James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Walk like an American

  • Walk Like an American: The Finale (Part 2)

    Last week I posted an assortment of reports on the "Walk Like an American" question -- whether you could tell peoples' nationality by their clothes, stride,  head shape, etc. It all started with the "Chinese Professor" ad. After the jump, another big assortment. As before, if you're not interested in this theme, read no further! But if you're interested in various Chinese, South American, Indian, etc angles, you'll find more there.


    To kick it off, a suggestion from a Yank that maybe people are just being polite:

    >>I've been following the Walk Like an American series with some interest, but there's one aspect I don't think has been brought up enough. Given Americans', ahem, reputation, it might be common that when not exactly sure where someone is from, tell them you thought they were from somewhere else. Americans won't mind, but other nationalities might be offended to be mistaken for us. I've had a friend tell me that when I think an accent is Argentinean, ask them if they are from Uruguay because an Argentinean will think this is amusing and well intentioned while a Uruguayan wouldn't be as happy about being mistaken from an Argentinean.

    Now, in my experience people wouldn't really care that much either way, but I can see the logic about going out of your way to avoid assuming someone is an "undesirable" nationality.<<

    More below.

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  • Walk Like an American: The Finale (Part 1)

    How do I pick out the Dutch people? And the Koreans? And the Hassidim?

    Thanks to many readers from around the world who wrote in with accounts stimulated ages ago by the "Chinese Professor" ad, with ensuing discussion about whether you could tell someone's nationality from haircut, dress, stride.

    After the jump, a whole slew of messages from people with varying experiences on this score. I don't need any more! There are about this many more still left in the queue. But to me there are some interesting recurring themes, plus some odd eccentric experiences. If you're not interested, read no further. But if you are interested, there's a lot on the other side.

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  • Walk Like an Asian-American

    Head shape and other cues to national identity

    Previously here, with related links. Today several messages on the topic that got this all started: the physical, behavioral, and other traits that may distinguish many Asians from many Asian-Americans.

    First, on the "head shape" cue:

    >>I'm Taiwanese-American; I was born and raised here and my parents came from Taiwan as adults.

    I visited China for the first time last summer, and I traveled around for about three weeks. In the major cities, I think that people could tell that I was different, if they paid attention, but not the exact way in which I'm different. I was told, though, by a Chinese friend of a friend who I met for the first time in Shanghai, that she would not be able to tell that I was American just by looking at me. I think the reason for this is a matter of background probabilities.

    In any major American city, if you see an Chinese-looking person, there's a pretty good chance of both possibilities -- that the person is from Asia or from the US -- so it makes sense to use little cues to push your decision one way or the other. In a place like Shanghai or Beijing, though, if you see a Chinese-looking person, the probability might be more like 99.9% from China to 0.1% from US. So if you're in Shanghai and see someone who has some western cues, which is more likely -- that the person is from China but is relatively wealthy and dresses in a western way, or that the person is from the US?...

    There's another useful factor for identifying Chinese-born and American-born that I rarely see discussed. Ethnically Chinese people raised in the west tend to have a different head shape than those raised in China. Seriously. If you look at the profile of a Chinese-Chinese person, the back of the head tends to be flatter. In some cases, the back of the head is a straight line up from the neck. This is especially apparent in older men with short hair. I'm pretty sure this happens because infants in China are traditionally raised sleeping on their backs on firm surfaces, whereas in the west, it's much more common to use soft surfaces, and (until relatively recently) to let them sleep on their sides. It's possible that head- flattening is less common in younger Chinese people, as softer bedding materials become more common.

    Flat heads have become more of an issue here in the US since the increasing awareness of SIDS led experts to recommend putting infants on their backs to sleep. If you Google "flat head SIDS", you'll find plenty of information about it.<<

    Let me just say: I agree with this observation. I have borne it in mind since a day in August, 2006, when I realized that I could for some reason pick out -- from behind -- a Chinese-American friend I was going to meet, amid a crowd of thousands of Chinese people on Nanjing Dong Lu in Shanghai. Like any trait, I'm sure it's not universal, but I suggest it as a hypothesis to test when you are in China. After the jump, some more.

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  • Walk Like an American: The Most Frightening Tale of All

    Every American's nightmare

    A reader in Michigan reports:

    >>I am a white American and have lived here for almost my entire life. I have never lived in the New York area. But whenever I visit Manhattan, I am very frequently mistaken for being French. I am not of French background, and I've never lived in France. The phenomenon is consistent, limited strictly to Manhattan, and totally baffling to me.

