figure out how to approach that issue in these pages.  I have sat down at least half a dozen times over the last year to try to write about that issue, but have so much to say about it that I have each time been unsuccessful at completing an essay on that topic.

9.) Taxes are very low. Well, Slovakia has a federally mandated 20% sales tax. Some American states, in contrast, have no sales tax.  Gasoline in Slovakia is usually multiples the cost of gas in the U.S. (because of the taxes).  There are hidden taxes all over the place in Slovakia.  There’s a 20% flat tax on income, which is a great sound bite, but there are lots of other government fees associated with income as well. On top of that, there are government offices that have the authority to prevent you from doing a whole host of things until you follow very specific instructions.

While America also has a somewhat heavy tax and regulatory burden, all Americans are lucky that they don’t have to deal with the tax and regulatory burden of life in Slovakia.  This is something that we take this for granted in the U.S.  Some presidential candidates even propose starting the first federal income tax in the U.S.  From buying consumer electronics, to starting companies, to hiring employees America can be so much cheaper and simpler than Slovakia in many ways.

The fact that there’s a black market in electronics from the U.S. demonstrates how much Slovaks dislike the heavily regulation and taxation imposed by their government and the EU.  I think that every single time I have crossed the Atlantic from Slovakia, a Slovak has approached me prior to the trip and asked me as calmly as if he were asking me to come back with a candy bar for him – “Hey, would you mind bringing me back a computer while you’re in the U.S.?” Last time I traveled three people asked me to bring back laptop computers for them.  They are just much cheaper in the U.S.  It’s not just with me either.  Pretty much every American I know in Slovakia has acted as an electronics “mule” at some point or another.

10.) In the U.S., systems are easy to cheat. Insist that the government must be the overbearing protector of a person’s soul and that everything the government does not condone must be made illegal and you end up with a group of people who have not exercised their consciences as well as one can.  I think that happened before 1989 in Czechoslovakia and the rest of the Eastern Bloc.

In my opinion, Americans are expected quite a bit to exercise their consciences.  Of course, like anyone else, we do this imperfectly.  I think the American understanding of freedom is tied up strongly with the idea of personal responsibility and imposing limits on oneself.  I like how much American society leaves judgments of morality out of the hands of government.  I would like to think that it encourages (non-governmental) discussions of what constitutes appropriate behavior.

Lots of Slavs that I have met end up in the U.S. ready to “game the system.” I think it’s a natural talent when you grow up in a culture where gaming the system is a vital part of success for one and for one’s family.

There’s even a Slovak phrase from communist times, when everything was the property of the state – “Kto nekradne, okráda svoju rodinu” which translates as “He who does not steal [from the state] steals from his own family.”

11.) America is very clean. It’s unbelievably clean. I have heard this said many times, and I can’t exactly put my finger on what this means, but I think the lack of dust blowing around outdoors makes a place feel cleaner.  Some countries I have traveled to have lots of dust blowing around.

Also, I speculate it might refer to a lack of greasiness or griminess that I’ve noticed in some European cities as well as in some parts of Manhattan in New York and in the French Quarter in New Orleans.  Marianska Street in Bratislava, Rua Dos Bacalhoeiros in Lisbon, and Bourbon Street in New Orleans (with Bourbon Street being the grimiest) all seem to have a similar general greasiness to them. The grime seems to cover the street, but lots of other surfaces as well.

Often, it is pointed out to me by visitors that Bratislava is full of graffiti.  Maybe that is part of what it means for a place to be dirty. Maybe someone can help me to better understand these comments and others.

