Thoughts from an African in the USA

We’ve been in the US for quite a while now. And there’s so much I’ve wanted to write about, but a new article for each one seemed extreme. So after being a draft for about three months, I’ve finally been able to put together this mega-post on all the random things that pop into my head.

Take note that I am making direct comparisons to my experiences in California, and living in South Africa. California is not the US. Also these are not all bad, they’re just observations, some of them are even good. And in no particular order, they are:

Twisty light switches

I have an odd hate for these. All your bedside and desktop lamps have these twisty knobs on them to turn on and off. Why not a switch. I like switches. I know what to do with switches. And to turn these switches on or off, you turn it in the same direction. Surely it would make more sense to turn it on one way, and turn it off the other way? But no, turning it the other way does nothing.

Shower controls

To date, I’ve found shower controls around the world fairly standard. You have some control over how much hot water, and how much cold water you get. Not in the US. In the US you get X amount of water, and are only allowed to decide how hot or cold it is. So there’s no having a nice hot blast of water, or just dripping a little out. You get X. Come on man, where are we living?!

Smoke alarms

They’re everywhere, we have three in our house (and have only set one off, we’re not sure how)! The only rooms not covered are the bathrooms. I’m not sure of the exact reason why they’re so smoke-alarm happy, but it probably has something to do with all the very flammable gas being piped everywhere, and the heavy presence of wood in their buildings. The smoke alarms also detect carbon-monoxide.

But they’re seriously loud. I nearly had a heart-attack when our one went off by itself. I put earplugs in just to test the one in the above video. And we have three different ones. I was quite impressed to see that our Kidde Smoke Alarm talks to us.

The Coleman gas canister

I actually quite like these. They’re very popular. Much like Cadac is the go to brand in SA, Coleman has it sorted in the US. Any skottel, portable BBQ or other mid sized gas powered device makes use of these little canisters. They’re a set size, and work on anything. More than that you can buy them almost anywhere. No need to find a camping goods store, just go to your local Target, or corner cafe. They can be refilled from larger propane tanks too.

Electric plugs

okay it’s a little dirty

I’m iffy on these. They’re different, but I guess not bad per se. What I don’t like is their live and neutral pins are different sizes. Why?! Many small things like chargers are built the same size to avoid annoyance, but our lamps for instance only go in one way! Come on man!

Class action lawsuits

These come in the post, they’re advertised to you on billboards, on the radio, on TV. Everywhere. Law firm sues big company on behalf of 100 plaintiffs, then once a verdict is given, they are allowed to go find more people who may have been affected, and bring them in as part of the case. Law firm obviously gets a bigger settlement from it, and it’s right that people are properly remunerated if they are wronged, but often we’re talking about $10 or $20 per plaintiff. For example (source):

Consumers who received automated or pre-recorded call or text on their cell phones from Wells Fargo regarding overdrafts on a Wells Fargo account between April 21, 2011 and December 19, 2015 may be eligible for a pro rata share of the $30 million settlement. The company reached a settlement over allegations of violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Do I really deserve money because Wells Fargo phoned me. Sure punish them. But yeah.


Marketing in general is huge. I regularly see planes flying overhead with banners advertising something. Billboards, benchboards, bus stop adverts are all updated with regularity, showing the latest movies and TV series. Adverts also regularly feature prominent movie and TV personalities.

Online, my twitter feed receives far more adverts than it once did. I assume just because less people are paying for adverts aimed towards people with location South Africa, than Los Angeles. I’ve also been doing a lot of writing, and researching online products. As such I’ve had to start using Incognito mode more, otherwise my Facebook, Twitter and YouTube just fill up with adverts for the products I’ve recently been browsing on Amazon

Then there are also the pharmaceutical adverts, they’re mainly restricted to TV (which we don’t have), but they are still odd to watch, where adverts for all kinds of drugs are placed, encouraging you to discuss these products with your GP.

Cellphone contracts

Prepaid packages are rare. Most of the big companies don’t offer a traditional prepaid package where you load $20 and pay per SMS and phonecall. Instead you sign up for a monthly contract, and just pay in advance. But that package is by default unlimited local phone calls and SMSs. It’s no wonder no one uses WhatsApp. Why would they when they can just SMS indiscriminately. The rate is also fairly flat between providers since porting gained public attention. Only price differences come in when selecting how much data you want. Discounts are also offered for family packages.

Also every, single, freaking, provider locks their phones to their network.


It’s wonderful. It’s fast. At home our flat came with included Wi-Fi, and although I’d like an ethernet cable, I’m not complaining:

Halloween & Thanksgiving

Halloween was fun. Everyone dresses up. Everyone. Even on campus during the days around Halloween people were dressed up. The 7-11s put up signs requesting people to remove their masks when entering the premises.

