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A world of small differences

This isn’t a trampey-related post, but I thought I’d write an update about what’s going on. In short, I made it to the USA without any incidents.

After an overnight stop in San Francisco, we flew into JFK in New York last Saturday (Sunday NZ time), and were taxi’d to our hotel in New Jersey, which is the main base for a couple of weeks while we do some work-related things with a company that’s 5 minutes down the road. And I use that phrase loosely, because as with everything here, it’s a 5 minute drive. It’s actually very frustrating, because although the hotel is quite nice there is nothing nearby. It’s an island in the middle of a freeway, and it’s impossible to get anywhere without driving, which is a a problem when there’s no car. Even food is a problem, because the hotel doesn’t have any proper restaurant — they just expect people to have cars.

Being trapped in a place like this also highlights many little things that I often take for granted. Getting laundry done is one of these things. Obviously there’s no laundromat nearby (without a car). The hotel runs a laundry service that’s insanely expensive (eg. US$3 for each pair of undies), so screw that — I’m washing my stuff in the bath and then blasting it with the heater in my room to get it dry.

We’re here because the company recommended it. They’re nice people and the recommendation was made in good faith, but perhaps without realising that we’d have a few issues with renting a car and driving to places. I might learn to drive in this kind of environment one day, but I don’t want to be thrown in the deep end. We’ve arranged daily transport to and from where we need to be, and the work side of things is going well at this time. Outside of this, though, I can’t wait for this stage of the trip to be over. It’s just so complicated to organise simple things, such as what to do for dinner after getting back quite tired at 6pm.

IMG_1505 [1]
A couple of San Francisco’s
trams on Powell Street.

We did get out a little, though. On Friday (a very long Friday), I spent the afternoon walking around a small part of San Francisco to get a feel for the place. We stayed at a hotel on Geary Street, and I walked down Market Street to The Embarcadero, and around to Fisherman’s Wharf before heading back up Powell Street. There wasn’t a chance to really do anything, but I hope I’ll have a better idea of what to expect when I next visit.

IMG_1528 [2]
Part of Times Square.

On Sunday afternoon (local time), we figured out how to catch a bus into New York, and had a look around. I went up the Empire State Building, which I hadn’t ever imagined would be such a human conveyor belt. The way they churn people through the system is very efficient. There was quite a good view from the top — very flat and lots of buildings. Best of all, I can now say that I’ve done it. Later, we went for a wander towards Times Square, and saw the giant indoor ferris wheel at Toys R Us.

I suppose the first thing one tends to notice about a new place is all the differences, and the the biggest difference I’ve so far noticed in the USA is the very non-explicit attitude to asking for money. Tipping is the most obvious example of this, and it’s what I was most concerned about before I came. (Who do I need to tip? Am I tipping the right amount? The usual suspects.) Coming from a culture where you simply expect that people get paid proper wages for doing their job, and that if money is expected for something then it’ll be explicitly asked for, it takes a lot of getting used to. If someone offers to help when you’re looking at a map, you can never be quite sure if they’re going to try and demand a tip afterwards. It’s just a conventional difference, but it’s one I’m having difficulty getting used to.

The other manifestation of this difference is with the convention of almost never including tax in an advertised price. So, of course, an item or service advertised as $9.95 will actually cost more than that. A side-effect of this, which I still haven’t worked out how to cope with, is that things end up costing very obscure amounts. I suppose a bus ticket is advertised as costing $4 because it’s a nice round number, but when it translates to $4.43 at the time money actually changes hands, I’m confused about what the advantage was to advertising a round number in the first place. I’ve ended up with a wallet full of shrapnel, and I don’t know what to do with all the 1 cent and 5 cent coins that build up.

Another difference that I didn’t expect is just how much the whole society here still seems to depend on cash. I don’t know where I obtained the impression, but I thought that the USA had become a society built around plastic a long time ago… yet cash is prevalent (perhaps because so many people need tips) and there are still coin phones all over New York City! Having noted this, there’s also a lot of trust with credit cards. Places just swipe them without requiring signatures and without requiring PIN numbers, and you just have to hope that they’ll charge the right amount. I’m quite annoyed about this, too, because the hotel in San Francisco handed me an invoice for $111.86 but my online credit statement says they charged $186.86. I’ve been harassing them for several days now to try and get back the $75 they overcharged, but in the end I might need to go to Mastercard and dispute it.

Oh, and Television is as useless here as it is back in NZ, except in different ways. It’s about 40% commercials, and most of them are advertising health insurance or medical treatments. The mind boggles.

