Since publishing my article last week regarding differences between Oregon and Scotland, I’ve received a slew of requests from both sides of the Atlantic asking me to talk more about some of the little things that set apart these two places I call home. My previous article mentioned little tidbits that stood out from both places, but I accidentally geared it slightly more towards an American audience wondering about Scotland; this response is meant for the Scottish audience wondering about Oregon. That being said, this may be a humorous little blurb and opportunity for self-reflection on behalf of any of those Oregonians out there questioning which quirks of theirs are striking to an outsider. Did you know that this doesn’t happen elsewhere? What sorts of things are you taking for granted? I hope that you find some answers here.
Also, before I go on, I’d like to disclaim that I am by no means trying to imply that the things I write apply to every person from either place – anything mentioned here is generalization meant to hit at a larger cultural difference. So, if you find yourself thinking, “wowza, that isn’t me at all!”, don’t worry. I won’t hold you to it.
Okay. Here we go.
Cars in the states, comparatively speaking, are absolutely gigantic. I remember chuckling one day while driving through my Oregonian town, having just returned from Scotland, as I looked at how big all these American cars are. They’re so large! Even small cars seem like big cars. That said, there do exist in the states some very little vehicles, but loads of people drive SUVs like Chevrolet Suburbans and Ford Expeditions on the daily, even if they don’t necessarily need the space. Big ole American gas guzzlers are a very real thing.
Another thing to note when it comes to cars is the prevalence of pickup trucks here. Every fifth car on the road could be a pickup truck, and the proportion gets higher the further outside the city you go. Pickups almost epitomize America for me. These guys just aren’t seen in Scotland. I remember seeing one once in Glasgow and remember having to actually pause to take in the novelty of it. It was so out of place there. These cars also fit into the gigantic category, and I’m actually surprised that you don’t need a special license to drive some of these absolutely massive vehicles. Anyone can drive a pickup. One of my housemates drives a pickup. At least three of my parents’ neighbours drive pickups. America! Pickups! Not just for cowboys!
The last car distinction I wanna make between cars here and there is the transmission style. Cars in America are most commonly automatic, whereas it is incredibly uncommon not to have a manual transmission in the UK. In fact, automatic cars are so standard in the US that being able to drive “stick shift” is like a special talent. Driving a car with a clutch pedal and a gear shift significantly lowers the chance that your car is going to be stolen, mostly because people here don’t know how to drive manual cars. This is pretty wild to anyone from a nation where manual transmission is the bread and butter.
2. School, College, and University
Something that took me a while to figure out was that I was being misunderstood by Scottish people on account of the fact that I use the words “school”, “college”, and “university” interchangeably when I talk about higher education. This is a totally acceptable thing to do in America. You have your thirteen years of elementary school, middle school, and then high school, but once you make your way into the world of higher education, the word that you use to describe the institution in which you’re studying doesn’t *really* matter. I attend Oregon State University, but I could refer to this place as my school, my college, or my university, and no one would take issue with it. In fact, despite that ‘University’ is right there in the name, it would be less unusual for me to say that I “go to school at OSU” or that I “go to college at OSU” than it would be for me to actually say that I “go to university at OSU”. The word “university”, I’ve found, is used more commonly when you’re talking about the institution itself and not your relationship to it (ex: my university is one of the leading research institutions in the US; my university’s engineering program is very established; my university’s mascot is Benny the Beaver… Go Beavs). For me to casually say, “Ah yes. I go to university at Oregon State”, though not incorrect, would be a bit less common than for me to just say that I go to school or college here.
This is in contrast to Scotland, where those words all mean different things. School is the word reserved specifically for the place where you go from age five to age eighteen. Universities are the big institutions from where you can earn the equivalent of a bachelors or masters or doctorate. Colleges are also places of higher learning, but they are generally less esteemed than universities and are regarded as distinctly different. In America, the closest equivalent to the Scottish idea of colleges are community colleges, although those are designed a bit differently. Community colleges are set up as a cheaper, more flexible way to take classes, and anyone can enrol in them, regardless of their age or their aspiration to get any sort of degree. Many high school graduates will opt to go to community college for their first two years to cheaply get their prerequisites out of the way before transferring and finishing off at a four year university.