    My best guess is that I must have some sort of inadvertent French tell, and that Manhattan is the only place in the US with a large-ish enough concentration of French-born people for anyone to recognize it. I don't really mind - I've visited France and I like it. But what's the tell? When did I pick it up? What fateful day in junior high gym class did my shoulders lift with a slight but unmistakable Gallic shrug?<<

    After the jump, two other Americans in a similar bind.

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  • Behind the Scenes: Making the 'Chinese Professor' Ad

    "But what's stupid. We're the Americans!"

    To review: last month I marveled at the slickness of the "Chinese Professor" ad and said, as I still believe, that it's the commercial most likely to be remembered from the 2010 campaign. Much back- and-forth ensued, and is still ahead, on the general topic of matching people's nationality to their looks, during which I idly wondered how the Asian-American and visiting-Asian students who served as extras in the ad (which was produced in the greater DC area) felt about the Chinese-menace message it conveyed.

    Thumbnail image for StudentSmile.png

    Now we know! Here's more of the back story, via a source I trust, from someone involved in making the ad. For understandable reasons, this person does not want to be identified by name. Emphasis added.

    >>First off, everyone involved was in it for the check. From the grips, to the director, to the extras, it was all about doing the job, not about "the message." The only time the crew wasn't acting like a bunch of guys around the water cooler was during the lunch break when someone from CAGW [Citizens Against Government Waste, the sponsor] was here to "see how things were going."

    The extras were recruited from a Craiglist posting, mostly, and a few fliers around the campus for "young people age 19-27, able to appear Chinese." About 50 showed up and they were given some info as to what to wear, but otherwise, they were just extras in a commercial. One commented that she was Laotian, but even Chinese people didn't believe her. Another said he was half Chinese, half Vietnamese. All in all, they didn't give a crap about what the purpose of the commercial was, they were happy to be hanging out, getting paid, and getting fed.

    Towards the end of the day, when "The Professor" was on set, and some discussion of what exactly was being said happened, one of the kids piped up with, "But that's stupid, because *we're* Americans now." After the extras were dismissed for the day, they started having a conversation about being Asian in America, and bringing their parents' standards to American business. Of course, that was as they were walking out the door, so I'm not sure where that discussion went....

    It seems someone has identified our facility, and asked the Powers That Be at the college questions about the commercial, which has caused them to ask the Campus Director to freak out a bit about us "allowing" them to film this here. They cut us a $15K check for the privilege, just like any other client. But the school has a bug up its butt, so you didn't hear any of this from me...<<
  • Walk Like an American: the Israeli/Indian Connection

    Funny, you don't look Syrian...

    Previously here, with subsequent links. Now, a range of experiences.

    >>I'm an Indian-American who just got back from an extended stay in Israel. During my first few days there, I was struck by the fact that everyone who struck up a conversation with me spoke Hebrew, despite the fact that I hadn't seen a single Israeli who looked like me. "This must be how they help immigrants assimilate," I thought. But that theory quickly developed holes: Chabadniks on the street asked me to lay tefillin, canvassers with clipboards asked me if I'd heard of some politician, and when I asked various people told me straight out that they thought I was Israeli. Of course, after a few sentences my accent and grammatical mistakes outed me as a non-native and they'd ask me where I was from -- but even then, nobody guessed "American." (Latin America was the most popular hypothesis.)

    Taking a walk one night in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, I was stopped by a guard and had the following interesting conversation:

    Guard: Mi eifo ata? (Where are you from?)
    Me: meArtzot haBrit. (The U.S.)
    Guard (quizzically): Artzot haBrit?
    Me: Ken, hahorim sheli higru lesham miHodu. (Yeah, my parents immigrated there from India.)
    Guard: Ah, Hodu. Ata yehudi? (Ah, India. Are you Jewish?)
    Me: Lo. (No.)
    Guard (in English): Are you Jewish?
    Me: Lo, ani lo dati bikhlal. (No, I'm not at all religious.)
    Guard: Ah, ata lo ma'amin. (Ah, you don't believe.)

    Implying, I think, that he thought I was a secular Jewish person.

    When I asked people about this, they usually pointed out the fact that there are Indian Jews in Israel. Well, yes, but not that many -- and I don't look like a lot of them, either. My working hypothesis right now is that despite the relatively small size of the Indian Jewish population in Israel, it's still large in comparison to the number of Indian or Indian-American tourists. But I'd love to find a more plausible reason. (Maybe it was just my Shoresh sandals.)

