Foreigners on their first trip to this much-storied country might expect it to be like an episode of Friends but find something quite different.
Tourists snap photos in New York City's Battery Park. (Reuters)
Years before Senisha Millavanovich came to America, he watched National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with his wife. When the 1989 comedy showed Chevy Chase's satirically prototypical American family stringing up an over-the-top Christmas lights display, Millavanovich laughed, but not just because of Chase's slapstick antics. The entire idea of blanketing the front of your house in Christmas lights, he told a reporter with public radio's This American Life, had to be a joke. "When you look at the spoof movies or the comedies, they blow out of proportion things, just to make it funny. When I saw it I thought, this cannot be true. This is just too much lights," he said for a 2010 episode of the radio show.
Imagine Millavanovich's surprise when he moved to Fargo, North Dakota, and on one December night drove down a suburban street. "Some people had not only the lights, but they also had the lights," he told the radio reporter of his jaw-dropping first Christmas in America. "And we said to each other, they really do decorate their houses as Chevy Chase did."
This American Life, talking to refugees who'd moved to the U.S., mostly from conflict zones, found that the foreigners were shocked by a number of things that Americans might consider routine: public displays of affection, high obesity rates, families shipping their elderly parents off to nursing homes, dog-owners kissing their pets, and widespread gun ownership. "Just take a quick look and don't turn your face," a horrified Iraqi father told his children when their car pulled alongside a gun-toting motorcyclist. The kids, frightened by what they'd believed was a tool of only police and criminals, asked, "Why does he have a gun? What is he planning to do?"
The U.S. can be such a jarringly strange place for many foreign visitors that travel guidebooks detail everything from the dangers of talking politics to tips on respecting Americans' famously guarded personal space. But what do those visitors find when they actually get here? This American Life spoke to a relatively narrow slice of foreign arrivals, but a thread on public question site Quora, jumping off from the radio segment, asks web users from around the globe to chime in with what surprised them about America.
The stories are self-reported and some of the user accounts are anonymous, so it's difficult to tell whether some of their answers might be exaggerated or even false. But there are some consistent themes in what surprised them (bolstered by my own anecdotal encounters with expats in the U.S.), which might say as much about the people who visit the U.S. and assumptions they bring with them as about America itself.
Impossibly well-stocked supermarkets: If you've ever visited a grocery in the developing world, you can probably understand the wonder that many foreigners feel at first seeing America's gleaming stores, stuffed with remarkably fresh produce from every season, no matter the time of year. A South Asian friend specifically noted the "variety" in the groceries, and some have asked me, incredulous, what happens to all the produce that doesn't get sold.
Americans really love Old Glory: For Americans like me, growing up in schools where you're expected to fold your hand over your heart and pledge your allegiance to the U.S. flag every morning seems normal, even banal. But this is less common in other countries, and I've found that study-abroad students can find it surprising, even creepy. A Quora user from Brazil added that he was surprised by "the amount of US flags you see around, from every spot, in every city I've been to."
They also love God: "Americans are a lot more religious than I ever assumed from watching American television," a Pakistani friend told me when asked what surprised her about first coming to America. An Irish Quora user cited "Prayer breakfasts in the White House. Educated people believing in creationism. The number of churches and denominations. People actually going to church."
What do you mean I can't haggle?: In many parts of the world, prices on just about anything are up for negotiation, but in the U.S. it's basically limited to used cars and Craigslist. I've heard more than a few stories of well-meaning foreign shoppers taking a cashier's refusal to bargain as mere coyness. A Quora user said of his/her Russian relatives, "At one-off vintage shops and even restaurants, the idea of not talking out price left them a little upset and very surprised."
So much junk food, if you can call it food: An Indonesian friend mused at "popularity of synthetic food products," from Baconnaise to Bud Light Lime-a-Rita to spray-on butter. Quora users from several corners of the globe said they were in awe of the portions; one from Eastern Europe (which, in my experience, has enormous portions) said he still had to split restaurant entrees with his wife. Several Indian Quora users described their awe at the mass and accessibility of American food. Several were surprised by the free refills. "Even most of McDonalds, KFCs etc outside the US don't have that," one wrote. Another was surprised by "How you can take your remaining food back home in a box from a restaurant."