What are things about the U.S. that surprised you on your visit to the U.S.?  What are things that you were not surprised by?  What are things that you’ve heard Slovak friends get surprised by?  I think there will be quite an interesting discussion on this topic, or so I’m hoping.  I think a few Slovaks will chime in with things that surprised them about America and a lot of people will discuss back and forth.  Whatever, happens, please don’t anyone go taking any of this personally.  As Slovak author Martin Kukučín writes “Všade dobre — doma najlepšie” – “Everywhere is good, but home is best.”  Each one of us has our own biases about how much better our home is and ultimately these are biases that no amount of logic can explain.  I look forward to hearing your observations about my homeland – both good and bad.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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  • Mary Ann Novak

    Dec 13th, 2011

    Slovakia is listed as having the 4th highest obesity rate, not that far behind the USA, so don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house. Most of the other comments are equally as bizarre. I travel there and meet many Slovaks here and think even they would find these comments a bit off the mark in almost every regard. But there it is! I love both countries and peoples (being of 100% Slovak heritage myself.) Merry Christmas!

  • Wow!!! Mary Ann. That is some excellent fodder. If you have a link for those statistics, please send it to me. The next time a friend uses the phrase “fat Americans” to talk about my fellow countrymen, I’m going to have to pull that one out. Thank you for sharing that. Merry Christmas to you too, Mary Ann.

  • Michael Charnego (Cernega)

    Dec 14th, 2011

    I have been to Slovakia 9 times since 2000 and have spent time from Bratislava to Humenne-Snina and have found it to be a very clean country. The amount of graffiti I have seen is minimal compared to the excessive amount in Prague. Bread is excellent, especially in Eastern Slovakia. Most younger males and females in Slovakia are more slender than those in the US. I feel certain that the US diet compared to Slovakia is the culprit. I have seen an increase in fast food in Slovakia over time. However, it does not compare to the number of fast food
    places in the US. It seems that mostly Slovak young people buy at fast food places. Only time will tell if the weights of the young increase in Slovakia. I hope not.

  • Michael,
    Thank you for the support for some comments and the criticism of others. As you’ve noticed, I’m not sure what the cleanliness comment really means, but you’ve made me take note of something – perhaps the people who talk about cleanliness of the U.S. might be from cities in Slovakia (as opposed to villages). Thank you for the insight. It’s also good to know that you’ve traveled so much back and forth. I bet you’ve seen a lot of fascinating things will traveling Slovakia.

  • After spending over a year in Austria waiting for the departure to the US, we arrived in Vermont with 2 suitcases, 2 small children and a complete lack of knowlidge of our new homeland. It was a cultural shock! Today I consider Vermont beautiful, but it took me many years to adjust.
    I’ve had a chance to compare my children’s education (50% private) with my own from the communist era and have to agree with the already stated facts. There was no free thinking in a communist society, so of course the school system reflected that. They were trying to bring up generations of blindly obeying, brainwashed individuals. We were not allowed to go anywhere, see anything or compare and that was the time before the internet. It’s sad to hear that the same aproach is being used today. Slovakia had 20years to change!

  • Interesting article, Allan !! My guess is that you would get 11 completely different observations from 11 completely different Slovakian people who had visited America.

    But Observation #10: It’s easy to cheat the U.S. system, gets my goat. Why do some Slovaks feel they have to ‘cheat’ when they’re in America ?? What’s wrong with following rules ?? To me, be it an American or a Slovak; if they have this kind of attitude, it just exposes their disrespect of authority and of people. I wish the cheating Slovaks would get caught !! My Slovakian father never cheated on anything !! Though sometimes I wish he had; then maybe he wouldn’t have had to work so hard for every thing and be so tired and cranky most of the time.

    I am not happy to hear that ‘gaming the system’ is the only way Slovakian families believe they can achieve a better life in Slovakia. This attitude is so mean and reminds me of Communistic ways of thinking: like a few will profit from the majority, who will not profit.

    Slovakians are often smart people. It repulses me to hear that this deeply-rooted belief, “Kdo nekradne, okrada svoju rodinu” is so prevalent. On the other hand, this saying can sort of be interpreted as a misconstrued capitalistic ideal: ‘If you can’t profit from others, you will find a way to make a profit from your family’.