    Interestingly, the Palestinian shopkeepers in the Old City and East Jerusalem all guessed that I was Indian.<<

    Also involving Israel:

    >>I lived and traveled around Israel and some of its neighbors for about a year in 2008-2009. Though I am Jewish, I have a very strong German background (about half my family) - I am blond and fair-skinned, with small features. My other half is the more typical "Ashkenazi" mix of Russian/Polish/Latvian ancestry. In Israel I stuck out a bit, as you can imagine.

    Whenever I found myself in a crowded public space, such as a market or the crowded passageways in the Old City, old Russian women - not just any Russians, but specifically old Russian women - would constantly approach me and begin speaking in Russian. I would always politely apologize in Hebrew and English and try to explain that I spoke no Russian, but they rarely spoke any other languages themselves.

    I'm not aware of carrying myself "like" a Russian, if such a thing can be said to happen. And clearly these women were keying in on something that was not apparent to native-born Israelis, or other immigrants. (Everyone else identified me as American immediately, including the Palestinians I met in Ramallah, who were highly amused to learn that I had voted for Barack Obama despite my skin color.)

    Anyway, fast forward a year. I now live in DC, in Columbia Heights. But once in awhile I'll find myself on the Metro in Dupont Circle, which has by my rough guess the densest Jewish population. Whenever I'm there, I scan the crowd in my train car and on the platform, and I can always - I mean always - spot the Israelis. They don't have to say anything, or wear any clothing or accessories that identify them as Jews, and they can be of any racial background. I always know.

    This new sixth sense I've somehow acquired has really amused me, not least because I've always thought of Israeli "national character" as distinguishing itself far more on Israeli conceptions of privacy, politeness, and public discourse - not body language or ways of carrying oneself. Your series has confirmed my feeling that this kind of national identification probably does exist, but it's still not clear to me how it can give us such sure impressions - right or wrong - so quickly.<<

    After the jump, more from the Middle East, and Australia.

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  • Walk Like an American: the German Question

    Germany: the inclusive nation?

    Today's installment (previously here, with backward links), with thanks for the interesting accounts that continue to come in and that I'll catch up with and digest. Much discussion so far about the Asian angle. So for variety, let's look at ... Europe. A reader writes:

    >>I grew up in the SF Bay Area and have lived in Asia (Japan) and I agree with you that it is easy to tell Asian-Americans from Asians (and the latter from one another) by looks alone.   I think it is true of African-Americans and Africans as well.  As you've mentioned, posture, eye-contact, how people move and physically relate to the world around them, all signal their national origins in overt and subliminal ways. 

    Interestingly, though, in my experience this is less true of Europe.  I lived in Paris for a year, and people were always surprised that I was American.  (Funny how often they thought that was a compliment.)  My French wasn't good enough to be taken as a native, but they just couldn't figure out where I was from.  Scandinavian?  Northern Italian?  (Yes, I'm blond.)  A friend of mine had a similar experience in Germany.  Though not a native speaker, she spoke the language fluently, and she was almost always mistaken for German.   

    So I wonder if this is more a West / East thing ... or developed / developing world?<<


    >>Swimming against the tide slightly, I traveled for some months all over South America in the late 1970's.  I was easily spotted (being over 2 meters, metric being their frame of reference of course) will get you noticed in, say, a Peruvian village or even Cartagena.

    Fellow gringo tourists generally picked me as American, but locals all across the Andes almost always thought I was German.  For context, there were approximately equal Germans and Americans traveling the region at the time, something to do with the Dm being particularly strong and SA having become a favorite spot for German tourists..  

    From what I could tell, it was mostly the height; I have light brown hair, blue eyes, typical Scots Irish / English from what I can tell.  Not dark skinned, to be sure, but not stereotypical (at least from our limited stateside view) Nordic.   My Spanish was decent (better than average tourist, to be sure), my pre-trip lessons having come from a Cuban friend and the rest (including accent) picked up along the way.<<


    >>I'm an American who is about equal parts of German and English descent. I've traveled in both countries a fair number of times over the years. On a few occasions I've had Germans speak to me in German and had to tell them that I'm an American. I've never been mistaken for a Brit in England. So there must be something about how I look that reads "German". Maybe I wasn't walking ;0).