The magic of 'convenience culture': "Everything one knows about American convenience culture: 24 hour shops, fast food, 'have a nice day,'" one Quora user beamed, associating "convenience culture" a bit more closely with "American culture" than might be flattering. "There's something rather charming about it. A McDonalds in a mall in Beijing or Brasilia is a horror. But go to one for breakfast in Los Angeles and it all kind of works: the design and appearance, the food, the behaviour of the staff. Not a wooden formula but a living culture."
They have poverty here, too: "Really hard to believe this one," one Quora user said of the fact that the richest country in the world has hungry children. Another wrote, "[San Francisco] is presumably one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest state of the wealthiest country in the world. I expected to see wealth. I didn't expect to see poverty like this. It seems a little worse each time I visit." An Iraqi refugee interviewed by This American Life was so surprised to see a homeless woman in New York's central park that he called 911, assuming that she must be sick, wounded, anything but homeless in America.
How do they get everyone to obey traffic laws?: Quoting cab drivers is sometimes considered the epitome of lazy journalism, but there is one trend I've found in talking to foreign-born cabbies working in the U.S. and to foreign-based taxi drivers who've visited the U.S.: amazement at how devoutly American drivers follow the rules of the road. Compared to the U.S., driving in many developing world cities can feel like organized chaos, with motorists ignoring not just stoplights and speed signs but lane markers and even the direction of traffic. If you go to Cairo and rent a car (side note: don't rent a car in Cairo), you're obligated to follow the standard every-man-for-himself style if you want to get anywhere; drive like you're back in the U.S. and you'll never leave the parking lot. The miracle of American roads, as outsiders have described it to me, is that it only really works if everyone follows the written rules and unwritten norms alike, and they do.
Nothing like what I saw on Friends: The U.S. is about as famous as a country can get. People around the world experience it through the American films and TV shows that dominate global entertainment. But those media portrayals can sometimes add more confusion than they dispel. A Chinese friend once insisted that of course 20-something Americans all get news boyfriends and girlfriends every single week: she'd seen it on Friends, and Seinfeld, and Sex and the City, and a half dozen other TV shows. They couldn't all be lying.
Nothing like what I'd heard at home: This quote from another Indian Quora user captures just how dim a view much of the world takes of some American social customs, particularly our practice of putting elderly in retirement homes:
Many Indians are very surprised to find out that there are large numbers of Americans who actually love their parents and siblings and wives and children and have normal, healthy relationships with them. Our media has them convinced that all Americans are very self-centered people who throw their kids out of their homes after high school, don't care for their parents, and divorce their spouses. And, I swear, it is literally true that many Indians do not believe that this is not true until they have been to the US and seen examples of good healthy family relationships themselves. I have had heated arguments with people who've never been to the US, but can give lectures on how screwed up family values in the US are.
Where are the cowboys?: Sometimes, America as-seen-in-movies has a bigger reputation than the real thing. A Quora user from Eastern Europe experienced an extreme version of this common surprise: "When we escaped Czechoslovakia in 1981 (which was still communist at the time), I was only 8 and thought that 'America' was still every bit pre-1900's wild-west/Bonanza-like. Maybe it was all I saw on TV? In any case, I was expecting horses tied up to posts in front of the post office or general store. Imagine my surprise!" It's a reminder that even a country as famous as America is just like any other: you don't really know it until you visit.
A Chinese scholar argues that the U.S. shouldn’t touch Taiwan—just like China wouldn’t back separatists in Texas or Hawaii.
Shortly after news broke of Donald Trump’s phone call with the head of Taiwan—the first direct communication between American and Taiwanese leaders in 37 years—one of the leading Chinese scholars of U.S.-China relations offered a stunning proposal: If the U.S. president-elect took similar actions as president, the Chinese government should suspend the world’s most important (and precarious) partnership. “I would close our embassy in Washington and withdraw our diplomats,” said Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. “I would be perfectly happy to end the relationship.”