    The Slovaks seem to view ‘making a profit’ as ‘stealing.’ That someone wins while another loses. Americans view of ‘profit’ is more positive. Both parties win.

    In an ideal capitalist economic system (like America’s), nobody should lose. While someone makes a profit, the other party gets something of value in return; like money or services. So there shouldn’t be any ‘stealing’ going on.

    Thanks for the compliment on America being very clean !! We try !! And as for ‘panelaky’ and ‘sinjaky’, I saw a lot of those in Prague !! As I am not a city girl, I appreciate the countryside more in all three, countries.

  • Cynthia,
    Thank you, as always, for your comment. Your statement “My guess is that you would get 11 completely different observations from 11 completely different Slovakian people who had visited America” is in my experience quite true. It would make a great disclaimer to this article. I still tried to stick a few out there to open up discussion on some of those experiences.

    The gaming the system thing isn’t always meant to be about stealing, but it might even involve something like saving your coupons up for double coupon day at a grocery store. It might involve having a more creative mind about being frugal. I do think it crosses the border sometimes into a gray area of what some might consider opportunistic theft. Katka, in her comment above does a great job pointing that same finger at the behavior of some in the U.S.

    In Slovakia, I have the feeling that pilfering from the government was considered more socially acceptable during communism. The government had stolen so much from so many people that society was having a hard time identifying how to view government in a moral sense. A French parliamentarian of the early 19th century Bastiat in “The Law” looked at some of the difficulties people encounter when their government is operating contrary to common views of ethics or morality. We put so much emphasis in government being an authority that it leaves people feeling confused when government does really evil things.

    I like your point about looking at profit as zero sum. I agree that when one person profits, it does not mean that another person is losing. Both people can walk away from an exchange feeling good about it. I once thought that Slovaks were all influenced by Marxist ideas of class wars, but I have come to find that there are many people who have come to embrace Slovakia’s post-communist economic system. When I walk into a free-market economics lecture in Bratislava, the room is jam packed. When I do the same in Vienna, Austria, the room is not so packed. I even once walked into a small room in Vienna where there was a visiting lecturer on free market economics and it felt practically empty. Based on that, you might figure that Austrians are at home reading Das Kapital while Slovaks can’t get enough of visiting free market economists, but there may be many other explanations for this phenomena. I have yet to find any economic consensus between East and West on the topic of free markets, class warfare, government regulated markets. There are some Slovaks who still long for the life their had 25 years ago, there are others that embrace the changes.

    About the U.S. being clean, I just came up with another example. Littering seems more socially acceptable in Slovakia. When a person in Slovakia opens up a pack of cigarettes, the plastic wrapper usually ends up on the ground and I usually bite my lip and don’t say “hey, you forgot something” because it doesn’t seem to be an appropriate thing to say. I think in the U.S. it would be more appropriate for me to scold someone who did such a thing.

    Thank you again, Cynthia, for sharing your thoughts on this one.


  • interesting article. I will only comment on number 6. I don’t think that the person, who said it has ever been to US. I think he’s talking about slavery, because even if he meant physical labor, he would say only mexicans work in America, not black people. It was just one of those american haters, that Slovakia is unfortunately so full of, even among Slovaks currently living in US. As my husband say, they hate it here so much, but you wouldn’t get them out of here with cannons. It’s sad really, that Slovaks are such a bitter nation.
    And btw. I think americans are exceptionally beautiful nation, almost uniformly beautiful. Of course there are exceptions, but I am not talking about bunch of rednecks from swamps, but normal people living in the cities. You know their hair is perfect, and teeth are whiter and straighter, they all have beautiful smiles, women have perfect nails etc. I mean it’s all what money can buy but still, it makes one good looking nation and not just movie stars.

  • Tatiana,
    Interesting comments. Thank you. I do not think I know any Slovaks living in America who are America-haters. It must be very difficult to not like the place you are living in and to not feel compelled to move. Someone told me once “There are those who would complain even in paradise.” Maybe this is an example of that. I will keep an eye out for them.