    Also, I've been to Mongolia five times now. I know a little Mongolian. It seems that about once per trip, I'll say "Sorry" or some such to someone in Mongolian, only to have them say to me in English "I'm Korean." A trifecta of a sort, I guess. I can tell the difference between Mongolians and Chinese or Japanese, but obviously there are enough similarities with Koreans that I've been fooled. Mongolian royals (the descendants of Chinggis Khan) and nobles apparently lived in Korea and intermarried with Koreans some centuries ago. So maybe that's why I've made that mistake. I suspect the Mongols and Koreans don't.<<

    FWIW, these reports accord exactly with my experience -- well, except for the Mongolia part. "Racially" I am from the British Isles, but I've always gotten body-language cues that people there knew I was a Yank. Yet without exception, every time I've been to Germany the waiter in the restaurant or the teller in the store or the passerby on the street has spit out something to the effect of, Also, was würden Sie für das Abendessen wie? or Können Sie mir sagen, was der kürzeste Weg zur Potsdamer Platz?, which I cannot understand and have not the slightest idea of how to respond to. When I wave, kein Deutsch, they generally switch seamlessly to English but after a momentary register of surprise.

    What is it about modern Germany or the assumed German look that makes so many people there think that (white) outsiders actually are local? I dunno. But I'm relieved to hear that it's not just me.

  • Walk Like an American

    If you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, should you judge a person by his or her walk?


    Lots and lots of accounts piling up about the countless small cues that signal a person's nationality before he or she has uttered a word or shown a passport. (Previously here, with backward links included.) Here is another batch, starting with this, from a visitor to France:

    >>My wife and I were flying home from Nice. My wife stayed in the rental car with the luggage while I went into the little hut to check in.  There was just one young woman behind the counter.  She was filling out the papers for a man who was checking out a car.  They were speaking French.  I stood back so as not to appear to be listening.  As they finished, she handed him the keys and said, "Bonjour" as he headed out the door.

    Then, she turned to me and said, "Good morning!"<<

    Many accounts involving walking style, for instance:

    >>When I was opening new Peace Corps (PC) programs in the countries of the former Soviet Union (Hungary, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, + + + etc.) in the early '90's, I was often told that even though the PC Volunteers physically looked like the residents of the countries in which they were serving (versus white Volunteers serving in Africa or Asia), you could always tell which people on the streets or in the shops were the (American) PC Volunteers: they walked with their head up, shoulders back and didn't try to avoid looking people in the eye - as opposed to the locals who looked at the ground and walked with their shoulders hunched over as if trying not to be noticed. I've related this to many people over the years. It's nice to have it independently corroborated.<<


    >>This discussion reminds me of something I heard on NPR a few years ago, maybe on This American Life. An African-American woman who has lived in France for 15 years or so and speaks fluent French was surprised when a French acquaintance said something like, "Oh, you Americans." The woman telling the story hadn't told the French woman she was American.

    "How can you tell?"

    "You kick out your feet when you walk."<<


    >>I second your correspondent who says Americans carry themselves differently than others. 

    When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I became friends with a Beligian woman who became impatient with the, what she considered, sloppy way American men carried themselves.  She set about teaching my then-boyfriend to "walk like a European".  She said that Americans have a lot of space, and they use it.  They move freely, swing their arms, and generally take up space. 

    She had Bob stand up straight, hold his arms by his sides, keep his shoulders square, take smaller steps.  The results were eerie - he suddenly seemed like one of the French guys in the dorm.  I liked the effect, but he wasn't having any, and went back to being a free-ranging American.<<

    After the jump, another on American walking style, with the combined testimony of Stanley Crouch and Carl Jung.

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  • Field Guide to Identifying Americans

    How can you identify an American on sight? It's not just that so many of us are overweight.

    For those joining late, previous discussion here, here, and here. The question is whether it can be "racist" to note that there are quick visual cues to people's nationality, even when the people involved are from the same racial group. I originally said that that I didn't think the famous "Chinese Professor" ad had been filmed in China, because the students in the auditorium, while ethnically Asian, somehow looked different from those I'd seen in real Chinese lecture halls. And as it later turned out, the ad had been filmed in Northern Virginia, with students from the DC area. But what about the seemliness of saying, "They don't look Chinese to me?"

    Three reader responses on what's involved in categorizing people by look -- and about the surprising ease of spotting Americans. First:

    >>I'm a Chinese-American, currently living in Hong Kong, and I can tell you that even barring certain physical characteristics, there is something distinctly different that seems to set me apart from the locals here, which was also true when I was living in mainland China. I've gotten my hair cut at a local barber, bought clothes at shops other locals visit, even worn the thick, black-rimmed glasses that are often seen worn in Asia. None of it seems to matter. I've been told several times (by both native Hong Kong friends and strangers) that I, and others of a similar background, just look and act different.

    It's true that I can blend in. People will speak Chinese to me on first contact, but I can tell this is just because people will generally use Chinese first to anyone who physically looks remotely Asian. But it doesn't take long for them to know I was born overseas.

