Is Living in California As Perfect as Everyone Imagines It?

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The United States of America has always attracted visitors from around the world at any time of the year. New York City, Miami, Washington DC, Las Vegas, and the state of California are on the top of the list for tourists. However, some of them come back disappointed.

The entertainment industry hypes up the most popular US destinations, creating the series of ‘American dream’ movies. They show how great life is out there, and how fun those places can be. When in fact, the majority of popular tv series and movies aren’t even filmed on location. Most movies taking place in DC are actually filmed in Los Angeles, often on a set, and the majority of NYC based movies are actually shot in Toronto to reduce the costs.

Is Living in California Perfect as Everyone Imagines It?

First time in NYC - such a joy! :D

First time in NYC in 2009 – don’t laugh at me! 😀

Let me tell you that when I first came to the US I wasn’t any different from the majority of tourists. I wanted to visit, and maybe live there for a while, and somehow my dreams actually came true later on.

When I first came to Miami in 2008 (5 weeks), NYC in 2009 (5 weeks), and California (6 weeks), I was amazed at how great this place was. Looking back, I was probably just happy to finally visit these places, and as a summer school student I was surrounded by rich international students. Limos, cocktails, and VIP parties at the best nightclubs were a regular occurrence – which wasn’t a regular occurrence in my life before haha! Who wouldn’t like it?

Ever since my first visit, I’ve managed to study in the US in 2010, then move back to California for a couple of months here and there in 2014, as well as visit and revisit various places all over the country. I can tell you that what I remembered from my first times visiting these places, living there was a completely different reality.

What Are the New Expats in California Most Surprised About?

Here are a few things I came up with that a lot of expats are surprised about their new life in California.

There are plenty of US citizens who don’t speak English at all

America is full of immigrants from all over the world. At a glance, it would seem that they all assimilate pretty quickly. However, when you go to certain parts of California, there are a lot of people who don’t speak a word of English. Simply because they don’t have to.

For example, there are huge Chinese and Vietnamese communities in California that don’t speak English. They stay within their own communities and feel like they don’t need to learn. There are also a large number of Latinos, who don’t speak English, because almost everything in California is also written in Spanish. You need to be prepared that your taxi or Uber driver might not speak English.

If you can’t drive or you dislike cars you should reconsider California

Everything in California is extremely spread out, so if you need to run errands you might need to spend a lot of time in your car. Not only because of the distances, but also traffic. Finding parking is also a challenge. While living in places like LA is possible without a car (I’ve done it), don’t count on taking public transport. It’s almost non-existent and even if you do use it, the experience isn’t likely to be pleasant.

Traffic, a lot of traffic...

Traffic, a lot of traffic…

parking california

The friendliness of people doesn’t mean they’re trying to be friends

Americans tend to be extremely friendly. A welcoming ‘How are you today?’ follows you wherever you go. and at the first sight, it seems nice. However, don’t get ahead of yourself. Most of the time they are just saying hello, nobody expects you to honestly answer the question.

If you’re dreaming of moving to California thinking that you and your friends will live in a giant condo, you need to face the reality. The majority of people have to lower their standards by moving to a big city in America. You’re lucky to pay less than $1000 for a small room with shared facilities, and it’s definitely not going to be very central either.

You won’t be hanging out in high heels like in the Sex and the City, but instead carrying your laundry to the nearest laundromat. That will be normal.

You might see this...

You might see this only in Vegas…

In fact, the biggest problem in America (which surprises a lot of foreigners) is the amount of homeless people everywhere. In downtown areas especially, you will see homeless people lying in the sidewalks. No matter if you’re in a parking lot or a very fancy hotel or bank. Homeless people also often get tents and pitch them up against fences or walls in the middle of downtown areas.