It was fun. People put a lot of effort into their costumes, have parties, and generally just have a good time. Trick or treating is apparently also still big, in the more residential neighbourhoods. Also pumpkin carving. That was fun.Thanksgiving was fun too. A few weeks after Halloween, things kind of just flow from one to the next. It’s a great friends and family holiday, full of traditional food, like mac ‘n cheese. And more traditional food like Turkey and Pumpkin Pie. And while people don’t dress-up for this one, marketers go crazy, and you get all the pumpkin flavoured coffees, beers and other paraphernalia emerging.

Live shows!

LA is great for this. There’s always something happening. And every time there’s a show on at one of the big venues (which is most of the time), it’s a band you know or recognise. Those odd bands and comedians you knew back home, who would never tour to SA, they tour to LA. Or they live in LA.

Now all we need is some more money to go to more events.


Normal day in LA. Two helicopters and the Good Year blimp. My eyesight is way better than my phone’s camera.

They’re everywhere. This is partially LA specific. At any single time, there are at least two police helicopters hovering over LA, ignoring news and personal helicopters. It’s the police helicopters that tend to fly lower and hover. While you’re trying to sleep. I think it’s started to blend into the background noise of the city, but every now and then I notice it and get annoyed.


The American government doesn’t trust foreigners. Especially when it comes to anything semi-related to rockets, which includes the entire aviation field. As such if you’re not a US citizen you require a special ITAR clearance to work in the aviation, military, or space industry. This is a lot of extra work for a company, and many couldn’t be bothered. As such I’ve been greeted with many a job application, that on the first line, lists as a requirement, that you are a US citizen. This has nothing to do with work eligibility.


Firstly their octane ratings are all wrong (more about that here). Secondly they sell at least three different octane ratings at every gas station. Thirdly they call petrol gas (-oline), when clearly it’s a liquid. Fourthly diesel is hard to come by within a city, like many gas stations don’t sell it. Fifthly fuel prices can differ by over a dollar per gallon within the same city. Sixthly you have to pump your own gas (I actually really enjoy this. It’s great)


Driving is fine. People in LA tend to drive fast and in a rush (compared to CT and EL). It’s not a problem (not like them driving on the wrong side of the road). However, the law states that you are allowed to pass a vehicle that is in the fast lane, by driving in one of the slower  lanes (pg38 2016 CA driver handbook). They do advise that if you are in the fast lane and being passed, you should move to a slower line, the phrasing being (pg65 2016 CA driver handbook):

the best thing to do is move into the right lane, when it is safe, and let the vehicle(s) pass.

That is an advisement. Not a law. There is a new law that says in a single lane road, a vehicle must turn out if a line of 5 or more vehicles forms behind them. As they don’t make use of the ‘yellow-lane’ to allow overtaking.

But basically a lot of drivers drive slowly in the fast lane which results in people in a hurry weaving through the 5 lane traffic, in and out, and people flying past on your right, because they don’t want to wait for the slow driver in front to pull over. This is contrary to many other countries where it is a law to get out of the way of faster moving traffic.

They have got the Right on Red thing going for them, which is great, and should be made law in SA as well. If you’re turning at a traffic light, and do not need to cross moving traffic to do so, you are allowed to turn against a red light, if safe to do so.

You can read more about this here, as I just got my CA licence.

You know like at the movies? They soak them in butter. Icky, oily, butter. I guess it tastes nicer, but now my hands are covered in greasy oil. Also, no salt shakers. Apparently that’s not how it’s done. They offer tiny little salt sachets, but you have to open like 5 or more to get any kind of taste. No other flavours either really. Just butter.

Self-Checkout Terminals

Yes, yes, yes. Saving me so much time (and some awkwardness). There’s always an open terminal at the self-checkout aisle in the grocery stores. They’re wonderful. I don’t have to stand in queues. Don’t have to interact with the admittedly very nice cashiers. I can just do my thing and be on my way.

Apparently PnP in Ottery are running a trial with these. Last I heard it wasn’t going too well.


I’ve never been a fan of cash, not at home, not anywhere. But the Americans confuse it all by making all their notes look almost identical. That is, similar size and same colour. When you do find ones that are different colours, they’re just different prints of the same note. And don’t get me started on their coins. Although I like quarters. They’re pretty cool as far as coins go.

Then Credit-Cards. You want to pay with a CC at a restaurant. They bring you the bill, and tell them you want to pay by card. They take the bill and your card away from you, then come back later, return your card to you, and you leave you with a slip on which to write the tip. Then once you’ve left, with your card, they go back to the terminal and add the tip into the final amount that gets debited. This is normal. This is standard.