    Sometimes I totally ignore the aesthetics of other people (ie. hair, teeth, nails), which makes me particularly grateful for your comments on this topic. It’s not something I would likely discern on my own. I’ll try to keep an eye out for that as well.

    Thank you.


  • You don’t say how long these Slovaks had been in the U.S. before returning with these observations. Obviously, you can’t form any real impression of a place based on just a 4-day shopping trip. As I know from my time in Slovakia, you have to live somewhere at least two years to start really seeing it from the local perspective, even a little. Anyway, # 9 is just silly. A lot of people who said that probably never had to pay American payroll taxes, which – when added to the income tax, state income tax, city income tax (if you live in NYC), sales tax, and excise taxes – far exceed what the average Slovak pays. Being self-employed in America, or even outside it, is the quickest way to get slapped with 40% in taxes when everything’s added together. That’s a typical level in Scandinavia, where they have free education, healthcare, and excellent public transportation instead of a giant military.

  • Stefan,

    I like your two year rule. Over the years, I’ve definitely asked opinions of people who had short trips to the U.S. and long trips. Sometimes the people there on long trips let me down with their insight of American culture and people on short trips seem insightful. There seems to be something to your two year rule though.

    The man who spoke number 6 and 7 was a visiting musician who I would think would have offered much insight and have been very astute about the U.S. in his observations, but he traveled in such an isolated way that there was no basis for him to have very much knowledge about the U.S.

    Thank you as well for sharing the experience of being self-employed in America v. Slovakia and the related tax benefits.


  • # 4 before I left to States and my grandma saw a Picture of my future host family, she was begging me not to go, because they were all looking unhealthy skinny. She was worried that they won’t give me enough to eat 😀

    So I think this one is untrue. It is pretty much the same like in Slovakia. The only think that struck me while living in states was that these bigger girls had no problem wearing tiny tight shirts and outfits showing every extra pound – so I Guess more confidence : )

    # 7 Chicago is beautiful!

    # 10 Once you’ll decide to cheat, you’ll find the way to cheat – it doesn’t matter who you are and where are you from nor which country the system is!

    While in States I was surprised by “paper” looking houses, extra wide roads, everyone having a white teeth and ear to ear smile, also why to put ice into everything?

    Shocked that most of an Americans I have talked to had no idea where Slovakia is!?

    Loved the services, smalltalk @ store, friendliness on streets (even if it was just a „pose“) great shopping, huge portions of Ice cream : ) (compared to our 1 “kopček” ) I know people that had „culture shock“ after coming back to Slovakia and seeing the service you get here, for example when you´ll go shoe hunting.

  • Katka,
    These are some great observations. Some readers may not know that it is common for Slovaks to refer to American houses as “paper houses” since they are made of drywall and wooden frames and one can rather easily damage a wall. Slovak houses tend to be built from big hollow bricks, akin to cinder blocks.

    I can imagine how it must have been a shock to learn repeatedly that no Americans knew where you were from! On my returns to America, I often try to get through the Slovak part of the conversation as quickly as possible when I meet a stranger, because I see that no one knows what to say to me or ask me about a country that they know nothing about.

    Yes, I must certainly agree with the ice cream issue – in Slovakia, I learn to appreciate every lick of that tiny scoop of ice cream I am served. In the U.S. I enjoy the feeling of eating a large quantity of something that is not too healthy when I am treating myself with ice cream.

    Life does feel a little better to me when someone smiles at you, even when it is only a pose.

    It’s hilarious that your grandmother looked at those skinny Americans and were worried about you! It just goes to support the accuracy of Cynthia’s statement “My guess is that you would get 11 completely different observations from 11 completely different Slovakian people who had visited America.”

