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  • Writer's pictureElena K.

My biggest cultural shocks coming from Greece to the US & How I handled them over the years:

Updated: Aug 24, 2019

1st stop GR-ATL (or rather four years of my life), 2nd stop ATL-NYC (one year), 3rd stop NYC-DC (currently there).

I was seventeen when I moved to Atlanta to start school at Emory University. I had traveled before, but I had never lived anywhere except Greece and more importantly, I had never been anywhere without my family. I was twenty-one when I moved to New York to work for a year as a marketing coordinator for Mana Products. I’m now twenty-two and have moved to DC to start my Masters at Georgetown University. No matter how great an opportunity is, it's always hard to leave home. It's your house, your family, your friends, your country; everything that makes up your life. So, here are some of my struggles and how I faced them.

On time difference:

Thankfully, we live in the digital era and communication across places is not only easy but accessible to almost everyone. But what about time difference? Time difference puts a strain on relationships for the simple reason that one person might not be available to talk when you wake up and/or you might be sleeping when they have time to talk to you. Neither of you can change a set schedule to accommodate for a phone call (excluding emergency situations) because school or work doesn’t stop for you to make that phone call. The only way to stay in touch and battle time difference is to use the time that gets wasted during the day. What does that mean? Assume you are on the US time zone and your family is on the Greek time zone; that is a seven-hour difference. It means that if you’re in the US, you can’t use the time before you go to bed to talk to your family and friends (and perhaps if you’re like me this is the time you need to hear their voice the most. Nights get lonely). The solution is simple: time that gets wasted. Time that gets wasted is the short time between work breaks, class breaks, time you use to commute (if on bus), time you spend waiting on a line to grab food, time you spend on a grocery store etc. These are times that you can’t be productive, but you also can’t avoid doing those things, so they present perfect opportunities to have that phone call. These are also daytime activities, so if you’re in the US, your Greek folks are still awake. Will they always be available at those times? No, but certainly some of them will work.

Adjusting to the American lifestyle/typical day:

Americans have very different mealtimes than Europeans. They eat early in the morning (yeah that means you can’t wake up at 12pm), eat lunch between 12pm – 2pm and eat dinner typically at 5pm. Yes, that means if you’re living on a campus and have a meal plan and want to eat with your friends you have to forget those 10pm dinner times. Even if you want to spend money eating outside and without company, if you’re in a place like Atlanta, restaurants close early, so adjusting to American times is necessary. The hardest thing for me was not the early breakfast or lunch but the dinner. The problem is that if you eat at 5pm then you most likely will get hungry again at 9pm and then you’ll end up snacking which is not a great habit to have. Don’t fight to preserve your lunch or dinner time; when you go to a new place you challenge yourself to adjust to a different lifestyle. Perhaps, you’ll end up like me: following the American mealtimes but occasionally having your “cheat” weekends (breakfast at 12pm). As for snacking, you’ll be surprised at the availability of healthy options here in the States (smoothies, nuts, fruits, nasty rice cakes, “Greek” yogurt) or just go to bed early. If you're ever looking for comfort food just check out their cereal aisle; its insane.

Americans also have a very different sense of humor. Forget your horrible and insulting European jokes and remember that it’s okay if no one laughs with your joke. If it made you smile it was worthwhile. Jokes are subjective, so we’ll leave it there. You can share your funny joke stories privately with me if you wish to do so.

Americans have amazing customer service and are prompt on appointments. You’ll enjoy those aspects of American life even if it makes your life more stressful sometimes (yes, you have to say “good morning” to the people you don’t like because everyone does this here (especially if you’re in an office)).

If you’re struggling because of your language gap, accept that people won’t always understand what you’re saying. They’ll find your accent funny and you’re going to be asked the same questions. While that might annoy you or even discourage you, it's important to take a moment and laugh (it's like the question all kindergartens get “how do you like kindergarten?”)

The last thing to remember about the language gap is that even though it might be impossible in the beginning to talk to that banker or automated voice on the phone, eventually as you spend more time in the States you’ll be surprised at how much your vocabulary will improve. If you’re a crier like me who used to get all “As” in high school and then you got a “B” in college because you made a lot of grammar mistakes on your English paper, know that there is nothing wrong with asking for help. Hard work gets rewarded. Maybe your school has a writing center like mine did. Go visit that place. Maybe you have a kind coworker in your office like I did. Go talk to that person. Don’t be ashamed of your difficulties nobody is perfect.

On friends:

You’ll make friends wherever you end up. Maybe not the friends that will stay with you for life or that you hoped you would find, especially if you are in New York (yeah New Yorkers are not particularly known for their friendliness). On a different note, it’s really worth it to visit or even spend a short time living in the city because it really has a lot to offer not only culturally with its attractions but also professionally (networks) and in terms of life skills (it’s really a survival game there). When it comes to the broader topic of friends, advice is very subjective, and you’ll not find it here. But there is one thing I can tell you: don’t expect others to understand or sympathize with your situation. Just because you’re a foreigner in the country doesn’t mean you’ll get special treatment or that people will pity you because you’re alone. Don’t get upset when your friends tell you “it’s not that hard. I’ve been abroad once too, and I really enjoyed it.” Everyone has an opinion but not everyone has the same experiences as you. Take the example of college kids in the US. Some claim they never get home sick (which may be very true) but think about how many times some get to go home (again we can’t generalize this; it's just an example I’ve personally experienced and I'm sharing here). So, they go home for fall break, Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break and summer (sometimes colleges have something called ‘parents’ weekend,’ so students get to see their parents and/or friends then as well). Now if you’re an international student, you probably only get to go home for Christmas and summer because a. distance, b. money, and c. time. So next time, someone doesn’t understand why you’re so home sick, don’t judge them and don’t blame yourself. Don’t look for someone identical to you; that person doesn’t exist. Life is interesting because there is variety.


There is not one solution that will work for everyone because we’re all unique in our abilities to adapt to new places and let go of the past. Your situation won’t improve the next morning or the next month, but it’ll improve in time as long as you keep growing. What matters is that you understand why you have made the choice to move to a different place (whether it's studies, work etc.) and you remind yourself of the end goal. In other words, never give up on your dreams.


Photographer: Tom Barrett

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