Problem of homeless in the US

Food is often weird

We all know that portions in America are huge, and often one meal from a restaurant can last you until the end of the next day. But when talking about food in California, I have to mention how weird it can get. You can easily find cheese spray – yes, you read correctly, scrambled eggs in a can, and weird flavors of vodka. Every day in an American supermarket is an adventure, but only sometimes it’s a good surprise.

flavored vodka

This vodka was actually awesome!

I’m not saying that you can’t find good food in America. There are plenty of good restaurants and products to buy in the US, but weird things are a huge addition to it. My absolute favorite weird thing is chocolate flavored toothpaste!10931308_1025073880871718_9072241536518499719_n

Everything is huge

Speaking of grocery shopping, I forgot to mention one thing – if you don’t have a big fridge with a freezer in California, you’re pretty much screwed. Most of the time it’s impossible to buy a small single item. as almost everything in the supermarket is sold in bulk. It gets very annoying if you don’t eat very much, or you don’t fancy eating the same things for a few days straight. Not to mention the size of some vegetables is crazy. The first time I saw an onion I was convinced it was mutated!

Prepare for a lot of VERY straightforward conversations

It’s normal for many Californians to ask you details about your life, including maybe some intimate things about your family and your past. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first time meeting the person, or if it’s your first date. Your American date would most likely ask you what do you do, followed by a lot of additional questions, instead of maintaining small talk like Europeans do.

What else would you add?

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  1. Mar 30, 2015 / 3:01 am

    I took a Sex and the City tour in NYC last year, and I was surprised to learned that many sitcoms and TV dramas aren’t filmed in NYC. Though I should have known.

    • Mar 30, 2015 / 7:45 pm

      Yep, but at least SOME stuff are filmed in NYC, but when it comes to DC based movies/TV there’s absolutely nothing that’s filmed there 🙂

  2. Mar 30, 2015 / 2:57 pm

    As someone who has lived in Colorado for two months, I totally agree with all your points here! Especially the “Everything is huge”. For my first two weeks I tried to cook proper food, but it gets difficult because I couldn’t find single person packed fresh vegetables and meat. I ended up cooking frozen TV meals with the microwave most of the time.

    • Mar 30, 2015 / 7:33 pm

      Haha, yeah… I was lucky my bf eats all the leftovers 😉

  3. Mar 30, 2015 / 3:14 pm

    Hi Anna – good overview of the US! Tipping is definitely expected here – 15-20% of the total bill at restaurants and bars is the norm. Also – there are several small grocery stores here that don’t sell bulk items, but you’re right – for the most part everything is bigger! If you ever make it to Texas, I’d love to meet up!

    • Mar 30, 2015 / 7:31 pm

      I’d love to come to Texas! I’ll let you know when I’m back in the US!

  4. Mar 30, 2015 / 8:19 pm

    I was interested to read this as an expat in the USA since 2002. Lots of stuff I have observed too, but my experience has been slightly different too. I guess with a country this size and so diverse, no two people will have the exact same impressions. I do have to say that paid time off is something this country really should improve!

    When I first moved here, I spend 6 months in the suburbs – beautiful and well-off, but extremely boring suburbs…I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there and into the city. That’s where I finally started to feel at home. I could choose to drive or take public transportation, I enjoyed the diversity (my Spanish has greatly improved), and the food is not just chain stores and processed freezer shit in supermarkets.

    It hasn’t been that different from living in Europe, in the end. Except I fly more that I take the train. 🙂

    • Mar 30, 2015 / 8:33 pm

      Yeah, I guess opinions differ depending of where do you in the US. I guess if you’re based in NYC, San Francisco or Chicago you won’t be complaining about public transport, but elsewhere it’s a huge problem – well, for Europeans as I guess locals just got used to it 😀

  5. Mar 30, 2015 / 9:06 pm

    as an american and someone who has lived abroad in various countries and traveled to 70+, i would say that many of your points are valid and many are very far off.

