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.
Allegations against the comedian are proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful—and very, very dangerous.
Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.
This was my experience reading the account of one young woman’s alleged sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, published by the website Babe this weekend. The world in which it constituted an episode of sexual assault was so far from my own two experiences of near date rape (which took place, respectively, during the Carter and Reagan administrations, roughly between the kidnapping of the Iran hostages and the start of the Falklands War) that I just couldn’t pick up the tune. But, like the recent New Yorker story “Cat Person”—about a soulless and disappointing hookup between two people who mostly knew each other through texts—the account has proved deeply resonant and meaningful to a great number of young women, who have responded in large numbers on social media, saying that it is frighteningly and infuriatingly similar to crushing experiences of their own. It is therefore worth reading and, in its way, is an important contribution to the present conversation.
A viral story highlights the lingering difference between the language—and the practice—of consent.
It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.
I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.
That was Aziz Ansari, responding to a story that was published about him over the weekend, a story that doubled as an allegation not of criminal sexual misconduct, but of misbehavior of a more subtle strain: aggression. Entitlement. Excessive persistence. His statement, accordingly—not an apology but not, either, a denial—occupies that strange and viscous space between defiance and regret. I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart.
At the same time that the president sows doubt and confusion to undermine his adversaries, he finds those forces depriving him of credit he believes he deserves.
A long weekend with lots of executive time, simmering tensions with politicians of both parties, a looming government shutdown: It’s the most potent cocktail that Donald Trump, a teetotaler, could imbibe, and it produced a predictably jarring and erratic series of statements.
Over the course of several days, mostly in tweets, Trump tried to make three points. First, he sought to discredit the idea that he had referred to African nations as “shithole countries” and said, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” (Trump also declared to a reporter that he was “the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”) Second, he jockeyed for position in negotiations over funding the government, arguing Democrats were imperiling the military as he tried to preemptively shift blame to them. Finally, for good measure, he whined a little bit that he doesn’t get more credit for what he’s done:
With the president fuming, a funding deadline looming, and a DACA deal far off, a climactic confrontation in Congress might be impossible to avoid.
The first government shutdown of the Donald Trump presidency has been a long time coming.
It has been eight months since the president, in a tweet of pique during a soon-forgotten spending fight with Democrats, suggested that the country “needs a good ‘shutdown’” to fix its mess. The two parties veered away from the brink then, and they have kept refueling the federal tank a few gallons at a time in the months since.
But for an angry president and an impatient opposition, there may be no way out of the showdown that is building this week. At its core are the competing promises Trump made to his base—to crack down on illegal immigration and build a giant southern border wall—and that many Democrats made to theirs—to protect at any cost the young undocumented immigrants who face possible deportation under a March deadline set by the president.
The cryptocurrency was meant to be stateless and leaderless. Ironically, the culprits of its latest plunge are ... state leaders.
Bitcoin is a bubble.
That much was clear to economists, investors, and analysts for quite some time. But one of the shortcomings of such analysis is that certainty of an economic bubble offers little insight on how, when, or why that bubble will pop. “I can say almost with certainty that they will come to a bad ending,” Warren Buffett said last week, to the great consternation of crypto fans. “When it happens or how or anything else, I don't know.”
Maybe—maybe—it’s finally happening.
The price of bitcoin plummeted by as much as 20 percent on Tuesday to $12,000, or about 40 percent below its all-time high in December. Other popular cryptocurrencies, like ethereum and Ripple, also posted double-digit losses.
This isn’t the first moment astrology’s had and it won’t be the last. The practice has been around in various forms for thousands of years. More recently, the New Age movement of the 1960s and ’70s came with a heaping helping of the zodiac. (Some also refer to the New Age as the “Age of Aquarius”—the 2,000-year period after the Earth is said to move into the Aquarius sign.)
President Trump is the embodiment of over 50 years of resistance to the policies Martin Luther King Jr. fought to enact.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In response, a week later President Lyndon B. Johnson scrambled to sign into law the Fair Housing Act, a final major civil-rights bill that had languished for years under the strain of white backlash to the civil-rights movement.
Five years later a New York developer and his son—then only a few years out of college—became two of the first targets of a massive Department of Justice probe for an alleged violation of that landmark act. After a protracted, bitter lawsuit, facing a mountain of allegations that the two had engaged in segregating units and denying applications of black and Puerto Rican applicants, in 1975 Trump Management settled with the federal government and accepted the terms of a consent decree prohibiting discrimination. So entered Donald Trump onto the American stage.
The evidence comes from the 16th-century victims’ teeth.
In the decades after Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico, one of the worst epidemics in human history swept through the new Spanish colony. A mysterious disease called “cocolitzli” appeared first in 1545 and then again in 1576, each time killing millions of the native population. “From morning to sunset,” wrote a Franciscan friar who witness the epidemic, “the priests did nothing else but carry the dead bodies and throw them into the ditches.”
In less than a century, the number of people living in Mexico fell from an estimated 20 million to 2 million. “It’s a massive population loss. Really, it’s impressive,” says Rodolfo Acuña-Soto, an epidemiologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. What can even kill so many people so quickly?
A new breed of online retailer doesn’t make or even touch products, but they’ve got a few other tricks for turning nothing into money.
It all started with an Instagram ad for a coat, the West Louis (TM) Business-Man Windproof Long Coat to be specific. It looked like a decent camel coat, not fancy but fine. And I’d been looking for one just that color, so when the ad touting the coat popped up and the price was in the double-digits, I figured: hey, a deal!
The brand, West Louis, seemed like another one of the small clothing companies that has me tagged in the vast Facebook-advertising ecosystem as someone who likes buying clothes: Faherty, Birdwell Beach Britches, Life After Denim, some wool underwear brand that claims I only need two pairs per week, sundry bootmakers.
Perhaps the copy on the West Louis site was a little much, claiming “West Louis is the perfection of modern gentlemen clothing,” but in a world where an oil company can claim to “fuel connections,” who was I to fault a small entrepreneur for some purple prose?
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”