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American Pop Culture vs. Reality – Truth, fiction, and truth that is better than fiction

As Aussies, we ingest a lot of American pop culture. I’m old enough to remember when Aussie TV first got episodes “the same week as in US”, and it was a major thing to advertise! But how do the places and things featured in American pop culture measure up in real life?

This is probably most relevant for folks considering a US move — but for those here already, feel free to disagree with me in the comments if you’ve had different experiences!

US Schools (as in elementary, middle & high schools, not just primary & high school!) 

Yellow school buses, full size lockers, and cafeterias, with school lunches, all really exist. Uniforms are mostly not a thing, but more schools than you might expect do have uniforms — there seems to be lots of khaki pants with a school polo shirt school uniforms in NYC. Schools really have mascots, and as I’ve written about in the context of tall poppy syndrome, high school sports are very competitive. Cheerleading is not quite as big as you might expect if you grew up in the era of “Bring It On”. Everyone seems to know that cheerleading as a sport is dangerous, and professional cheerleaders are woefully underpaid.

When talking about Aussie schools, Americans are often amused that we really had “Houses” for sports carnivals and such, with the quick comparison to Harry Potter (just to throw in a British reference also!) Alas though, we had no sorting hat.

The American College Experience

So you don’t need to write a personal essay to get into every college, and not every student moves away to go to college and lives in a dorm. Colleges where a lot of students don’t live on campus are commonly called “commuter colleges”. 

One thing that I don’t think features enough in narratives about getting into college is the different costs of schools. The cost of college (especially in state versus out of state, for a lot of states) is a huge factor in most young people’s decisions about where to go to college. It varies enormously between schools, but famous, prestigious schools are often extremely expensive. I will definitely never take the Aussie system for granted (where the cost of degrees is in a tiered system determined by the subject of the course, not the school, so for example a law degree costs the same, no matter where you go to school). 

Diners! The home of free coffee refills (for real!) 

For me diners are a “better than fiction” experience because of the existence of home fries. Now I love my carbs, and diners love breakfast food, and home fries are specific fries for breakfast that are cubed or sliced parboiled potatoes, fried on the grill, sometimes with onions and peppers (capsicum). They are amazing and needed to be properly honored within American pop culture. But seriously, diners exist, though often they are called family restaurants, or just restaurants (e.g. Tom's Restaurant in Seinfeld, which really exists in NYC).

I don’t know exactly where I got the idea that waitresses roller-skate in diners, but I’ve never seen this in a diner. I did however have tomato sauce (yes, not ketchup) offered to me via a roller-skating server at “Gold Roast”, an Aussie coffee shop in Jersey City. In a fantastic cross-cultural moment they actually roller-skated over to me twice — as the tomato sauce was 50 cents, so it was one trip to offer it, then another trip to bring it over, as I reveled in their roller-skating abilities (if you’re still in Oz — FYI I have never paid for ketchup in the USA. Paying for condiments is apparently quite Australian). 

“Empire State of Mind” 

I first heard this song being sung in a bar by friends of friends and I just thought “wow, this is the standard for the songs written by friends of friends in NYC – this really IS the concrete jungle where dreams are made of”. I of course soon learnt it was in fact a Jay Z song. After the initial hype of the track it was very difficult to get it played in the city (though when I managed to talk a DJ into it, everyone loved it!) Today though, the chance you are going to hear this song on the street during a visit to NYC is extremely high. There’s spinning ring light cameras in Times Square with the song on repeat, it’s in high rotation on the playlists of bike taxis, and when you bike on the Brooklyn Bridge, it magically plays above you (I think there’s actually more ring light cameras on the pedestrian walkway, which is above the bikeway, but let’s just accept it is the spirit of NYC, playing this track on loop on the bridge). 

The American scale of things (the impact of having 330 million people, versus 25 million people)

One thing that is hard to convey through a pop culture lens is the sheer scale of things in the US. I think it’s normal to make a mental comparison with similar things in your home country, but so many things are just much bigger over here! Here is a lightning round of examples:

Freeways: So the reaction in “Clueless” when they accidentally end up on a freeway is absolutely accurate — they are enormous. But I think as an Aussie the thing that freaks me out the most is the speed. 75 miles an hour (120km an hour) will often place you in the slow people lane, with multiple lanes of traffic whizzing by you. Folks don’t wave so much over here, but I am trying to bring it in — so wave when someone does something nice for you (when you’re not on a freeway – 2 hands on the wheel on the freeway!)

Vegas: “The Strip” (where all the Casinos are) goes on for miles. It’s not a little stroll. It’s like a 90 minute power walk of enormous casino after enormous casino (and don’t plan on power walking – stopping to take it all in is necessary!) 

Central Park: Another touristy example, but if you have like, for example Hyde Park in Sydney in your head as a comparison — forget it. Central park is 4 kms long and 0.8 km wide. I once heard an Aussie just refer to it as “the big park”, which is absolutely accurate.

Disney theme parks: Are enormous. For Disney World in Florida, there’s four separate theme parks. For Disneyland in California, there’s two parks. Oh but you won’t meet Mickey as soon as you walk in the door. You can visit his house (which is really a very long, themed waiting area) and meet him there.

Mini Golf: Your average mini golf in the US is going to remind you of “The Simpsons” — things move, there’s fountains, there’s themes, it’s just fantastic.

I have but dipped my big toe into the ocean of American pop culture here. Please do add your favorite “Oh this actually happens / actually exists in real life” moments below!

Micharne Cloughley

Micharne Cloughley

Micharne is a writer for TV and theatre. She hails from the Blue Mountains NSW, and currently lives in Jersey City NJ. Her favourite Aussie words are daggy and mate. Her favorite American words are y’all and Kansas City BBQ.View Author posts

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