    we do have some weird food items in the US! but i see weird ones all over the place- i find horse meat in a can from eastern european countries odd. i find cavier in a tube (or cheese, ham, etc) in norway and scandinavian countries to be super weird. but that is what makes things fun 🙂

    as for people not being genuine- i find that a little insulting to a degree. yes, we preface things different, but it does not mean it isn’t genuine. there are plenty of other cultures who say things differently than americans, but travel and culture experience has taught me that it is just a cultural difference. i would never perceive the person as being not genuine. that is the same as me being weirded out that many people will pass me and only me on the street and not even acknowledge my presence or say hello. i could think that is rudeness. or just a cultural difference. and i know it is a cultural difference 🙂

    if you want to see homelessness, come check out frankfurt, germany. or oslo, norway. i live in frankfurt and have never seen so much homelessness in my life. the difference is that the US has 325 million people, so it is prevalent and of course, a problem, but trust me, that problem exists in several places. i brought a british person to oslo when i was living there and they were astounded by the amount of homelessness on the street. and were upset because they truly believed a ‘scandinavian utopia’ was a real thing. frankfurt is on a whole ‘nother level.

    as for meat and vegetable quality, i experience the same crap in the EU that i do in the US. the EU puts on a front like they ban many chemicals, which, ok, they do, but they still do odd things and spray the crap out of things. the meat in the EU is extremely tasteless in my opinion. and fish is mostly all farmed up in northern countries and it is repulsive. in many of these countries, they will import top grade american beef and sell it at a premium price because it has a higher quality taste to many people here (i live in germany). as for vegetables and fruits, i find massive onions, brussel sprouts, parsnips, etc all over the EU. the same as the size of the ones in the US. in the US, we have many different varieties of onions that do not exist in Europe, so i just don’t give it too much though as i assume things can be different. but in addition, in the states, you can shop at walmart and see lower quality products, or you can shop somewhere else and find higher quality. just like here. i bought chicken one time in germany and the bones were scorched and you could tell there was something unethical going on with the production of the meat. ever since then, i buy the higher quality grades if i eat meat. yes, i pay more, but it tastes more natural and i dont have to worry as bad about the ethical implications behind it. this is a rule of thumb in the US too. just like anywhere else.

    i know you werent in the US for very long to get a good idea of how things really work and work in various parts of the country, but next time you go- i highly suggest trying to avoid the chain stores and restaurants. you will find that portions arent as big and food is much tastier at a mom and pop shop as opposed to the cheesecake factory. it also is good for supporting local businesses. i hardly shop at chains anywhere in the world (harder in Germany and when i lived in Norway as everything seems to be a chain) if i can avoid it and i see such a different side to the economy, people, and food everywhere.

    i agree about tipping! if someone doesnt tip and they had a good server, the server will probably give them the stink eye! not necessarily a good thing but i guess that is how they have to make their living lol 🙂

    as for holidays, it depends on the person. you negotiate when you begin a job. many people don’t do this and just wind up with minimal holidays. at my job in the US (before moving to europe), i had 21 days paid vacation in addition to all of the government holidays we get (which is quite a lot compared to other places i have lived). i was only there for like two years. my mom has been at her job for a few years and has 10 weeks of paid vacation plus government holidays. she negotiated that because she likes a lot of time off. i worked with one lady who had 14 weeks vacation plus govt holidays. she had been at my company for around 7 years and just renegotiated every year. that kind of sucked as i had to back up all of her work when she was gone 😉 most americans have no clue you can negotiate holidays, and even maternity leave. but most americans dont care about how much time they get off as 60% of americans let holiday days go to waste. i think europeans care more about our holiday time than we often do 😛

    one thing i have noticed about europeans (and sometimes other cultures/societies around the world) is that if they come to the US and see something different, it is automatically wrong. but if they travel to another country and see something different, it is a cultural difference. i dont know when things became that way but it is so strange to me.

    as for chocolate toothpaste- where in the world can i buy this?!?! i wanna try this immediately hahahah!!! i have to get my family to send me some. that and a bottle of whipped cream vodka 🙂

    hope you’re enjoying wherever you are at the moment!

