How to Live Like a Local When Moving to the United States

Moving to the United States is daunting. Even for Americans moving around the country, getting to know your new city can be difficult.

There is so much to learn. But don’t fret! To help make your transition as smooth and rewarding as possible, here are a few tips on how to live like a local.

1) Discover the food unique to your city or state.

The United States is essentially made up of 50 mini-countries, each with its own quirks. Beyond burgers and apple pie, there is a mind-boggling diversity of treats to try.

Maryland is famous for its crabs with Old Bay seasoning. Wisconsinites love their fried cheese curds. New Orleans is proud of its kaleidoscope of Cajun and Creole dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and Po-boys. New Yorkers like myself think highly (maybe too highly?) of our pizza, knishes, and bagels with lox.

From Philly cheesesteaks to California artichokes to the many different styles of Southern BBQ, try as many new foods as you can.

Our food is so diverse because of two things: 1) geographic diversity and 2) immigration. Immigrant populations have influenced most of the cuisine in the United States. Following Christopher Columbus’ landing in North America, waves of European settlers brought their culinary traditions from the Old World, including cabbage, onions, beef, pork, goats, wheat, and Georgia’s official state fruit—the peach.

As immigration accelerated and diversified, Germans introduced frankfurters with sauerkraut, Italians opened pizzerias, Mexicans steamed tamales, and Vietnamese cooked pho. Many restauranteurs recognized the need to adapt their native cuisine to American tastes, which is why most Chinese visitors are mystified by General Tso’s chicken, chop suey, and fortune cookies. Today, the United States represents a melting pot of more than just culture.

While you’re here, it’s probably worth trying some of the more stereotypical American food inventions: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, corn dogs, smores, and turducken (a decadent Thanksgiving dish that features a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside of a turkey). Mmm!

2) Explore the outdoors

The best way to get to know your new surroundings is to explore. Walk or bike around your neighborhood, take a different route home from work, or go hiking on the weekend.

A J-1 participant explores the outdoors in the Everglades National Park.

On a practical level, you will become more comfortable with navigating your community. You will gradually feel more like a local as you discover new landmarks, whether they be trendy coffee shops or secret waterfalls.

At the same time, you will have the opportunity to make new friends who enjoy the same activities as you. There are Meetup groups for almost every hobby you can imagine, from running and kayaking to geocaching and urban scavenger hunts. In addition to being trusty companions, the people that you meet will also make great guides and language partners. Even more, exploring the natural wonders of the United States, whether they are across the country or in your own backyard, will help you rest, recharge, and reflect on your experiences here.

3) Learn the local history

Though the United States may be a relatively young country, learning the local history of your town can enrich your American experience and reveal interesting insights into the country as a whole. Even the name of your city can illuminate important historical and cultural trends. You can also take some time to discover the local folklore, holidays, celebrities, music, and slang.

But where to start? The experts at your local library can be very valuable resources. They can help you uncover troves of firsthand documents and introduce you to leading experts in local history. You can also join your local historical society, use databases to read old copies of your town’s newspaper, and even check out books about your town, which are almost always written by local authors.

Besides the library, there are many other sources of information that will give you a greater appreciation for your town. Any museum in your area will display a reservoir of incredible artifacts for you to explore, while there are many commemorative plaques, statues, and memorials scattered across the United States. Take a few moments to read them the next time you go exploring.

Lastly, don’t overlook the people around you! Striking up conversations with senior citizens can lead to a rewarding afternoon of discovery.

4) Search for festivals and fairs

Attending festivals is another great way to understand the unique culture of your area. Sure, maybe you’ve heard of SxSWMardi Gras, or Burning Man, but there are so many other wonderfully weird ways to spend a Saturday.

For example, my hometown of Pine Bush, New York celebrates its status as the UFO capital of New York with an annual festival and alien parade. In terms of more mainstream events, each town usually has its own music, art, or food festivals, along with the all-important tradition of the county and state fairs.

In addition to festivals, there are so many ways you can make new friends and have fun in your community. Browse the fresh fruits and vegetables at your local farmer’s markets, attend a potluck dinner or picnic, cheer for your local sports team, and see why so many Americans go gaga for garage sales.

My hometown takes cultural exchange to a whole new level with the Intergalactic Visitors Exchange Program. Photo Credit: Pine Bush UFO Fair

The best places to find out about these fun-filled events are your newspaper’s Community section. Once you find an interesting event, be curious, ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone.

5) Volunteer

Volunteering is a great opportunity to meet people while helping those in need. In my hometown, thousands of people participate in Relay for Life, an annual walkathon to raise money for cancer research. Over the course of two days, we all camp out at the town park, dance to local bands, and test our luck to win raffle prizes. At the same time, Relay for Life is a very touching way for the whole community to support those who are sick and honor those who have passed away.

J-1 Visa participants in New York City volunteer on J Day by cleaning up a local park.

If you’re interested in volunteering, see what volunteer opportunities are available in your town.

6) Attend professional networking events and conferences

Skills-building workshops and networking events can build your resume and connect you with like-minded people. To find out which ones might be most useful to you, start by asking your boss and your colleagues for their suggestions. What conferences helped enhance their knowledge? What professional associations are they members of? The people at your job will be happy to provide advice and help you reach your career goals.

It will also be useful to follow the top publications in your field. In addition to giving you a stronger foundation, they often advertise conferences, workshops, lectures, and happy hours that you might consider attending. Local institutions such as universities, think tanks, and chambers of commerce all host regular events where you can meet like-minded professionals. By following them on social media, you can stay up to date on future events.

Finding the right activities depends on your interests and the offerings in your area. Given my background in foreign policy and international education, I regularly attend events in Washington, D.C. that directly relate to my field. The most recent events that I attended were organized by NAFSA, the U.S. Institute of Peace, American University, the Brookings Institution, and the Young Professionals in International Affairs. Sometimes I even participate in Network After Work.

When attending professional events, keep the following tips in mind:

And once you return to your home country, be sure to keep in touch with the contacts you met in the United States.

7) Read the news, both local and national

The old adage “never talk politics” is wrong. Politics is such an important part of American life and may be completely mystifying to those from abroad. Learn more about hot-button issues and try to empathize with people with different views. A good starting point is by reading the local newspaper, including the letters to the editor. Local papers can often be more revealing and accessible than papers like the New York Times. You can find local newspapers in any convenience store, pharmacy, or even in street-side newsstands. Depending on the size of your town, there may be many different newspapers, each with its own flair and area of focus.

8) Share your culture

Our country is truly a melting pot of different races, religions, languages, and customs. There is no “correct” way to act. In fact, our strength lies in the celebration of our diverse heritage.

So as you create your own American story, be proud of who you are and share your own culture.  Try cooking your favorite dish from back home with your new friends, celebrate your traditional holidays, wear clothing that represents your culture, and teach others how to speak your language. Americans are curious and want to discover more about what makes you and your home country unique.

So as you learn about American culture and customs, we hope you will share a piece of your home.

Do you have an offer to be an intern or trainee in the United States? We can help. Learn more about how to get a J-1 Visa.