USA vs. SA: Cultural Differences and Similarities

Animal Kingdom

Of course, one of the stark differences between Southern Africa and the Southeastern United States is the wildlife. So far, I’ve seen wild ostriches, baboons, dassies, seals, and African penguins! I’ve also had the opportunity to see elephants, though they were living in captivity after being rescued from poachers. I haven’t seen a wild Zebra yet, but I’ve been told it’s not uncommon. Next week I’ll be going on a safari, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty more animal pictures to share!

Island time???

So, obviously, SA isn’t an island. But that doesn’t stop them from living on island time. Life is slower paced, so if you come to Cape Town, I don’t recommend going to dinner hungry. It’s definitely a difference from the fast-paced life I’m used to in the US, but the relaxed vibe is something I’ve gotten used to and quite enjoy.

Left is Right and Right is Wrong

While I’m on the topic of time, I can’t forget to mention Cape Town traffic. Didn’t know that was a thing? Neither did I. But, at peak rush time, a 10-minute drive can turn into an hour-long drive, and I’m not exaggerating. Just like big American cities, part of being in a 4 million+ populated city is the amount of traffic that goes along with it.

While the city traffic is the same, the driving itself is not. The left side is where cars drive, the driver’s seat is opposite of what it is in the US, and I’ve yet to see anything other than a stick-shift here. As a true South African would say, driving here is “hectic”; all I can say is that I’m glad I don’t have to learn to drive here (thank you Uber).


You know how people who live in the southeastern United States say that you can experience all the seasons in the same day? Take that, multiply it by 10, and there you have Cape Town weather.

Layering here is key. Rain can come out of seemingly nowhere. The wind can quite literally knock you over. Don’t believe me about the wind? Google “Cape Town wind” and you’ll find your mouth gaping as you watch people holding onto light poles to prevent getting blown away.

Where I am in the Western Cape, summer (October to March) is the dry season. This differs from the rest of the country when the dry season is in winter. During the dry season, fire is an element of the landscape that South Africans have to cope with. The climate crisis is already worsening the fires: temperature increases, longer dry seasons, and increased risk for drought combine to exacerbate the incidence of fire risk.

Electricity & Water

Since I knew someone who studied abroad in SA the year before I did, I had a little knowledge before I arrived here about Load-Shedding. Load-shedding occurs when the South African power grid is stressed. In order to lessen this stress, certain areas of the country or city experience scheduled power outages that last several hours. I’m very fortunate to live in a South Africa that has adapted after 12 years of load shedding– meaning that many public places have generators to at least keep the necessities working. Even in my apartment building, we have a generator that powers the common areas, although our rooms lose power and water.

Water is another hot-topic issue in SA. In 2017-2018, Cape Town experienced its worst drought in a century. Citizens were severely restricted on water usage, and fears about “Day Zero” were rampant. Luckily, the fall in water usage and heavy rains in June 2018 brought Cape Town the end of their water crisis. The effects are still visible, in campaigns and posters encouraging residents to be “Water Wise”.


Upon arrival, one unexpected (but pleasant) surprise was the cuisine. Cape Town is a coastal city, so their seafood is amazing. As a melting pot of different South African cultures and beyond, you can also find just about any other food you’re craving here. To my dismay, globalization has not been effective at getting Chick-Fil-A to the continent, but you’re sure to find KFC and McDonalds in just about every neighborhood.

I’ve had sushi too many times to count (not pictured– phone doesn’t always eat first), and lots of South African food. You can also always find an “American” restaurant, but perhaps the hidden gems of South African cuisine are the food markets! You can find one just about every day of the week, and that’s where the best food can be found in Cape Town.

Southern Hospitality

Perhaps the most glaring similarity between South Carolina and South Africa is that they both have southern hospitality. Being here is just like being in the Southern US, where everyone is smiling, welcoming, and polite. Apparently, it doesn’t matter which continent you’re on, Southern Hospitality is everywhere.