    • Mar 30, 2015 / 9:53 pm

      I’ve never said that weird fun doesn’t make things fun – it’s an adventure and I love it! I was buying my chocolate toothpaste at CVS in San Diego – 2 weeks ago it was still there 😀
      Reading your comment about the feeling you have about meat in the EU I actually remembered the discussion between my Mexican friends and my Polish friends about which eggs are normal. Mexicans claimed white eggs are normal and Polish said that brown eggs are normal – both parts were really used to “their normal eggs” hehe !

      • Mar 31, 2015 / 9:16 am

        i have to get my family to send me some chocolate toothpaste. only because we never had anything that cool when i was a kid. haha. im sure ill hate it, but still fun to try!

        my boyfriends british and we always have a discussion about normal eggs too lol! but i guess i ate both brown and white growing up, i just wanted to contest his disdain for white eggs (most eggs in germany are white). i remember having the discussion with him about keeping eggs in the fridge right away and freaking out when they werent in the fridge. only to read that american eggs must be refrigerated right away and EU ones dont have to for a week or so because they use two different washing systems. who knew?! haha.

        • Mar 31, 2015 / 3:00 pm

          Haha, I know this egg problem 😀

  6. Valeria @ Rome, New York, London, World
    Mar 31, 2015 / 5:45 pm

    Ahhhhhhhh love love love.
    Even though my family grew up in the States and legally I’m American, as an Italian I had such a hard time adjusting to the American culture and habits, from having to “press 1 for English”, to strangers asking you how much you earn and how much you pay for rent, to lowering my living standards, to considering a one-week vacation a privilege…
    I could go on forever. And of course I’m not saying Europeans (let alone Italians) are perfect.
    Along the same lines, I wrote

    • Mar 31, 2015 / 6:44 pm

      In my case it’s funny because in Europe I hear a lot: you’re so American, and then in the US they said that I think like an American but want European lifestyle… so I’m a bit lost haha!

  7. Mar 31, 2015 / 9:06 pm

    That is an incredible post! I have been to the United States a few times and I truly agree with you. It is so different from movies and even from the European life I’m used to. It was hilarious reading about the insane amount of meal portions they have, and yes! I just can’t finish one of those huge meals, but who can? We would also always find the most strange and unexpected food at supermarkets. However, every time I go it keeps surprising me!

    • Apr 7, 2015 / 2:40 pm

      The funniest thing is that American restaurants almost ALWAYS want to give you a doggy bag. I’ve never found it strange, but after my recent conversations with a lot of Europeans people do find it weird 😀

  8. Apr 2, 2015 / 4:48 pm

    As an American who has traveled and lived abroad for several years, I feel that this post only scratches the surface. I know things as an American citizen – perhaps even “secrets” about US culture and psyche that an expat might not even realize.

    One thing that you didn’t touch upon in this post is demographics. Bottom line, the US is OLD. When the average of a country is 40, it affects the energy, attitude, and the whole social fabric of the nation. It could be said that the world recession was caused because the baby boomers – America’s largest generation, was reaching retirement age (people save for retirement and don’t redistribute wealth back into the economy).

    The wealth gap between old and poor in the US is the greatest it’s ever been in recorded history. This has created an extremely conservative society, there are very few opportunities for young people, many have to move in with their parents (“The Boomerang Generation”), and so on. It’s a very sad dynamic. I love living in Asia because the population is young, there is energy here, there are opportunities here, I can afford to have a social life, and the quality of life is much higher.

