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.
Why Nixon's former lawyer John Dean worries Trump could be one of the most corrupt presidents ever—and get away with it
Sometime early last fall, John Dean began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
The president-elect described NATO as “obsolete,” called the EU “basically a vehicle for Germany,” and said other countries would follow the UK's lead and leave the bloc.
President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t been shy about sharing his views about the world, in general, and Europe, in particular. He was criticized during the presidential campaign for questioning the value of NATO, praising the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU, and linking terrorist attacks to the million or so asylum-seekers who have arrived in Europe since 2015. Trump’s supporters and political analysts attributed those comments to campaign-season rhetoric, and said he would pivot on these and other issues before the general election. But with less than a week before the inauguration at which he’ll be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Trump gave a joint interview to The Times (of London) and Bild, the mass-circulation German tabloid, during which he described NATO as “obsolete,” called the EU “basically a vehicle for Germany,” and said other countries would follow the U.K.’s lead and leave the bloc.
Is there room in the movement for people who morally object to abortion?
Updated on Monday, January 16 at 4:05 p.m.
Pro-life women are headed to D.C. Yes, they’ll turn out for the annual March for Life, which is coming up on January 27. But one week earlier, as many as a few hundred pro-lifers are planning to attend the Women’s March on Washington, which has been billed as feminist counterprogramming to the inauguration.
With organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America co-sponsoring the event, pro-life marchers have found themselves in a somewhat awkward position. What’s their place at an event that claims to speak for all women, but has aligned itself with pro-choice groups? With roughly a week to go before the march, organizers also released a set of “unity principles,” and one of them is “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people.”
King's famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," published in The Atlantic as "The Negro Is Your Brother" and excerpted below, was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. It stands as one of the classic documents of the civil-rights movement.
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of "outsiders coming in"
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Why some people are withdrawing from mainstream society into “intentional communities”—and what the rest of the country can learn from them
VIRGINIA— For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Billy Barr moved to the Rocky Mountains four decades ago, got bored one winter, and decided to keep a notebook that has become the stuff of legend.
It was a year into his life alone in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains when Billy Barr began his recordings. It started as a curiosity, a task to busy his mind during the winter. By no means, Barr told me, having skied down from his cabin to use the nearest phone, did he set out to make a vital database for climate change scientists. “Hell no!” he said. “I didn’t know anything about climate change at the time.”
In 1973 Barr had dropped out of college and made his home an abandoned mining shack at the base of Gothic Mountain, a 12,600-foot stone buttress. The cold winds blew through the shack’s wood slat walls as if they didn’t exist; he shared the bare dirt floor with a skunk and pine marten, his only regular company for much of the year. Barr had moved from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains precisely because of the solitude, but he couldn’t escape boredom. Especially that first winter. So he measured snow levels, animal tracks, and in spring the first jubilant calls of birds returning. He filled a notebook with these observations; then another notebook. This has continued now for 44 years.
Here is one matter, at least, in which the Swiss refuse to be neutral.
Nancy Holten, 42, was born in the Netherlands. At the age of 8, however, she moved with her family to Switzerland, which Holten has called home for the past 34 years. Holten currently resides, with her three daughters, in the small village of Gipf-Oberfrick, in the far north of the country, within the canton of Aargau. She speaks fluent Swiss-German. Her daughters are Swiss citizens. She has been a member of the parents’ committee of their school.
And yet Holten was recently rejected for a Swiss passport—which is also to say, effectively, for naturalized Swiss citizenship. For the second time.
The reason? In Switzerland, applications for naturalization are decided not at the federal level, but rather by the country’s cantons and municipalities—and the applicants’ peers have a say in whether naturalization gets granted. And, unfortunately for Nancy Holten, her peers are not inclined to give her the “gift” of a passport. Because, despite all the ways she is Swiss, Holten—a vegan who is extremely vocal about that life choice—has also stridently opposed one of the most beloved cultural traditions of Gipf-Oberfrick, and of Aargau, and of Switzerland itself: the practice of putting large bells around the necks of cows, for reasons both practical and ceremonial. Insert your preferred “more cowbell” joke here.
A new study shows that the disproportionate imprisonment rates faced by people of color contribute to race-based inequalities in educational attainment.
In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the closing remarks at the March on Washington. More than 200,000 people gathered to cast a national spotlight on and mobilize resistance to Jim Crow, racist laws and policies that disenfranchised black Americans and mandated segregated housing, schools, and employment. Today, more than 50 years later, remnants of Jim Crow segregation persist in the form of mass incarceration—the imprisonment of millions of Americans, overwhelmingly and disproportionately black adults, in local, state, and federal prisons.
The U.S. incarceration rate is more than five times higher than that in most of the world’s nations, despite a crime rate that’s comparable to other politically stable, industrialized countries. And among the swelling number of incarcerated men and women is a vast number of parents. In 2015, The Atlantic’s Alia Wong highlighted a study from Child Trends that found that one in nine black children has had a parent in jail or prison, about twice as high as that for white children. For black adolescents ages 12 through 17, it’s nearly one in seven. Predictably, this has implications for America’s classrooms.