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.
Some of Charles Schulz’s fans blame the cartoon dog for ruining Peanuts. Here’s why they’re wrong.
It really was a dark and stormy night. On February 12, 2000, Charles Schulz—who had single-handedly drawn some 18,000 Peanuts comic strips, who refused to use assistants to ink or letter his comics, who vowed that after he quit, no new Peanuts strips would be made—died, taking to the grave, it seemed, any further adventures of the gang.
Hours later, his last Sunday strip came out with a farewell: “Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy … How can I ever forget them.” By then, Peanuts was carried by more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and read by some 300 million people. It had been going for five decades. Robert Thompson, a scholar of popular culture, called it “arguably the longest story told by a single artist in human history.”
In a new book, the former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross explores just how close Israel came to attacking Iran, and why Susan Rice accused Benjamin Netanyahu of throwing “everything but the n-word” at Barack Obama.
Updated on October 9, 2015 at 12:40 p.m.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington early next month for a meeting with President Obama, he should at least know that he is more popular in the White House than Vladimir Putin. But not by much.
This meeting will not reset the relationship between the two men in any significant way, and not only because Netanyahu has decided to troll Obama by accepting the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute on this same short trip. The meeting between the two leaders will most likely be businesslike and correct, but the gap between the two is essentially unbridgeable. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the hopelessly naive Obama broke a solemn promise to never allow Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. From Obama’s perspective, Netanyahu violated crucial norms of U.S.-Israel relations by publicly and bitterly criticizing an Iran deal that—from Obama’s perspective—protects Israel, and then by taking the nearly unprecedented step of organizing a partisan (and, by the way, losing and self-destructive) lobbying campaign against the deal on Capitol Hill.
Kids who are adopted have richer, more involved parents. They also have more behavior and attention problems. Why?
Being adopted can be one of the best things to happen to a kid. People who adopt tend to be wealthier than other parents, both because of self-selection and because of the adoption screening process. Adoptive parents tend to be better-educated and put more effort into raising their kids, as measured by things like eating family meals together, providing the child with books, and getting involved in their schools.
And yet, as rated by their teachers and tests, adopted children tend to have worse behavioral and academic outcomes in kindergarten and first grade than birth children do, according to a new research brief from the Institute for Family Studies written by psychologist Nicholas Zill.
The leaderless GOP begins its search for a speaker anew, starting with a campaign to draft Paul Ryan.
First Eric Cantor. Then John Boehner. Now Kevin McCarthy.
Conservatives in and out of Congress have, within a span of 15 months, tossed aside three of the four men most instrumental in the 2010 victory that gave Republicans their majority in the House. When the leaderless and divided party gathers on Friday to begin anew its search for a speaker, the biggest question will be whether that fourth man, Paul Ryan, will take a job that for the moment, only he can win.
Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee and chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, has for years resisted entreaties to run for speaker, citing the demands of the job on his young family and his desire to run the tax-writing panel, which he has called his “dream job.” And he did so again on Thursday, within minutes of McCarthy’s abrupt decision to abandon a race he had been favored to win. “I will not be a candidate for speaker,” Ryan tweeted. Yet the pressure kept coming. Lawmakers brought up his name throughout the day, and there were reports that Boehner himself had personally implored him to change his mind.
A new report details a black market in nuclear materials.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a horrifying report about criminal networks in the former Soviet Union trying to sell “radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” At the center of these cases, of which the AP learned of four in the past five years, was a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in a “tiny and impoverished Eastern European country”: Moldova.
It’s a new iteration of an old problem with a familiar geography. The breakup of the Soviet Union left a superpower’s worth of nuclear weapons scattered across several countries without a superpower’s capacity to keep track of them. When Harvard’s Graham Allison flagged this problem in 1996, he wrote that the collapse of Russia’s “command-and-control society” left nothing secure. To wit:
What’s the balance between preparing students for college and ensuring they aren’t killing themselves in the process?
Kids who go to elite private high schools enjoy lots of advantages. They have access to the most challenging academic classes at reputable institutions, with staffs that are well-equipped to help them prepare for college. Parents pay an average of $10,000 per year to ensure their kids this privilege.
And yet the rigor that these opportunities demand can come with an extra cost for the students themselves. A recent study surveyed and interviewed students at a handful of these high schools and found that about half of them are chronically stressed. The results aren’t surprising—between the homework required for Advanced Placement classes, sports practices, extracurricular activities like music and student government, and SAT prep, the fortunate kids who have access to these opportunities don’t have much downtime these days. These experiences can cause kids to burn out by the time they get to college, or to feel the psychological and physical effects of stress for much of their adult lives, says Marya Gwadz, a senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing.
A new tally of the those killed last month makes it the deadliest-ever disaster at the annual pilgrimage.
The death toll in last month’s Hajj stampede in Saudi Arabia is roughly double the number that the country first reported, the Associated Press is reporting.
The Saudi estimate of the disaster was 769, but the new estimate, based on an AP count, suggests that 1,453 people died in the stampede. This new number would make it the deadliest catastrophe in the history of the event.
The Hajj draws roughly 2 million pilgrims to Mecca each year, an observance that lends its host, Saudi Arabia, unrivaled prestige across the Muslim world. It also saddles the kingdom with billions of dollars of costs and logistical considerations. Over the course of the past 40 years, several of the pilgrimages have been marred by deaths caused from stampedes, the collapse of infrastructure, violence, and fires.
American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they've failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family” tragically helped create this system, it's time to reclaim his original intent.
By his own lights, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ambassador, senator, sociologist, and itinerant American intellectual, was the product of a broken home and a pathological family. He was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but raised mostly in New York City. When Moynihan was 10 years old, his father, John, left the family, plunging it into poverty. Moynihan’s mother, Margaret, remarried, had another child, divorced, moved to Indiana to stay with relatives, then returned to New York, where she worked as a nurse. Moynihan’s childhood—a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood—contrasted starkly with the idyllic American family life he would later extol.
A runaway streetcar is hurtling towards five unsuspecting workers. Do you pull a switch to divert the trolley onto another track, where only one man works alone? Or do you do nothing?
This haunting choice is a variation of the “trolley problem,” an iconic philosophical thought experiment. (If you’ve never heard of it before, try this.) Puzzling, ridiculous, and oddly irresistible, this imaginary scenario has profoundly shaped our understanding of right and wrong. In the past 40 years it has occupied the attention of brilliant minds, from academic ethicists to moral psychologists to engineers. It has helped them try to answer profound questions—how do we act, and how should we? But in its fifth decade, is the trolley problem starting to show its age?
What insight can the new video game Prison Architect offer into the structures and complexities of incarceration in America?
The first person to die in an electric chair was William Kemmler, a peddler from Philadelphia who murdered his common-law wife in the summer of 1890. 1000 volts of electricity, tested the day before on a luckless horse, knocked Kemmler unconscious, but didn’t stop his heart. In a panic, the warden doubled the voltage. 2000 volts of alternating current ruptured Kemmler’s capillaries, forming subcutaneous pools of blood that began to burst as his skin was torn apart. Witnesses reported being overcome by the smell of molten flesh and charred body hair; those who tried to leave found that the doors were locked. The next morning, The New York Times called the execution a “disgrace to civilization … so terrible that words cannot begin to describe it.” The irony, lost on no one, was that until that morning, electrocution had been promoted as a more humane form of capital punishment.