And don’t get me started on EFTs. Such a thing does not exist. If I owe my friend John $20, I either have to give it to him in cash, or write him a cheque. Or use one of many online, non-bank affiliated services to send him money (such as PayPal). I can do a wire. But, the bank will usually charge me $10 per wire. Many companies will at least pay employees by Direct Deposit, which at least avoids any fees, but this seems to not be in the domain of the average Joe. Or John. Or John’s friend who just wants to pay him.

Buying Alcohol

The drinking age in the US is 21. This is not a problem as I am 27. What is a problem is that everyone asks for ID. Everyone. Buying wine from your local supermarket. ID. Going into a bar. ID. Sitting in a restaurant. ID (well they’re a little more slack). So this is not a problem in and of itself. What is a problem is that they don’t like SA driver’s licences, or even our fancy new ID cards. No. If you don’t have a US government issued ID, you need to show them a passport. Which means I have to carry my passport around with me everywhere. Which I don’t like doing, and its big and bulky, especially if you’re heading out to for the night. I also often forget it at home, and then am left unable to purchase alcohol.

This was only part of the motivation to get a CA driver’s licence. Some licences even state the year the person turns 21 to save the bouncer some effort.


That’s all I can think of at the moment. I won’t even get started on the politics. I added an extra five points to this yesterday, so feel it’s time to stop. I’m sure I’ll start another article and build it up over the next few months for a part 2.

But in between all the complaints, and differences, it’s very similar to home. We haven’t experienced in kind of culture shock, and are enjoying ourselves in the very fair LA.

US (CA) vs SA driving licences

Planning to be in the US for a while still, I figured I might as well try get a US driver’s licence. It makes life a lot easier, and means I get to leave my passport at home more often. Each state has its own testing procedures, and for California (CA), as a foreign driver, you are required to go through the whole process. That means write a theory based learner’s permit, and then do a practical driving test. If you’re from another state in the US and want a CA driver’s license, you are required to only do a theory test.

Overall I’ve found the admin side of things to be far better in the US, and the actual testing to be easier. Firstly I booked online for both my learner’s and driver’s tests. For the learners you can go in person any day and write the licence immediately, but will wait in queues. For the driver’s test I waited a week for the earliest booking. For the learner’s I probably sat about 40min waiting for my number to be called, 10min answering  multiple choice questions on a computer, and that was it. This website (not official) says there are 46 questions, and you can get 8 wrong. I don’t remember answering that many questions, but anyway, I passed.

Also the eye-test you do is amazing. None of this fancy machinery, no, they have a board hanging behind the counter, they ask you to read a few letters, close one eye, repeat, close other eye, repeat. That’s it. None of this struggling to make out vague squares, pressing your forehead up to try get closer.

Example of eye test board – source

When studying for the learners, at first I was a bit intimidated. The material is a 100+ page PDF referred to as the California Driver Handbook. I read it through once, then did some test questions. After getting a feel for the questions, I scanned through it again, memorised some values, and went and wrote the test. I got one question wrong.Unlike the SA learners test, the CA questions are much more straightforward, have more logical answers and were less less ambiguous. The material itself can also be read like a book, and not hard learned like the SA ‘pass your driver’s first time’ style books. And is set out for learning as opposed to the official eNATIS documentation, which is literally extracts from the National Road Traffic Act. The CA driver handbook explains the laws, why they exist, and goes on to give best-practices and consequences of not following the law (not getting a fine, but the direct result).It’s hard to say which is better. SA test makes sure you know the laws better, and sets a higher barrier to pass, but the material for the CA test was better, although the test was much easier. If you are under 18 years old, before you can get your licence you are subject to completing a driver’s ed course at school, and also a certain amount of hours driving (think 50 hours).

The driver’s test for CA is also easier. There is no pre-inspection like the SA one, you merely need to show that you know all the controls within the car: lights, hooter etc.

There is no yard test. That means no parallel parking, no alley-docking, no hill start, and no 3-point turn. At some stage during your behind-the-wheel test, you will be asked to pull up next to the curb and reverse three car lengths in a straight line. That’s as hard as it gets.

The on the road section is very similar to back home, with a list of actions you need to perform throughout the test, and a minimum amount of points you’re allowed to lose, with a list of instant fails. The test is slightly more relaxed, they are not as strict about order of things done. Handbrake never has to be used throughout the test. Push-pull steering method is lenient. You don’t need to check every mirror every time you do anything, but must check behind you when braking, check blind spots when turning, and constantly scan road.

You are only allowed to lose 15 points (compared to 120+ in SA), but the rules aren’t as strict. Personally I feel like it is an adequate test to ensure that someone can drive, and negates a lot of fluff in the SA test (although I understand the reasoning).

What I found funny out of the whole experience is that, besides the points I lost during the test, the only recommendation the tester had for me is that I drive too slowly. And that she hopes I will speed up in the future :)

Overall a relatively straightforward and painless experience, especially having already had a driver’s licence for almost 10 years.