It’s not as bad as I probably make it sound, though, and I think it’ll be much better once we’re free to roam around more. New York seems like a fascinating place, and it’s huge. I’m just frustrated that I’ll be stuck in a hotel prison for the better part of 2 weeks to begin with, and having to think very seriously about how to arrange simple little things that I normally take for granted like edible food and laundry when they’re simply not available at the hotel. All this because I don’t fit into the stereotypical American frame of driving a car everywhere. I’m looking forward to the time when I’ll get to go and visit Shaun in New York City, and perhaps be in a better position to figure out the subway and get around by myself and actually see things instead of being stuck in a place that ends at its parking lot.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "A world of small differences"

#1 Comment By Donald Gordon On 29 January, 2009 @ 7:49 am

So you’ve discovered the slightly odd place that is the US? Sounds like you missed chinatown in SF by circling it though 🙁

Yeah, the whole cash and tips thing is kind of odd. I also ended up with a wallet full of shrapnel and very little idea of what to do with it.

When I was working on a customer site in Atlanta, the customer assumed I’d want a rental car, and when I explained that I couldn’t actually drive in the US on an NZ restricted license, they told me to just take taxis everywhere and expense them. Including to restaurants. Which meant no ability to wander down a street and browse the available food outlets. Given I was working an 11am-8pm day to have some overlap with NZ, I just stuck with the rather uninspiring hotel restaurant (thankfully they did actually have one) on the days when the people I was working with didn’t take me out somewhere interesting.

Actually there was so little within walking distance that the hotel provided a free shuttle to anywhere within a 15 minute drive. Which meant I could go to the mall and buy iPhones for people.

#2 Comment By Robb On 31 January, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

Kia ora Mike,
I think you have a better experience when you get into the city and are staying with a friend. Unfortunately that interstate highway mentality is prevelant in the states, and unless you have a car, or someone to drive you, isolation is a real possibility even when amongst millions of people. Too bad you did not get to spend more time in Frisco as it is a world class walkers city and much to see. I once ferried over from Sausalito to the Wharf then walked through to Seal Rocks, then back over the Golden Gate bridge to Sausalito. Took 12 hours but what a day! New York should offer some interesting walking as well. As to tipping, I tip only waiters, cab drivers, and bartenders. A good tip to a bar tender on the first drink should ensure good service, and nominal one at the end as thanks. To waiters, and cabs, I always start at a minimum 10% then go as 20% depending on the level of service. You have to remember two things, one it is a different culture, and two most wait staff, cabbies, ect, are paid a very small hourly wage, much less than here, and depend on tips. I would also say you will find the level of service because of that is generally much higher than here. I often find the service here in NZ to be quite ordinary, even slack. They have nothing at stake, and the still relatively low wages paid here make going the extra mile a bit rare than doing any more than they have to do. Good wait staff in the states can earn big bucks, and the far greatest percentage of that is in tips because of their professionalism, even reputation. But lets be clear, you pay what you think its worth, and if you get shit service, leave a shit tip, or nothing.
In any case Mike, I hope your trip gets better! Have a great day.

#3 Comment By Mike McGavin On 31 January, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

A couple of days ago I counted that I had exactly 99 cents of shrapnel in my wallet. I now have exactly 88 cents, because the knowledge of what was there made it easier for me to count out exact change in a food court after I was finally told I’d need some amount plus 11 cents.

We have actually figured out part of a nearby bus route now, though, and that’s helping. It should make it feasible to get back into NY again for a while tomorrow and maybe Sunday.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 3 February, 2009 @ 1:51 am

Hi Robb. Thanks for the comments.

I think the main part of the tipping culture that I have trouble adjusting to is that when people are nice to me, I like to think that it’s because they’re nice people and not because they just want me to give them money. I have trouble grasping that when tipping is an expectation. In New Zealand if I get bad service at a restaurant, I vote with my feet and I don’t go there any more and I may even tell my friends or the restaurant, but I haven’t usually found this to be a problem.

The whole culture of having tipping as an expectation is something I haven’t worked out to a fluent level, and the tipping culture goes well beyond specific service areas. I don’t feel comfortable standing in some areas here studying a map or looking at an information sign because I’ve noticed it’s almost certain that somebody will come up and offer to help me, then demand money afterwards. Some people will genuinely offer to help because they want to be helpful, but it’s much less clear if they have an agenda and the line’s so blurry that I don’t know if I should talk to them or just say no thanks.

I fully appreciate that this is a different culture, it’s simply an alternative way of doing things, and if I’d been brought up here it’d be very different. From my past experiences, though, it’s the thing I have the most trouble getting my head around. I’m simply used to people actually asking for money if they want money and declaring exactly what they want up-front.

#5 Pingback By Te Araroa, National Cycleways and Recessions | Windy Hilltops On 15 March, 2009 @ 8:41 am

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