What made the recommendation especially notable was that, just days earlier, Shen had been arguing that Trump’s victory was good for China—much better than the election of Hillary Clinton would have been. So what was it about the Taiwan call that had so quickly soured Shen on Trump? Where did he now think the U.S.-China relationship was headed, and what might that mean for the wider world?
To many white Trump voters, the problem wasn’t her economic stance, but the larger vision—a multi-ethnic social democracy—that it was a part of.
Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the November election for many liberals is that Hillary Clinton lost because she ignored the working class.
In the days after her shocking loss, Democrats complained that Clinton had no jobs agenda. A widely shared essay in The Nationblamed Clinton's "neoliberalism" for abandoning the voters who swung the election. “I come from the white working class,” Bernie Sanders said on CBS This Morning, “and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”
But here is the troubling reality for civically minded liberals looking to justify their preferred strategies: Hillary Clinton talked about the working class, middle class jobs, and the dignity of work constantly. And she still lost.
Trump's election has reopened questions that have long seemed settled in America—including the acceptability of open discrimination against minority groups.
When Stephen Bannon called his website, Breitbart, the “platform for the alt-right” this summer, he was referring to a movement that promotes white nationalism and argues that the strength of the United States is tied to its ethnic European roots. Its members mostly stick to trolling online, but much of what they do isn’t original or new: Their taunts often involve vicious anti-Semitism. They make it clear that Jews are not included in their vision of a perfect, white, ethno-state.
On the opposite side of American politics, many progressive groups are preparing to mount a rebellion against Donald Trump. They see solidarity among racial minorities as their goal, and largely blame Trump’s election on racism and white supremacy. Three-quarters of American Jews voted against Trump, and many support this progressive vision. Some members of these groups, though, have singled out particular Jews for their collusion with oppressive power—criticisms which range from inflammatory condemnations of Israel to full-on conspiracies about global Jewish media and banking cabals.
The HBO drama’s finale hinted at a dark, meta message.
This post contains spoilers for the season finale of Westworld.
In 2013, a widely cited study published in Science suggested that reading literature increases a person ability to understand other peoples’ emotions. In 2016, another study seemed to debunk it, finding the original study’s results irreplicable and its resulting media coverage way too broad. “Reading Literature Won’t Give You Superpowers,” went The Atlantic’s headline from last week about the reversal.
It might seem laughable in the first place for anyone to think literature bestows superpowers. But that’s actually one of the more abiding beliefs of popular culture, and the question of whether stories improve the soul and mind—and better humanity more broadly—remains eternally in dispute. It’s a question that HBO’s Westworld has riffed on for 10 episodes, with the popular drama’s finale last night suggesting a cynical take on the social value of storytelling.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
SNL parodied the president-elect’s impulsive tweeting last weekend, and he responded by tweeting about it.
Saturday Night Live has been on television for nearly 42 years, and in that time, it has mocked seven presidents, with an eighth, Donald Trump, now firmly in its sights. The show’s satire is essentially part of the political scenery; at best, a president might knowingly reference it as a sign of self-awareness. Chevy Chase, in his portrayal of Gerald Ford, mocked the president as clumsy and accident-prone. President Ford did not respond by publicly demonstrating his grace and poise, obeying the old maxim about not protesting too much.
Playing Trump on last weekend’s show, Alec Baldwin mocked the president-elect’s impulse control in a sketch that saw him retweeting random high-school students during a national security briefing. The real Trump was not pleased. “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live - unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad,” he tweeted at 12:13 a.m., about halfway through the episode. The irony couldn’t have been more plain: In response to a sketch mocking his propensity for impulsive tweeting, the president-elect ... impulsively tweeted about it. Satire in the age of Trump has already been difficult for Saturday Night Live, but it seems increasingly caught in a feedback loop: Any ridiculous heightening of his behavior is doomed to instant irrelevance by Trump’s reaction to it.
The past 12 months have been an eventful time for news stories, from the unpredictable and tumultuous U.S. presidential election, to continued war and terror and refugees fleeing to Europe, to a historic World Series win for the Chicago Cubs, and so much more.
