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 new survey suggests the logistics of going to services can be the biggest barrier to participation—and Americans’ faith in religious institutions is declining.
The standard narrative of American religious decline goes something like this: A few hundred years ago, European and American intellectuals began doubting the validity of God as an explanatory mechanism for natural life. As science became a more widely accepted method for investigating and understanding the physical world, religion became a less viable way of thinking—not just about medicine and mechanics, but also culture and politics and economics and every other sphere of public life. As the United States became more secular, people slowly began drifting away from faith.
Of course, this tale is not just reductive—it’s arguably inaccurate, in that it seems to capture neither the reasons nor the reality behind contemporary American belief. For one thing, the U.S. is still overwhelmingly religious, despite years of predictions about religion’s demise. A significant number of people who don’t identify with any particular faith group still say they believe in God, and roughly 40 percent pray daily or weekly. While there have been changes in this kind of private belief and practice, the most significant shift has been in the way people publicly practice their faith: Americans, and particularly young Americans, are less likely to attend services or identify with a religious group than they have at any time in recent memory.
Poor white Americans’ current crisis shouldn’t have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has.
Sometime during the past few years, the country started talking differently about white Americans of modest means. Early in the Obama era, the ennobling language of campaign pundits prevailed. There was much discussion of “white working-class voters,” with whom the Democrats, and especially Barack Obama, were having such trouble connecting. Never mind that this overbroad category of Americans—the exit pollsters’ definition was anyone without a four-year college degree, or more than a third of the electorate—obliterated major differences in geography, ethnicity, and culture. The label served to conjure a vast swath of salt-of-the-earth citizens living and working in the wide-open spaces between the coasts—Sarah Palin’s “real America”—who were dubious of the effete, hifalutin types increasingly dominating the party that had once purported to represent the common man. The “white working class” connoted virtue and integrity. A party losing touch with it was a party unmoored.
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
Two decades ago, Osama bin Laden officially launched al-Qaeda’s struggle against the United States. Neither side has won.
Exactly two decades ago, on August 23, 1996, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. At the time, few people paid much attention. But it was the start of what’s now the Twenty Years’ War between the United States and al-Qaeda—a conflict that both sides have ultimately lost.
During the 1980s, bin Laden fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. After the Soviets withdrew, he went home to Saudi Arabia, then moved to Sudan before being expelled and returning to Afghanistan in 1996 to live under Taliban protection. Within a few months of his arrival, he issued a 30-page fatwa, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” which was published in a London-based newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, and faxed to supporters around the world. It was bin Laden’s first public call for a global jihad against the United States. In a rambling text, bin Laden opined on Islamic history, celebrated recent attacks against U.S. forces in Lebanon and Somalia, and recounted a multitude of grievances against the United States, Israel, and their allies. “The people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Jewish-Christian alliance and their collaborators,” he wrote.
The many obstacles trans men and other transmasculine people run into when feeding infants
When Trevor MacDonald started chestfeeding about five years ago, he didn't know anyone who had attempted it, nor had any of his doctors ever encountered someone who had. In fact, he was shocked that his body could even produce milk. As a trans man—someone who was assigned female at birth but has transitioned to identifying as male—he was born with the mammary glands and milk ducts required for lactation, but he'd had his breasts removed. Once he had his baby, his care providers supported his desire to nurse, but it was up to him figure out how.
MacDonald began blogging about chestfeeding from his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and soon discovered a whole community of transmasculine people around the world in the same boat, looking for guidance. For trans men and transmasculine folks, putting a baby to their chest to suckle can lead to complicated feelings about their gender. Many lactation support services are available for “nursing mothers,” which sounds unwelcoming to men and non-binary individuals. And many trans people say doctors don’t understand their bodies or experiences.
Most corporations try to make a profit by limiting costs. Movies corporations manage to record a loss by maximizing fees to their studios
Here is an amazing glimpse into the dark side of the force that is Hollywood economics. The actor who played Darth Vader still has not received residuals from the 1983 film "Return of the Jedi" because the movie, which ranks 15th in U.S. box office history, still has no technical profits to distribute.
How can a movie that grossed $475 million on a $32 million budget not turn a profit? It comes down to Tinseltown accounting. As Planet Money explained in an interview with Edward Jay Epstein in 2010, studios typically set up a separate "corporation" for each movie they produce. Like any company, it calculates profits by subtracting expenses from revenues. Erase any possible profit, the studio charges this "movie corporation" a big fee that overshadows the film's revenue. For accounting purposes, the movie is a
money "loser" and there are no profits to distribute.
We’ve been flying around the country for the last three years, visiting dozens of towns that are reinventing themselves after some kind of big economic or demographic change. I have also, in a way, matched those flights stroke by stroke in America’s public swimming pools. On our first day on the ground in any town, I search for a public pool. I started swimming around the country as a way to maintain some sense of normal in my physical activity after all that flying. And then I came to appreciate it as another window into the culture and spirit of the towns we visited. I wish Ryan Lochte could share some of my experience.
Like much of America—and I’m betting most of the many hundreds of kids I have seen swimming in pools around the nation, too—I was glued to the Olympic swimming events. Katie Ledecky, Maya DiRado, Michael Phelps, truth-teller Lilly King. And then, enter Ryan Lochte.
Polling within the margin of error among African Americans, the Republican tries new outreach—but his approach seems doomed to failure.
Although Donald Trump has long claimed to “have a great relationship with the blacks,” the polls tell a different story, with Trump frequently polling in the single digits among black voters. Over the last few days, the Republican nominee has added a new passage to his stump speech, reaching out to the African American community.
Our government has totally failed our African American friends, our Hispanic friends and the people of our country. Period. The Democrats have failed completely in the inner cities. For those hurting the most who have been failed and failed by their politicians—year after year, failure after failure, worse numbers after worse numbers. Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it's safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats. And I ask you this, I ask you this—crime, all of the problems—to the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I'll straighten it out. I'll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?