I could write pages about the differences between the higher education systems in Scotland and the states, but my main point here is that Americans use “school”, “college”, and “university” interchangeably when they talk about them, and Scottish people do not. So, if you’re watching an American film and the high school quarterback is trying to get a college scholarship, it just means that he’s trying to get a scholarship to university – it all means the same thing here.
3. Drip Coffee
One thing that Americans take for granted is drip coffee machines. They are truly everywhere here. We’re all familiar with them. They are incredibly commonplace. Nearly everyone has one in their homes or at their work, cafes will always have some drip coffee brewing, and restaurant staff really will walk around with the coffee pot asking customers if they’d like refills. I remember one day being told by a Scottish friend that she was incredibly excited on account of the fact that her work “got some of those American coffee pot machines!”.
Drip coffee machines – the ones with the coffee grounds and filters – are how Americans get their quick coffee. In Scotland, drip coffee isn’t really a thing, and when it does happen to pop up, it’s all fancy and referred to as “real coffee” when contrasted against the instant stuff that people generally use. In America, it’s instant coffee that isn’t really a thing. I remember hosting a little coffee house/ open mic night thing in my dorm my first year at college, and I searched far and wide (and in the end, fruitlessly) for plain old, just-add-water, instant coffee. It’s incredibly difficult to find. Coffee here is sold for drip coffee machines, because that’s just how people will conveniently get their caffeine here. America really is all clichés.
While we’re talking about coffee, we might as well talk about tea.
The tea experience you have in Scotland is substantially more frequent but much less variant than the one that you have in Oregon. That stereotype that every American has of people in the UK drinking tea is completely, one hundred percent merited. We drink a lot of tea. And we’re drinking it constantly.
Have a bad day? Cup of tea. Have a good day? Cup of tea. Friend popping in for literally a minute? Cup of tea. Just got home? Tea. Someone else is having tea? You’re having tea as well. We are drinking tea constantly for just about any reason, sometimes for no reason other than there’s just nothing else to do. The tea that is drunk in the UK is always hot and almost exclusively black, and would technically be categorized as “breakfast tea” here in the states (although in the UK it’s just called “tea”, and we drink it at every time of the day). It’s an incredibly social activity. Everyone drinks tea. Even if you’ve just finished a cup, if you’re joined by someone, you immediately offer to make them some (and by extension, yourself some more). People will drink their tea with some combination of milk and sugar, and if you’re on tea duty, it’s your responsibility to make sure that everyone gets their tea the way that they like it. It’s a seemingly strenuous mental task to someone who has never been faced with it, but it’s such a commonplace activity that people generally don’t think much of it. In fact, people really don’t think much about tea drinking at all. It’s just something that happens.
In the states, tea drinking comes nowhere close to that. Drinking tea is very much an individual thing, and it actually plays out more like a hobby than anything else. People who drink tea here are generally very into drinking tea. They drink all sorts of green teas, white teas, and black teas, and they’re quite the tea explorers. It really isn’t a causal thing at all, and the idea of drinking tea to people who aren’t tea drinking people can be wild. There are people I know here who have never had tea before. People quite genuinely don’t know what an electric kettle is. The cultural in-prominence of tea here is remarkable.
If I’m making myself a cup and a friend is over, I always offer them some as well. They’ll usually act surprised at the offer, and they’ll either accept it excitedly because novelty, or they’ll turn it down for the same reason.
It’s always amusing when gigantic and pervasive cultural norms just don’t exist elsewhere.
5. Choir is cool
Don’t believe a single thing that Glee told you: choir is cool here. As a choir kid in high school, I sang among football players, track stars, the most charismatic faces of student government, the prom AND homecoming queens, and some of the otherwise coolest kids on the block. Choir is by absolutely no means a lame thing, and it’s incredibly popular. Everyone in high school knew somebody who was in choir, because there were just so many people who were part of it. Even if you weren’t a choir kid, there was still a big chance that you’d go catch your pals singing in the choir concerts, and being a member of any choir was never a subject of ridicule.
When I showed videos of my little high school a cappella group competing to my Scottish friends, they were all absolutely bamboozled that we did anything of the sort and still upheld passable reputations. I would show them a video of our choir boys serenading someone’s gran, and my friends would be entirely perplexed. People eat that stuff up here in this corner of the states in a way that is fairly unfathomable to a lot of Scottish people.