    The reverse is also true. As your other reader also pointed out, I can roam the streets here and quite accurately pick out other Chinese-Americans. And when I saw that picture you took from the Chinese Professor ad, I instinctively knew the students were American-born. I've now seen the whole video, and even though I have the knowledge that they're Asian-Americans, I would have been really shocked if it turned out that they were otherwise.<<

    Another reader to similar effect:

    >>Yes, I've had experiences that indicate that Americans are somewhat distinctive by simple appearance and bearing.

    - In Sao Paulo, as I was getting off an airplane to meet someone from the local office, I looked across a fairly large crowd and spotted her immediately. She wasn't waving or looked much different in terms of skin color or hair or dress, but somehow stood out.

    - In Moscow, we were going to a meeting and met an interpreter on the street beforehand. She said that she spotted us a block away, again not because of physiotype or dress, but just by the way we held ourselves and moved.<<

    And from an Indian-American reader:

    >>You could in fact expand your observation beyond Chinese/Chinese-Americans. Of course, Americans of any descent are easy to pick out based on visual cues, in my opinion. 

    Whenever I traveled to India as kid (the country of my parents), i would not even have to open my mouth before folks knew I was American. Its not just dress. But I'd argue most of it is how you carry yourself. Frankly it's confidence--upright posture, and a confident walk. Additionally, Americans are one of the only people in the world who look strangers in the eye when passing them in the streets (perhaps that is also part of the confidence thing). That's the other dead giveaway.  (i say this mind you never having been to China but assuming Chinese there don't look people in the eye).

    I recall a few years ago I was meeting a friend in Buenos Aires at a crowded plaza. He's also American but Caucasian. He said that even before he could recognize my face from several blocks away, he knew it was me just based on how i was walking. i think his exact quote was "you were walking like an American."<< 

    So maybe that's the point I really should have made. It's not so much that the students in the "Chinese professor" lecture hall looked vaguely non-Chinese. It's that they looked so definitely American. (And on what might be involved in "looking Japanese," see this previous article.)

  • So Much More on the 'Chinese Professor'!

    More and more back story on a memorable ad

    Recently I quoted a testy reader who thought it "racist" of me to say that Chinese-Americans looked richer and better-fed than their distant cousins who had grown up in mainland China. Now, three followups.

    1) I'm right! A Western reader reinforces the idea that there are easily visual cues for knowing who grew up where:

    >>You can count me on your side in the argument that there are subtle differences that signal an ethnically Chinese person who was not raised in China. You mentioned better teeth or skin, as a result of better nutrition, or hairstyles. You can add clothing style to your list of attributes that send abroad vs. mainland signals. But also, as an American living in Beijing now for 2.5 years, I'd also say it's just in the way a person carries himself.

    The best way to spot the differences is on the subway, when small differences will stand out in stark contrast to the norm. In my first year in Beijing, while riding the subway, I would sometimes see a person that had the "je ne sais quoi" of a fellow American. I wouldn't think too much more about it until I would hear that person speak - in perfect American English. At first I was surprised when I realized I had recognized an American who by all accounts looked just like the other hundred or so Chinese waiting on the platform or stuffed into the subway car with me. I guess small differences in hair, teeth, clothes, and hairstyle may have added up to a pretty big difference that triggered my subconscious. But there's something else in the posture, or the walk, or the way Americans just kind of carry themselves in a public venue. It's hard for me to put my finger on it. I used to surprise myself at my ability to pick an American-born-Chinese out of a crowd, but now that I realize how easy it is, it's no longer a cool parlor trick.<<

    2) The Extras in the Ad. I mentioned the last time around that I wasn't sure how the Asian-American college students who served as extras in the "Chinese Professor" ad felt about serving a larger "Yellow Peril" purpose. A reader graciously pointed me to the Racialicious site, quoting from Angry Asian Man, with an account from an extra in the shot:

    >>It was filmed at a community college (NOVA in Alexandria VA) and when we got there, the production team did tell us about the ad, but in a misconstrued kind of way. I know that the ad was about the US deficit and they did tell us the premise of the ad (taking place in the future, and we all supposed to be "Chinese" students in a lecture). I saw the commercial and it's pretty intense and one thing I did not know that the commercial would do, is put this almost red-scare type of fear in the eyes of Americans (effectiveness wise, the political ad works, not saying I agree with the tactics) [JF note: that was my original point about the ad].

    What's interesting is that the production team told us that we would all be laughing in the commercial because the "Chinese Professor" said something funny, so there were multiple shots where we all "laughed" after the "Chinese Professor" said his so called, "joke."<<

    More »


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