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Food, Shoes, and Friends: Tips on Navigating First Months in the USA

In a few weeks you may be one of the many international students from around the world arriving to the USA! Have you thought about what it will be like to start this new adventure of studying in the USA?

You might be nervous, thinking about where you’ll live or how you’ll find your classes. Maybe you are asking, “How will I make friends?” or “What will the food taste like?”

These questions and these thoughts are completely normal. You are not alone in this. Many others have packed up and moved far from the comfort of family and friends to be a student and pursue a new opportunity.

Hopefully you are also excited to experience a new place and meet new people. My name is Julie Medlin and I work at the University of South Carolina. I’ve worked at a university with international students for about 8 years now, teaching ESL, event planning, working in student services, and even immigration advising. For me, it’s been such a privilege to meet people from all around the world and welcome them to my country and my city.

As I write to you all, I hope to share tips that will make your adjustment to life here a little easier, and to present what I’ve heard and observed from international students learning a new way of life in Columbia, SC.

As you prepare and pack, it’s important to consider the cultural differences that you may encounter the first month or two living in the United States. This will help you to have realistic expectations of this adjustment phase.

Consider this: every place, every country has cultural rules. Your country has cultural rules and so does the United States. There are observable cultural rules like the clothes we wear or how we eat.

But there are less observable rules like how a people views authority, or how a people negotiate in business agreements. Most of the time we learn these cultural rules from our family, our experience and sometimes by making mistakes. I’d like to help you learn some of the more unexpected cultural rules in the USA before you come.

Tipping and Food

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At restaurants, it’s important and expected to tip your waiter or waitress if you receive service at a “sit-down” restaurant. It’s not included in the price of the meal and it’s up to the individual patron to decide on a percentage of the total bill that you want to tip.

Most will tip 15-20% of the bill. Not tipping would be considered rude, so observe what others do to learn what’s appropriate.

While I’m on the topic of restaurants, I really recommend that you try new types of food. Most larger cities in the USA will have food from all around the world. So, go challenge your taste buds! And definitely try foods that are local and famous to the state you are in.

Most Americans don’t eat pizza and burgers every day. Once you find a true local to the city you are living in, ask them what they eat at home or what is famous. You might be surprised by how different it is from the common college foods like fries, pizza, and sandwiches.

Shopping and Grocery Stores

Each price you see on an item does not include tax. When you pay for everything tax will be added on at the cash register. Don’t be surprised when the price you expect to pay is 6-10% higher because of food or sales taxes. These percentage vary by state law.

Oh, and each state has different laws for many things. Ask around and read what the laws are in your state about driving, taxes, etc.

Shoes and Politeness

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Most Americans don’t have a “rule” that you must take off shoes at the entrance of the house. It’s just not a thing for most families here. To be safe, it’s best to ask about shoes as you visit someone’s house.

Having traveled to places around the world where showing your feet and wearing shoes in the house is a high offense, I understand why this might be shocking. But generally speaking, in the USA, it’s not rude to show someone the bottom of your feet. If this happens to you, just know it’s not considered offensive to everyone. Either way is not wrong, it’s just different.

Social Life

When you meet new people, especially your American peers, the cultural rules for forming friendship might be different than what you expect.

You may have people say “let’s hang out sometime” or seem interested in meeting up again. You may even exchange phone numbers. The general rule: you can know if the person is sincere in meeting up if you all set an appointment with a date and time.

I’ve heard many students share stories of confusion about the struggle to make new friends. And everyone has a different experience!

My advice is to be patient with yourself and others in the process. Take risks and introduce yourself. Ask questions and offer to share food from your home.

There’s so much more to say about this. But really I just want to encourage you to not be shy and “put yourself out there,” as we say.

I also want to offer some suggestions that University of South Carolina students have shared with me:

  • PK from Thailand:
    • “Acquire a Driver’s License as soon as possible, even if you do not want to buy a car. It’s just convenient and helps if you want to get one later.”
  • Abdullah from Oman suggests:
    • “Find a good place to live. Get involved. Use Uber and Lift. Ask a lot to know things and don’t be shy; people are friendly. Use a planner to plan your days and do stuff on time. Call your family at least once a week.”
  • Angi from Taiwan suggested three things:
    • Use YouTube cooking videos, set up an account, and make local community connections.
  • Ekshita from India:
    • “Find other international students, and not just those from your country.”
  • Myriam from Morocco:
    • “Make use of your time since the very first week. Get involved in everything, talk to everyone, try new things, have small chats with strangers when appropriate … Learn from everyone and everything around you! Don’t miss out on opportunities to learn. Now is a good time for anything you want to do! This place will quickly become home and a few years later, you’ll feel the saddest to leave it for your original home or work.”
  • Nick from the USA says:
    • “Be involved on campus. I can guarantee there is a club or organization of students for something you like to do. Sports, music, your degree, language, etc.”

Of course, that’s not an exhaustive list of cultural differences or suggestions to prepare you, but it’s a start! I can’t wait to hear about your first few months as a student in the United States. I know it’s going to be an amazing experience!


Julie Medlin-ISV Magazine Contributor 

Internationalization Programming Coordinator

University of South Carolina

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