The past 12 months have been an eventful time for news stories, from the unpredictable and tumultuous U.S. presidential election, to continued war and terror in the Middle East and refugees fleeing to Europe, to a historic World Series win for the Chicago Cubs, ongoing protests demanding racial justice in the U.S., the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, and so much more. Today, we present the “Top 25 News Photos of 2016”—and starting tomorrow will be presenting part one of a more comprehensive three-part series, “2016: The Year in Photos.” Warning, some of the photos may contain graphic or objectionable content.
Firefighters have now found 36 bodies inside the artist collective where dozens of people lived together.
Rescue workers say 36 people were killed in Oakland, California, in a fire that torched an artist-collective warehouse known locally as the “Ghost Ship.” It may take weeks to identify everyone killed, because the flames have charred some bodies so badly they’ll have to be identified through dental records. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has also opened a criminal investigation into what caused the fire. So far, it’s thought to have been an accident—the result of too many people in a place with rampant building-code violations. But already some of the artistic community’s frustration seems aimed at both the warehouse’s artistic leader as well as the Bay Area’s unaffordable rent.
The fire started Friday during a late-night rave being held at the warehouse, home to a couple dozen artists. The blaze grew so quickly that flames and smoke trapped many of the people inside, and forced some to leap out of the second-floor windows. Since firefighters extinguished the flames early Saturday morning, rescue workers have methodically removed bits of ash and debris, putting them in dump trucks to be taken to an offsite location, where they can be sorted and checked in case they contain human remains. It is one of the worst U.S. fires in recent memory, bringing to mind the 2003 blaze in West Warwick, Rhode Island, that killed 100 people at a nightclub called the Station.
Confronting racism can be crucial, even when it’s not persuasive.
In the brushfire wars since Donald Trump won the presidency, skirmishes over how to speak to his coalition of voters have consumed liberals. Leading the vanguard in those conversations is a collection of writers and thinkers of otherwise divergent views, united by the painful process of reexamining identity politics, social norms, and—most urgently—how to address racism in an election clearly influenced by it. Though earnest and perhaps necessary, their emphasis on the civil persuasion of denizens of "middle America" effectively coddles white people. It mistakes civility for the only suitable tool of discourse, and persuasion as its only end.
This exploration of how to best win over white Americans to the liberal project is exemplified by reactions to Hillary Clinton’s placing many of Donald Trump’s supporters in a “basket of deplorables.” The debate about whether to classify these voters as racist or bigoted for supporting a candidate who constantly evinced views and policies many believe to be bigoted is still raging. As Dara Lind at Vox expertly notes, Clinton’s comments themselves were inartful precisely because they seemed focused solely on “overt” manifestations of racism, like Klan hoods and slurs. That focus ignores the ways in which white supremacy and patriarchy can function as systems of oppression, tends to forgive the more refined and subtle racism of elites, and may ultimately lead to a definition of racism in which no one is actually racist and yet discrimination remains ubiquitous.
The island once had a seat on the UN Security Council. Now a simple phone call with its leader is international news.
Richard Nixon excelled at stating the obvious. On his historic first trip to China in February of 1972, he visited the Great Wall, marveling at its vast length and age. “I think that you would have to conclude that this is a great wall,” he remarked. But when dealing with a country as complex as China, Nixonian plainspeak was not always a bad thing. In a private conversation in June 1971 with Walter P. McConaughy, the U.S. ambassador to Taiwan, Nixon said that the United States needed to prepare Taiwan’s leaders for the eventual shock that would accompany Washington’s improved ties with Beijing. At the time, Washington had full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but not China; the small island nation was still one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In the eyes of the world, Taiwan’s strongman leader Chiang Kai-Shek was the legitimate ruler of China. But Taiwan, Nixon said, must know that Washington is engaging with Beijing, “not because we love them. But because they’re there.” China, he implied in his circuitous yet blunt way, was just too big to ignore anymore. More importantly, it had been a mistake to ignore China.