Things I wish I had been told before moving to America – The Oak Leaf

Things I wish I had been told before moving to America – The Oak Leaf


Homelessness is not a uniquely American problem, but visitors from other countries may find it jarring to witness the disproportionate amount of the population that are unhoused in America.

It has been almost 10 months since I moved to California from the little old village of Clondalkin in Dublin, Ireland. For scale, there are about 280,000 people in South County Dublin, and nearly 40 million people in California. That means that you could fit the entire population of Ireland, times five, into the state of California.

I have met a ton of amazing people and had experiences I will never forget in Sonoma County. There are things that take time to adjust to though. Things that people from abroad might not expect and be surprised by upon arrival. Here are a few “American” things that internationals have to adapt to when coming here.

Sales Tax

One thing I instantly noticed is that tax is added onto products at the register instead of being included in the price displayed on the tag. It is trivial but annoying to have to pay $2.30 for a bottle of coke that I thought was going to cost $2. It is an inconvenience that people back in Ireland and almost 170 other countries around the world don’t tolerate. Most countries have a system called value added tax (VAT). This is when the sales tax is included on the price that is displayed on the shelf or tag. America should consider this.


Another thing that shocked me is the attitude and culture surrounding healthcare in the United States. Most Americans have a private health insurance plan that provides more or less coverage depending on what you can pay for, instead of having healthcare available for free, which is the case across Europe and most of the industrialized world. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans don’t even recognize the absurdity of their system. Americans reading this might find it crazy that people in the rest of the world can pay a grand total of zero dollars after a trip to the hospital. What I find crazy is that the average cost of childbirth is about $10,000, an ambulance callout can set you back $2,500 and two EpiPens total more than $650. Overall, I noticed healthcare is treated as a business here rather than what it is: healthcare. I can’t watch TV for five minutes without seeing a company push its new weight loss pill or allergy medicine. In a similar way to McDonald’s marketing a new burger, pharmaceutical companies ask you to try their new drug. This culture may be contributing to the stunning fact that more than 500,000 Americans go bankrupt annually because of medical bills.


While tipping is common worldwide, restaurants in the United States that ask for customer tips upfront, especially fast food places, will come as a culture shock for international travelers. (Stephen Howe)

It came as a shock to me when I was handed an iPad asking for a tip after simply placing my order at a drive-thru or at the cash register. And don’t get me wrong, it is always good to tip your wait staff and those providing you a service, but is taking an order really worth 15 or 20 percent? The guilt was heightened when I learned that in a lot of jobs in the food or service industry in America, the majority of

the worker’s earnings are made up from these tips. The common misconception is that the tip is a bonus on top of what the worker earns. Bosses here, however, have taken advantage of this and decided to make the tip a part of the wage. This is something to think about before getting annoyed by someone asking for a tip. 


The sheer number of homeless people I’ve seen here is truly upsetting. Homelessness is not unique to America. At home in Ireland, there is currently a housing crisis that is being shambolically tackled by our government. However, the numbers pale in comparison. As of 2022, California had about 316,000 recorded homeless people, with nearly 3,000 in Sonoma County alone. The United States is often labeled the land of opportunity, and for some people it is. However, the U.S. can also lay claim to the worst wealth inequality in the world. When looking at cities across the country, but particularly in California, one can find practically nowhere where you can afford to rent an apartment working a minimum wage job. But rent will continue going up and up. The sad reality is that with the system in place, the rich will keep getting richer.

Taco Trucks

El Roy’s on Sebastopol Road is one of many taco trucks sprinkled around Sonoma County, offering residents and tourists alike a taste of Mexican cuisine that is integral to California culture. (Roland Petty)

It was not long after stepping off the plane onto American soil that I was lured in by a taco truck. There is virtually no Mexican food in Ireland, so coming to California was like jumping in at the deep end. Without warning, I soon fell victim to those addictive, plastic plates that they sling out of that tiny window at rapid speed 24/7. Once I sunk my teeth into a jam-packed burrito, I was hooked. For those traveling from overseas, don’t be fooled by your Taco Bells. You don’t have this food at home. Don’t get cocky and think you, too, aren’t susceptible. Don’t think that just because you enjoy a cheesy gordita crunch every once in a while that you will be able to control yourself after upending a plate of tacos. Those little vans will soon have you coming back in droves, like moths to the flame.





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