    And here, Katka, this is a gem that I’m definitely going to share with a few friends later today to see what they think of it, something I’d never thought about before: “The only think that struck me while living in states was that these bigger girls had no problem wearing tiny tight shirts and outfits showing every extra pound – so I Guess more confidence : )” Maybe that is part of the “fat American” theory that seems popular in Slovakia.

    Thank you for all of this interesting insight.


  • David Kuchta

    Dec 14th, 2011

    I loved all the comments. Some where right on the money. When I visited Slovakia, I loved seeing the front yards in the smaller villages, planted with gardens and flowers. In America, all front lawns are grass. We water them, fertilize them and then complain about cutting the grass every week. I did see where my cousins daughter and husband had a more modern home, with a garage, long paved driveway and grass for a front lawn. I was surprised when I saw this because my cousin was a poorer farmer. I did find out later that they worked for the communist party when they were in charge. I guess the pay was good?
    The early immigrants from Europe thought the streets were paved with gold, and only found out, they had to do the paving. The part about America being a police state, is far from the truth. Only those who want to break the rules, think this. In Amrica, those who study hard, try harder go up the corporate ladder. This opportunity is open to every American and even those who just come to \America and give it their best. I love Slovakia and see much of my area so much the same, expecially in the rural areas.

  • David,
    Interesting insight. Thank you for the comment. You make an good point about planting front yards with gardens instead of using grass. It might not be as uniformly pretty, but a garden has its own beauty and is functional as well.

    I really liked this one David: “The early immigrants from Europe thought the streets were paved with gold, and only found out, they had to do the paving. ” Well phrased, concise, a little wry.


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  • #4 & #5 are definitely related.

    Any comments on US transportation?

  • This is very interesting, I just got around to reading this old item. Fat? My Slovak mother was chubby and it seems to be genetic with me and my daughter. Many eastern Europeans are short and short waisted. At age 70 I still go to the YMCA 2-3X a week to fight this. Of course we all also like to cook and eat. I don’t eat out much, like my own cooking better.
    I thought young black men had the highest rate of unemployment. That may have changed with the last several years crazy economic problems. I have noticed a trend of TOO many people getting on disability income. I still work 25 hours a week, only because I got cut from 40 when our funding was cut at my social service agency.

  • Let me start first by saying that I have not been to the US, and while I would like to see some places (Chicago, the Rockies, maybe New York), I dont consider it worth the trouble with visa and all right now.

    Anyway some comments on my part:
    1) I dont see why movie people looking like regular people would be a fault of the movie industry. On the contrary – I would consider it a mark of the industry that is beyond the cult of body, and tries to feel real instead. If I look at, say, Pokoj v dusi, I dont have to wonder how did all those models get to a small village in the mountains, I see a realistic community.

    Also, beauty is in the eye of beholder. Tatiana mentions straight, white teeth and perfect hair, which are in no ways factors that determine personal beauty for me (of course unless we are talking absolutely unkempt). Meanwhile some Americans seem to go crazy about some attributes I would hardly even consider as beautiful. So I guess we just have different measures.

    5: Partly, I would attribute that to the novelty effect, fast food is not that usual in Slovakia, and apart from McDonalds, you dont have many opportunities to try it. When one is in America, he might just want to see for himself, what is the difference between BK and Wendys, and why is Taco Bell so popular. And/or they just use the fact that it is cheaper than the local burger joint/mexican place.

    6: as you mentioned that your “friend” was a travelling musician – I might look into his observations with that in mind – if he travelled heavily and spent most of his time in venues, it might just be possible that he had seen majority of different ethnicities, working in hotels, restaurants, or whatnot.
    Another way might be, what does he actually mean by “work”. While the two slovak words “robiť” and “pracovať” both translate to “work”, there are slight differences in meaning, with “pracovať” leaning more to “be employed” and “robiť” to “work manually”. So if he said that “v amerike robia len černosi” he might have meant, that he observed the manual work was done by blacks, as opposed to office work or so.

    I dont think I can talk in length about others, even if I have my opinion, I have not been there.

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