Being new to a country comes with a lot of challenges and you always want to do as best as you can to fit right in without looking like an idiot. There are a lot of situations that you’re not familiar with at first and that you would manage totally different in your own country. Here are 5 tips on very common situation and how to master them.
Gas Pump “not working”
When I travelled within the US for the very first time during a vacation, I struggled with a couple of things when I needed to get gas for our rental car.
First, I swiped my credit card and had no clue what a “zip code” was, hence what mine would be since I didn’t live in the US by that time. A zip code is the postal code of the billing address of your credit card, which is usually your home address. So if you’re ever in the same situation that you want to pay for gas with your foreign credit card, just punch in your postal code and see if the gas pump accepts it. If not, you will have to go inside and pay with your card or cash at the cash register. They won’t need your zip code here, but maybe a PIN, if you card is set up with one.
Struggle #2 was that once I paid for my gas, I just couldn’t figure out why the gas wasn’t coming out. I did everything right, pushed the right buttons and was ready to go. But still no gas. I ended up walking inside and told the guy that the gas pump must be broken. He explained that I have to lift that little lever right where the nozzle was sitting. That will release the gas to fill up my tank. This is still very common in a lot of older gas stations. The newer ones usually don’t have that mechanical lever anymore, so there’s less confusion.
Waiting to be seated
There’s one main difference between American restaurants and restaurants in other parts of the world: You do not seat yourself unless you’re being told so. The way it works here is that you enter the restaurant and find a little booth of the hostess (people greeter), who will happily assign a table and server to you. Then she leads you to the table and let you know the name of your server today. In other countries you might be used to just seat yourself and wait for the waiting staff to find you.
If you have specific ideas about where you’d like to be seated, just let the hostess know. It’s usually not a problem. We always ask for a booth for example. Much more comfortable!
How to pay in a restaurant
After enjoying a good meal it’s usually time to pay the bill. One thing that I really like in the US is, that the servers are very quick with bringing the check. In Europe I would have to call them or noticably waive with my wallet and form the words “I want to pay” with my lips to articulate myself in a noisy restaurant. Here, it usually goes like this: During your meal the server already stopped by multiple times to make sure you like the food, need any more sauce or side items, refills, etc. Towards the end they will almost always ask “Did you leave room for dessert?“. I think I never actually ordered dessert, because I tend to eat everything on my plate which usually fills me up pretty good. So, the question about dessert is just a way for the server to politely get you to ask for the check and bring the dining to an end. She will then bring you your bill.
Now you have two options: Leave the money that you owe plus tip on the table, get up and leave. No need to wait for the waitress to hand over the money unless you want to. Nothing wrong with that. People do that all the time. It does feel a little weird though, because it kind of looks like you dine & dash (aka. leaving without paying; aka. getting arrested). You can also nickel and dime them by telling the waitress exactly how much money her tip is, so that she can bring you the change. But why make it complicated?
Your second option, which is actually smarter, because you get some money back, is paying with a credit card. For this you just put your card inside this little receipt holder that the waiter left on your table. I usually let the card stick out a bit, so that they see you already put it in. If I’m in a hurry I already have the card ready when he brings the check, so that he doesn’t have to come back to get it. Now, the waiter will charge your card, which is usually a pretty quick process (there are exceptions!) and come back with the credit card and another receipt that you will have to sign. Make sure to check the charges and put in your tip and total. Sometimes restaurants automatically add the tip on the bill, so you will see an “additional gratuity” line on the receipt. If this is the case, there will also be a line in the footer letting you know about the tip. You don’t have to put anything in there unless you want to give them more than they already took. After you’ve signed the receipt, you’re free to leave. No need to wait for the server to come back. Your job is done: you’re stuffed and paid for it.
Driver’s License Failures
Having to retake your driver’s license after you’ve been driving for many years in your home country is something that can make expats very nervous. Who wants to tell their new employer or friends that they just failed the super easy American driving test? Embarrassing, but it happens all the time for various reasons. The biggest reason why expats fail their driver’s test is the lack of preparation and being overly confident in their own abilities and driving experience. It’s the little things that they often trip on. Tiny details.
You will probably do very good in the practical test, but just because you can drive doesn’t mean you understand the sometimes very different traffic rules and road signs in the written test. So, just make sure you understand what’s different here before you rush into the tests.
The embarrassing part is always, when you told your new employer about your driver’s test, because you needed a half day off for it. You can be sure they’re going to ask you the next day how it went. So you better not fail. Every expat has their very own story about this nerve wrecking test that we just have to take.
What is a line for?
This happened to me in my first month in the US. I was in a pharmacy and was ready to pay, so I walked up to the cash register area where a lot of people were already waiting. I spotted an empty register with an associate waiting and walked right past the weird long line of people straight up to the register. I didn’t even make it there without getting an angry “What is a line for?!” comment from one of the other customers, who were all lined up in ONE line and waiting for one of the 3 cash registers to serve the next customer. I was still in “German shopping mode”, where you constantly look for the shortest line or the announcement that a new cash register will open shortly, just to race the other jumpy customers to be first in line. It’s all about time savings over there.
Well, I learned my lesson. Americans really value their queues (or lines) and respectfully let the next person in line use the next available cash register. Now that I know it, I like it a lot. It’s fair and less stressful.
In what situation did you find your self, that were a bit embarrassing because you didn’t know the American rules just yet?
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