We have three choirs on campus as well as three a cappella groups, and folks are all about it. All about it. It’s not just the music kids who are part of these ensembles either – anyone can audition for them. Singing is a cool thing to be able to do, and if you’re good at it (and let’s face it, even if you’re pretty subpar at it) Americans will lap it up.
6. Basketball Shorts
I have been living in America for ten years now, and one thing that I still haven’t been able to understand is the American boy’s insistence on wearing basketball shorts in all weather.
First of all, I think it would be prudent to note how big a deal basketball is in the states. It’s a hugely popular sport; I’m fairly certain my roommate is downstairs watching basketball right now. It’s one of those sports that a lot of people will have played at some point as kids, regardless of whether or not they continued into high school or college, and it’s up there with American Football in terms of how universally excited people get about the sport.
Basketball shorts are long and meshy and, honestly, I think pretty impractical for anything other than playing basketball in, yet, every winter, in the absolute freezing cold, you will walk through the streets and see everywhere boys, for some seemingly masochistic reason, sporting basketball shorts. What? It’s freezing! Are you not cold? Why would you do this to yourself? Can I make you a cup of tea or something, man?
I sang with a guy in choir in high school (who I am positive did not play basketball), who didn’t even own a pair of jeans because he was an exclusively basketball short owning dude (???). It really just boggles my mind. In the summertime it’s whatever, but man. It’s wet and miserable in the wintertime here. Wet and miserable and cold. You can catch me wearing four layers, a big ole scarf and a rain jacket, wondering always why on earth the dude next to me didn’t just decide to put on a pair of trousers.
The American Autumn is something that I missed profoundly when I was back in Scotland. In Scotland, autumn is just the dull, damp precursor to winter, but in Oregon, there are so many things about this season to look forward to. It’s my most favourite season.
First of all, there are two whole holidays during autumn that have their own aesthetic. The first one is Halloween. People here go as wild with their Halloween decorations as they would with their Christmas ones, and the holiday as a whole is a much bigger deal than it is in Scotland. Starting at the end of September, everyone’s windows will have little ghosts or witches peeking out of them, and fake spider webbing will be strung across doorways. The buildup to Halloween almost rivals that of Christmas, and I think that it’s absolutely fantastic. Everything will be decorated with orange and black and purple, and the whole nation turns into a giant costume shop. Grocery stores will start selling sugar cookies in the shapes of pumpkins and ghosts, and any sort of commercial brand will start putting out Halloween versions of their products. It’s rad. I love it, truly.
Another essential part of autumn here are the vegetables. Do you know what don’t grow in Scotland? Pumpkins and squash and corn. Americans, can you imagine fall without visits to pumpkin patches or corn mazes? It’s dreadful. There’s no such thing as carving pumpkins. Jack-o-lanterns line nobody’s porch. A travesty.
The aesthetic of the seasonal vegetables feeds very much into that of Thanksgiving. Once Halloween is over, things switch from purples, oranges, and blacks to the golds, reds, browns, and greens of the gourds and the falling leaves. It is all very warm and very lovely. Although the history of America’s thanksgiving is questionable and actually fairly horrid, the sentiment behind getting together with your family and eating food is just… nice. I think it’s a good.
Between the vegetables and the holidays is also the massive cultural phenomenon that is American Football. High school games happen on Fridays. College games happen on Saturdays. NFL games happen on Sundays. People get into football. Americans love football. My favourite part about football is the solidarity of it all (and also just how comfortably and almost comically American it all is). When I had the chance, I absolutely loved kitting myself out in the orange and black of my school’s colours and heading to a game (… Go Beavs). I loved dancing along with my peers to the songs played by pep band, I loved following along with the cheers that the cheerleaders lead, and I loved being part of a big ole community. All autumn, people are watching football - whether it’s outside in the heat of mid-September, on the couch on a rainy day in October, or bundled up on an evening in November. It makes the season.
There were seven more differences for y'all. The thing I'm trying most to articulate is that what makes these two places the most contrasting aren’t necessarily the things that you’d expect – it’s the little things. Pumpkins and basketball shorts.
I hope that you have learned something new.