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 anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system
Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.
Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.
“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”
Still, the meticulous skeptic espoused more of a tennis approach to dealing with stressful situations: Just teach yourself to move on. Of course there is evidence that ties practicing yoga to good health, but not the sort that convinced Strick. Studies show correlations between the two, but he needed a physiological mechanism to explain the relationship. Vague conjecture that yoga “decreases stress” wasn’t sufficient. How? Simply by distracting the mind?
Donald Trump’s campaign manager wants to destroy the left. And the GOP nominee is just the most recent vessel of convenience in his consequences-be-damned crusade.
Stephen Bannon, who recently took over as Donald Trump’s campaign manager, once gave an interview, while promoting his 2010 film, “Fire From the Heartland: the Awakening of the Conservative Woman,” where he argued that Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Ann Coulter pose an existential threat to the left.
“These women cut to the heart of the progressive narrative,” he explained. “That's one of the unintended consequences of the women's liberation movement––that, in fact, the women that would lead this country would be feminine, they would be pro-family, they would have husbands, they would love their children. They wouldn't be a bunch of dykes that came from the 7 Sisters schools."
The quote captures a key attribute of the former U.S. Navy officer, whose stints at Georgetown University, Harvard Business School, and Goldman Sachs afforded a foothold at the core of America’s elite, enabling him to launch a film career that began with a Sean Penn collaboration before segueing into polemic right-wing documentaries.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The health benefits are clear. The political benefits are newly relevant.
Next time you enter an elevator, walk in and keep facing the back wall. If you stay that way, in my experience, people will laugh or ask if you’re okay. (That’s an opportunity, if you want, to say you would love for someone to define “okay.”)
Standing this way breaks unstated rules of how we’re supposed to behave in elevators. Detaching from expectations gives people an excuse to talk, to acknowledge one another’s humanity. Absent a break in the order, the expectation is silence.
(Of course, you can make a quick joke—my favorite is, if the elevator is stopping frequently, “What is this, the local train?”—and expect a modicum of laughter. But even if the joke goes over well, the rule seems to be that you can’t say it more than once in the same ride.)
City dwellers spend nearly every moment of every day awash in Wi-Fi signals. Homes, streets, businesses, and office buildings are constantly blasting wireless signals every which way for the benefit of nearby phones, tablets, laptops, wearables, and other connected paraphernalia.
When those devices connect to a router, they send requests for information—a weather forecast, the latest sports scores, a news article—and, in turn, receive that data, all over the air. As it communicates with the devices, the router is also gathering information about how its signals are traveling through the air, and whether they’re being disrupted by obstacles or interference. With that data, the router can make small adjustments to communicate more reliably with the devices it’s connected to.
If Hillary Clinton beats Donald Trump, her party will have set a record in American politics.
If Donald Trump can’t erase Hillary Clinton’s lead in the presidential race, the Republican Party will cross an ominous milestone—and confront some agonizing choices. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections since 1992. (In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College and the White House to George W. Bush.) If Clinton maintains her consistent advantage in national and swing-state polls through Election Day, that means Democrats will have won the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential campaigns.
Since the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson that historians consider the birth of the modern two-party system, no party has ever won the presidential popular vote six times over seven elections. Even the nation’s most successful political figures have fallen short of that standard.
Early this month, a group of 50 national-security officials who had served in Republican administrations—Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II—released a statement opposing Donald Trump and saying that he would be “the most reckless President in American history.”
A few days before that, a former head of the CIA formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, saying that Trump had become “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” That was a day after President Obama declared Trump “unfit” for the presidency, and a former prime minister of Sweden said Trump was “a serious threat to the security of the West.”
Today Ben Leubsdorf, Eric Morath, and Josh Zumbrun of the WSJ published the results of a survey of all living former members of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, with service dating back to the time of Richard Nixon. Not one of them expressed support for Donald Trump. All of the Republicans who expressed a preference opposed him.
Apple just released a patch that fixes three giant vulnerabilities in iOS.
The software update that Apple just released for every iPhone and iPad doesn’t activate any new features—but it does patch three enormous security holes that would allow a savvy hacker to access just about every corner of an iOS device.
If exploited correctly, those flaws allow an intruder unprecedented access to an iPhone. They allow attackers to read every email, text message, calendar item, and file saved on the device; peruse photos and videos; listen in on phone calls; track the device’s location; and remotely turn on its microphone and camera. The phone’s owner would have no idea that anything out of the ordinary was going on.
The vulnerability was discovered by security researchers at Lookout, a mobile software security company, and Citizen Lab, a technology-focused academic research center at the University of Toronto. The researchers there were tipped off by a human-rights activist in the United Arab Emirates, who forwarded a pair of suspicious-looking text messages he received earlier this month from an unknown number. When they examined the link included in the text, they found that it led to a site designed to infect phones with a very advanced virus. The discovery was first reported by Motherboard and The New York Times.
His efforts to champion progressive grassroots activism have been troubled so far.
Bernie Sanders wants to prove his political movement won’t end now that his presidential campaign is over—and so far, it’s not going very well. An organization set up to carry on his legacy, Our Revolution, has faced legal scrutiny in the press, and a number of key staffers have departed. Meanwhile, Tim Canova, the candidate Sanders endorsed as a challenger to former Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, may be defeated badly in Florida’s upcoming Democratic primary race. Instead of unity and progressive victory, the next phase of the political revolution may be marked by bitterness and disappointment.
Canova certainly seems to feel like reality hasn’t lived up to his expectations. “There are a lot of people who feel disappointed,” he told me in an interview on Wednesday, lamenting that Sanders has not campaigned with him ahead of next week’s primary, despite publiclyflirting with the idea. “There are a lot of people in South Florida who wanted Bernie Sanders to come down.”
The global education pioneer eases students into the classroom.
Heading into my first year of teaching in Helsinki I felt pretty nervous. One of my graduate-school professors—a former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year—had warned me that Finnish students were academically advanced, especially in math. Indeed, Finland’s students had excelled on international standardized tests like the PISA for more than a decade. But it wasn’t just those high-performing Finnish students that intimidated me. Their teachers did, too.
If I had chosen to pursue master’s-level training as an elementary-school teacher in Finland (instead of the United States), I would have applied to the small handful of teacher-training universities, where annual acceptance rates hover around 10 percent. These programs are so selective, claimed The Atlantic journalist Amanda Ripley in her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, they’re “on the order of MIT.” Furthermore, Finland’s classroom teacher-training programs require five years of coursework, practicum, and thesis writing. The Finnish version made my two-year master’s degree in elementary education, through a non-selective college in the Boston area, look quite humble.