A French Guy in California: Hugo talks about culture shock in the U.S.

I think that Hugo’s biggest moment of American culture shock was when he opened a bottle of ibuprofen.

He came running in and exclaimed, “Sweetie! The weirdest thing just happened!” He held out the plastic bottle. “Look what was in it!” Wide-eyed, he pulled out a wad of cotton. “C’est pas comme en France!” 

You’d think he would be awestruck over the fact that the supermarket is open at 9 p.m. on Sunday, or the abundance of glittering neon Easter marshmallows in April, or the sheer existence of Costco, but no, it’s the cotton balls in the pill bottle that made his jaw hit the floor.

(Well, that time we went to urgent care and they told us it would be $300 to see a doctor was a pretty big shock too.)

When we moved here, he had already visited California several times and was used to being around North Americans. If you ask him about culture shock, he shrugs. He just goes with the flow. Ask him what he misses about France – just his family and friends. Not the bread? Not the cheese? Not the train? Eh – not really. His favorite bar, maybe. But that’s really because he misses evenings out with his friends, not because he can’t find any good beer here.

He does have a favorite American beer. And a California driver’s license. And a longboard, to skate along the path that runs next to the ocean. He goes to the gym and eats dinner before 8 and starts texts with “Hey man!” Un véritable américain, quoi.

I asked him if he would mind sharing some of his impressions of American life with you all. He said he would be happy to (he’s kind and obliging like that).

(Please note that these observations are based on personal experience only and do not necessarily represent all of California or the United States.)

What are some of the cultural differences you’ve observed?

French people have a lot of preconceived notions about the United States and Americans, and some of them might be true in other parts of the country, but not here. For example, people think that Americans don’t eat well, but here I think people eat better and healthier than in France.

Also, we always hear about American students going to class in pajamas, but I’ve never seen that here. I like that Americans have a more casual style though, you don’t have to wear a suit to work. In the startup where I used to work in Lyon, we could come to work in jeans and a t-shirt, and I think that mindset comes from the U.S.

Americans eat dinner à l’heure des poules – really early! I’m not sure if I like that or not…

There’s a big different in cost of living and quality of life, especially here. In France, if you earn 60K a year, you can have a really high quality of life, but here in California, that salary doesn’t go as far. Earning 60K in California is like earning 30K in France, except you also have to live with roommates.

What surprised you about California?

It rains all the time! I thought it would be nice weather… but I’m also happy for California because it needs the rain.

I was shocked to see so many cars on the road in California! There are a lot of electric cars – Teslas everywhere. I think there is probably the same number of cars in proportion to the population, but there are a lot more people here. Seeing so many cars makes you want to take care of the planet.

When I got my driver’s license, it was really fast and inexpensive, not at all like in France – I think it’s great that it’s so efficient!

There aren’t a lot of streets and paths where you can go for a stroll or ride your bike, it’s all really big roads. You have to drive somewhere so that you can go for a walk!

What is difficult about living in the U.S.?

It’s hard to get used to the systems of measurement. Gallons, feet, miles – c’est un peu perturbant.

What do you miss about France?

My friends and family. That’s all, really – I’ve been lucky enough to live in some really nice places so I can’t complain. Both places have good qualities. I miss going to my parents’ house in the countryside on the weekend. Here it’s not really the city or the countryside. I also miss Lyon, strolling on the quais, my favorite bar…

Where would you like to travel or explore in the U.S.?

Everywhere! There are so many different cultures in the same country, and there are a lot of places I want to see. New York, Boston, Yosemite, Seattle, Bryce Canyon… there are also many things close by that I still want to explore.

Do you find that people are different in California?

I think that people are friendlier here. People say that French people are like coconuts (hard on the outside, soft on the inside) and Americans are like peaches (really nice but difficult to get close to), but the people I know are really nice and easy to be friends with.

One time I was walking with my longboard and an older lady asked me if I was going to skate down the hill, just to be nice and make small talk (maybe she was also a little concerned!) In France it’s not like that – no one comes up to talk to you in the street, and if they do you’ll probably feel uncomfortable because it’s so uncommon.

I think that people here are less judgmental than in France, you can do what you want and no one cares. Sometimes it’s hard when people laugh and I don’t get the joke, and not understanding makes me feel kind of like an outsider, because it’s not my own culture.

You already spoke English fluently when you moved, but have you learned anything new?

Americans always use the expression “it’s not rocket science.” I think that’s kind of funny. Guys I know say “hey man, how’s it going man” all the time. It reminds me of Leo in That 70’s Show.

When you’re at the grocery store, the cashiers say “How are you” but actually they just mean “Hello” which is weird when you’re not used to it.

And foreigners in France always complain that la bise is complicated (when to bise, when not to bise) but here it’s the same – you don’t know when you’re supposed to shake hands or when to hug!

I used to avoid saying “beach” because it sounded like “bitch” but I’m getting better at making the difference now.

What do you want to show people from back home when they come visit?

I want to show them where I live, take them to my favorite places, show them that we eat well. I want to break down their preconceptions about the United States and show them that there are great things here, that life isn’t so different. There are good things and bad things like in France, like there are anywhere.

What’s your favorite thing about living here?

It’s an adventure and I know that I’ll be able to get by even when things go wrong. C’est super enrichissant – it’s really rewarding.

Thanks chéri! You’re the best.

If you have any questions for Hugo about what it’s like to live in the U.S. as a French expat, send them our way.

[Note: In this context, “California” means a specific slice of northern/central California on the coast; neither of us has traveled the entire state. These are all personal observations and may not be true for everyone everywhere.]

23 thoughts on “A French Guy in California: Hugo talks about culture shock in the U.S.