    Danny from OpenWorld Magazine

    • Apr 3, 2015 / 1:12 am

      You’re absolutely right Danny, but I think one can write a whole book about the US and its current situation 😉
      I can definitely see why so many Americans prefer to live elsewhere, like in Asia, as I’m just not sure if life in the US if simply ‘worth the effort’…

  9. Apr 7, 2015 / 1:57 pm

    I definitely agree on a bunch of your points. As an American expat living in London, going back to the US is always interesting. The sheer size of sodas at fast food restaurants is crazy. A small is enough for a family of four. And as someone pointed out earlier, most non-chain restaurants offer more normal portions, but the problem is that those chains serve millions of people per day, so whether I like it or not, massive portions are a realty for most Americans.
    And don’t forget about the passport issue. Less than half of Americans have a passport, and once you exclude Mexico and Canada, and shockingly large majority of the population has never left North America. We have a diverse country with lots of different cultures and things to do/see, but Americans do lack a true understanding of the world outside of its borders.

    • Apr 7, 2015 / 2:28 pm

      True about passports and the funny thing is that getting a passport for a US citizen is actually way easier and cheaper than getting a new EU passport 😉

  10. Apr 10, 2015 / 8:43 am

    You are right about needing a car and traffic is everywhere! I don’t think the food is weird, but I am America. Homeless people is only a thing in bigger cities, and then if you are in California the weather is good so even more. Hardly any in Wisconsin where we are from.

  11. May 14, 2015 / 7:56 am

    It is really refreshing to hear these things about my country! I’ve noticed these a lot more after moving to Singapore. I would definitely agree on all these points, especially the straightforwardness part (which seems so unSingaporean I realize)!

  12. May 15, 2015 / 4:34 pm

    I would never say the life in America is so different from what I am experiencing here in Amsterdam. I don’t have a driving licence so I guess living in America would not be the smartest idea :).

    • May 15, 2015 / 6:06 pm

      Yep, probably not hehe! And knowing you you’d most likely hate the food 😛

  13. ivy kriste
    May 21, 2015 / 10:32 am

    Very interesting observations. America in Hollywood movies are heaven

    • Aug 22, 2015 / 3:28 pm

      Maybe not always heaven, but definitely a place you still want to live 😉

  14. Ana
    Jun 16, 2015 / 7:13 pm

    While the point about friendliness in Americans is agreeable , another contrast shade that is well explained is their frankness and openness. Not all tourists can take it easy though, unless they read your tips regularly : ))

    • Jun 16, 2015 / 8:19 pm

      I think a lot of peopel freak out when they see how open Americans can be sometimes haha! True 😀

  15. Jun 25, 2015 / 8:20 am

    You looks great 🙂 I’ve found this blog yesterday and read…read…read 🙂

    • Jun 25, 2015 / 1:52 pm

      Aww thanks a lot!

  16. Jun 27, 2015 / 10:26 am

    I wish I can get visa and visit USA one day 🙂
    In case you are coming to Dubai pls let us know if you need something.

    You can check our blog

    Best regards

    • Jun 27, 2015 / 10:23 pm

      Thanks! I’ll keep you posted about Dubai!

  17. rob
    Aug 23, 2015 / 11:51 pm

    I’d have to say your observations are a mix of accuracy and not at all what I experience. I’m Canadian, lived in Europe for years and now live in Colorado. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t speak English (and did live in Los Angeles for half a year and north of San Francisco for 4 years), have no difficulty buying small amounts of food daily (if I wish) for preparation at home.

    Now you *can* find weird food, just like anyplace. You *can* find huge bulk packages of things, etc. But it’s not all there is.

    The car thing is true – but growing up in Canada I love driving. Driving in the USA is *much* easier than (for example) Italy, Turkey or France to name a few places I’ve driven.

    But to be fair, I don’t like cities, so I’d never try to drive (or park) in a place like NYC. Of course I’ll probably never visit NYC either. 🙂

    We do have big refrigerators, though. Which is only good. 🙂

  18. Veronica
    Dec 6, 2015 / 12:21 pm

    Hey Anna, I am so glad that my boredom got the better of me which eventually led me to click a brief description of your blog on Buzzfeed. I loved how honest this article was instead of the usual why United States is indeed the best place to visit and all. I cannot deny that travelling or rather for me studying in the US was a once in a lifetime experience, but there were also moments where I felt otherwise.