  1. I loved Hugo’s observation of “It’s not Rocket Science.” That made me lol. I’m so glad to hear about Hugo’s perspective and that he’s adjusting well. He’s totally right about the salary thing, and having higher salaries but more to pay for.

    Glad to hear from you!!! X

    1. Haha, it’s funny the little things we don’t pay attention to when we’re used to them! I think we can both agree that there are pros and cons to both, and we try to appreciate what’s good, live with what’s not, and acknowledge that there would be other pros and cons no matter where we live. Thanks for reading 🙂 xx

  2. Thanks so much for the perspective! Being an American in France I’m always getting questions about how Americans see France, so the other way around is so refreshing! Though there are little differences, we are all very much alike and I love that both the differences and similarities can bring us together ❤ Also: the jumping shot is so beautiful!!!

    1. Thank you! He jumped off while I was taking pictures and I liked it so much that I asked him to jump a few more times 🙂 I like your take on the difference and similarities bringing different cultures together!

  3. Enjoy reading what a French person has to say about Californian culture (I’m from Los Angeles, so it made me happy to see what he thinks about us). Loved the coconut-peach analogy about the French and Americans- it’s quite true (and really cute)! Would love to hear more from him about his thoughts on American culture, especially when he visits more of the States!

    1. I hope we’ll get to travel more while we’re here! I haven’t traveled much between the coasts (except Chicago) so I think that it would be major culture shock for me too. I’m dying to take a road trip down to LA too – I don’t know much about southern California and I feel terrible that I haven’t taken Hugo more places since we moved. I think he will have some interesting things to share after we move to the city and after he starts working – big changes ahead! 🙂

  4. This is delightful. Also, you can tell Hugo that when people say “how are you?” and really mean “hello” it really stresses me out, too!

  5. So great! I think Tom has had a lot of the same thoughts although he’s never lived in the US. He’d miss his family in France but kind of goes with the flow and likes a lot of the conveniences in the US. He doesn’t get the imperial system of measurement and thinks it’s weird when cashiers and salespeople in shops ask you how you are. Kinda related, in parts of England they say “you alright?” and they aren’t asking how you are, but more of a greeting like hey. The reply is “you alright.” So even Americans get confused in our own language when visiting other places, Hugo. 😉

    1. Yes, I totally don’t get “you alright”! It always throws me off. I’m glad to finally know the correct answer. “You alright?” “You alright?”I have definitely had to ask for a “translation” of British English before. What’s a “bap”? What’s a “faff”? I just don’t know these things! (I mean, now I do, but I did have to ask!)

  6. It was the price of ibuprofen that made my jaw hit the floor in France – in the UK it’s about 25/30p a packet! Hugo’s observation about people wanting to make small talk is interesting – up until this year, I always thought the French were quite reserved and didn’t tend to speak to strangers on public transport etc., but recently I’ve had quite a few people sitting near me on the bus/ train start up conversations. It catches me off guard as I’m not expecting it! It was really interesting to read Hugo’s perspective on life in the States 🙂

    1. Wow, so interesting that you’ve had people start up conversations in public transport! I don’t think that ever happened to me in Lyon beyond a very functional level, only in the south of France. I agree that it’s surprising when you’re not used to it! Ibuprofen is priced similarly here, so I didn’t get immediate sticker shock in France, but we get a LOT more for the same price (huge bottles of hundreds of pills, true American style!) I would much rather pay 30p and have just what I need.

      1. It takes some getting used to – and can be a wee bit annoying on long journeys when I want to sleep, but end up sat next to a chatterbox! Woah, how would anyone get through that many before they expired?!

      2. I’m hoping that it’s a smaller dosage – you usually take a few at a time. But I certainly don’t think I would manage to get through 500 ibuprofen in a few years! I agree that sometimes it’s nice to just sit/sleep in peace on a long trip – it’s nice to have a little chat with a stranger sometimes, but it’s exhausting to keep up a conversation for hours on end!

      3. Perhaps it’s a “family size” tub –
        though I imagine most families wouldn’t manage to finish them before the expiry date. Especially exhausting when said conversation is in your second language! A bit of both is nice, though it very much depends on the length of the journey (and what mood I’m in).

  7. Love this! I’m an American who’s lived in Paris and now London and I can tell you, there is plenty to find that is “un peu perturbant”! But of course there is so much to explore and get to know and such rich cultural differences to experience. Viva la difference!

    1. Haha, that’s a great attitude towards adjusting to a new culture! I am sure I would stick out like a sore thumb trying to assimilate in London, but I love visiting! How awesome that you’ve lived in two such amazing cities 🙂

  8. Cultural differences and how we react to them is such a complex thing. I remember being shocked after moving from Holland to Brazil when I realized that even though Brazil was more similar to France in culture (which is where I grew up), I preferred Holland as a home. Great post, it’s great that Hugo is so open to those differences and decides to go with the flow! #AllAboutFrance

    1. Thank you! He is a very agreeable fellow even in the face of difficult circumstances:-) I didn’t know that France and Brazil were so similar culturally! It’s interesting where we end up feeling at home and how we adapt to new places. I’ve only ever lived in the US and France, and I feel at home in each country for different reasons. Culture truly is a complex thing, as you said! Thanks for reading!

  9. It sounds like your Hugo is very easy-going and open minded and basically very lovely! I love the reaction to the cottonwool in the ibuprofen. I thought he was going to be shocked at how big bottles of it you can buy because in France an UK it’s 16 max. (I remember buying a jar of 500 in NYC!!!) I love cultural differences and really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance again, great to have you back. I hope life with your little one is treating you well.

  10. “I used to avoid saying “beach” because it sounded like “bitch” but I’m getting better at making the difference now.”
    Still the same problem for my fellow French expats and me here, in London! 🙂

    Nice interview Catherine!

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