    Like anyone else, I grew up in Asia where there was very little excitement to my ordinary and mundane life. It was those Hollywood Blockbuster that spiced up my life and I vowed that I would make my way to the US one day. And based on those films, I had my own imaginations of what the US was going to be like.

    1) Everyone will be really friendly
    Images of how I would readily be able to engage in a conversation with a complete stranger came to my mind immediately but I was clearly in for disappointment when I touched down in Los Angeles. I recalled being stranded in the middle of the city and I had to approach random people on the road for help. I am not saying that they did not come to my help but there were instances where people actually ignored me. That pretty much reminded me of Asia because its rather common here. But it does not apply to everyone, I was surprised at how helpful the locals in Madison, Wisconsin were throughout my entire exchange semester.

    2) “Hey, how is it going” was meant to be a get to know you better gesture
    I was a little taken aback when I visited a convenience stall only to have the cashier pop that question to be. I didn’t know how to answer him because people in Asia wouldn’t do that. We just pay and then leave. I simply smiled back, not wanting to appear rude. That prepared me for my maiden grocery trip where I was asked the exact same question. This time, however, I started giving the poor lady who was busy scanning my items a whole bunch of redundant details of my day. I was surprised when she did not response. That whole episode confused me so much that I confided in a of mine from the university. She was so amused because she assumed that it was a universal greeting elsewhere in the world.

    3) Mega Cities like New York or Chicago are just a small part of the US
    The best reaction would be the four hours bus ride that I experienced from trendy Chicago to a small yet vibrant University town named Madison, Wisconsin. I watched to my horror how those beautiful skyscrapers disappeared gradually and how those cozy little cottage like apartment started appearing. Many forget to reveal how the US is nevertheless still home to many social problems that are prevalent in other parts of the world. Because of that, I wondered if I was still in the same country each time I traveled to the outskirts only to be surrounded by beggars crowding around me.

    Thanks for sharing and I just want to say that you are one of those few bloggers that I actually find myself resonating with. I look forward to your future post. By the way, do drop me a text if you are ever in Singapore. By the way, I lived in Poland for a while too and I love how hospitable the people there are despite the communication barrier.

    • Dec 6, 2015 / 2:51 pm

      Thank you for you comment Veronica! Can I ask you where did you find my blog on Buzzfeed actually?

      • Veronica
        Dec 6, 2015 / 3:12 pm

        In response to your question, I made a mistake. It wasn’t Buzzfeed but rather Flipkey by Trip Advisor that led me to your blog. By the way, I am wondering if you do have a favourite country having lived in so many places for quite a while?

        • Dec 6, 2015 / 6:34 pm

          Ahh, it makes more sense now 🙂 I’d say either South Africa or Mexico.

  19. Jan 4, 2016 / 8:22 am

    I have a desire to visit USA once in my life. Hope it will come true soon.

  20. Katarina
    Feb 2, 2016 / 2:32 pm

    As an American I’d like to say that I’ve actually found your post refreshing. Yeah, yeah, you missed some things like the other Americans pointed out or whatever but you can’t cover everything. I will admit most of the time I read these kinds of blog posts with it saying something like, “The Real America” or whatever and they say such negative things.

    So you can’t find cheese spray in other parts of the world? I’m going to miss that stuff when I start traveling then…

    • Feb 2, 2016 / 3:08 pm

      I actually like the cheese spray now hahaha… well, I like everything that’s cheesy 😛

  21. Mariola
    Sep 18, 2016 / 3:17 pm

    I live in USA for almost 20 years and I love it.I think it’s so much easier than Europe. You can afford so much more when you are middle class in USA than Europe. I love the customer service here. It is so much better than Europe. I don’t agree that Americans get only 14 days vacation and don’t travel a lot. I have 28 days so my American friends working with me have the same.I like how Americans are more friendly than Europeans .I guess the experience will be different when you live here than just visit the country for a short time.

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