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.
Most of management theory is inane, writes our correspondent, the founder of a consulting firm. If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an M.B.A. Study philosophy instead
During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.
The commander in chief embraces a peculiar worldview in which bogus claims are retroactively justified and evidence simply conjured into existence.
President Trump remains peculiarly fixated on the cover of Time magazine. He has claimed in the past that he holds the record for most covers, but in an interview with Michael Scherer for this week’s magazine, the president asked if he was the all-time leader. Scherer had to break the bad news to him: Richard M. Nixon still held the lead—though he added, “He was in office for longer, so give yourself time.” “Ok, good. I’m sure I’ll win,” Trump replied.
The exchange is full of intrigue. Neither man noted that though Nixon was elected to two terms, his presidency was foreshortened by paranoia and lawbreaking. Nor did they note the increasingly frequent comparisons between Nixon’s terminal scandal and Trump’s own difficulties. But in the course of an interview about Trump’s extremely distant relationship with the truth—from obvious lies to head-scratching speculation—the president offered Nixonian maxim of his own.
Michael Anton actively courts controversy with his extreme views. But how much influence does he have in the White House?
Michael Anton warned last year that 2016 was the Flight 93 election: “Charge the cockpit or you die.”
Americans charged. Donald Trump became president of the United States. And Anton, the author of that now-notorious essay, is helping to fly the plane—running communications for the National Security Council.
Anton cuts a curious figure through the Trump White House. A thoroughly educated dandy, his writings are at the core of an effort to construct an intellectual framework around the movement that elected a president who has shown no inclination to read books and who speaks in an unpretentious New York vernacular.
"I’m a huge admirer,” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said. “I think Michael is one of the most significant intellects in this nationalist movement.”
At the president’s behest, House Republicans will render what might be a final verdict on the Affordable Care Act in a high-stakes vote on Friday.
On Thursday, the Affordable Care Act celebrated its seventh birthday. On Friday, it just might celebrate a most unlikely reprieve.
In a take-it-or-leave-it message delivered by his senior advisers to Capitol Hill, President Trump late Thursday told bickering House Republicans they had one final opportunity to repeal and replace the health-care law they have decried since its enactment. At the president’s behest, Speaker Paul Ryan on Friday will call a vote on the American Health Care Act and dare recalcitrant conservatives to defeat it. If the bill fails, Trump plans to keep Obamacare in place and move on with other parts of his agenda—a move that would enrage conservative activists while conceding an enormous defeat for the new administration.
Donald Trump flaunted his elastic conception of truth in an interview with Time—but he may yet learn that facts are stubborn things.
How can anyone convince the most powerful man in the world of something he does not wish to believe?
It’s not an idle question. In a remarkable interview with Time’s Michael Scherer, President Trump flaunted his elastic relationship with truth. Instead of weighing evidence, he explained, he prefers to trust his gut. “I’m a very instinctual person,” he said, “but my instinct turns out to be right.”
Trump unrepentantly rehearsed his litany of false or unsubstantiated claims with Scherer. Was Ted Cruz’s father linked to Lee Harvey Oswald? “Why do you say that I have to apologize? I’m just quoting the newspaper.” (The newspaper in question is the National Enquirer.) Had the president tapped his phones? “A lot of information has just been learned, and a lot of information may be learned over the next coming period of time. We will see what happens.” Were there 3 million fraudulent votes cast in 2016? “Well I think I will be proved right about that too.”
Party leaders postponed a House vote Thursday after President Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan failed to win enough support.
Updated on March 23 at 4:28 p.m. ET
Lacking the majority needed to pass their bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, House Republican leaders have postponed a planned Thursday vote, imperiling President Trump’s first major legislative priority.
The move was an indication that a series of meetings Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan had with reluctant members in the party’s conservative and centrist wings had failed to achieve a consensus. Members of the House Freedom Caucus left a meeting with the president early in the afternoon saying there was “no deal” as they pushed Ryan to move the bill further to the right. And for Trump and Ryan, the delay dashed their hope of voting to dismantle the law on the seventh anniversary of its signing by former President Barack Obama.
Two Princeton economists elaborate on their work exploring rising mortality rates among certain demographics.
Two years ago, the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published an alarming revelation: Middle-aged white Americans without a college degree were dying in greater numbers, even as people in other developed countries were living longer. The husband-and-wife team argued, in a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that these white Americans are facing“deaths of despair”—suicide, overdoses from alcohol and drug, and alcohol-related liver disease.
The paper caused a stir in academic circles and in the media, and has remained in the public discourse following Donald Trump’s win partly on the strength of his support from these same middle-aged white Americans (the alive ones, to be clear). The paper, however, couldn’t answer the question everyone had: Why was this demographic in particular struggling? It couldn’t be purely the economic pain they faced in the wake of globalization; after all, European countries are also affected by globalization, and their residents are getting healthier and living longer. And non-whites in the U.S. are living longer than they used to as well, and they are subject to the same economic forces as middle-age whites and are struggling, at least in economic terms, even more.
Trump promised to revitalize the blighted heartland. His policies will punish them.
President Donald Trump might be consumed by half-truths and conspiracy theories, but during the campaign he brought attention to a very real phenomenon: regional inequality. He promised not only a proper swamp-draining in Washington, D.C., but also a renaissance for the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and America’s blighted heartland.
Even when his prognoses were fantasies—neither trade wars nor border walls will ever bring back 1950s-level manufacturing employment—the underlying diagnosis was pretty much right. For much of the 20th century, productivity in America’s poorest regions actually grew faster than in rich metros. But decades of convergence have come to a screeching halt in the 2000s. Rich coastal cities have left the rest of the country behind. In 1980, the typical New York City worker earned 80 percent more than the national average. By 2013, he earned 172 percent more.
How “engagement” made the web a less engaging place
Here’s a little parable. A friend of mine was so enamored of Google Reader that he built a clone when it died. It was just like the original, except that you could add pictures to your posts, and you could Like comments. The original Reader was dominated by conversation, much of it thoughtful and earnest. The clone was dominated by GIFs and people trying to be funny.
I actually built my own Google Reader clone. (That’s part of the reason this friend and I became friends—we both loved Reader that much.) But my version was more conservative: I never added any Like buttons, and I made it difficult to add pictures to comments. In fact, it’s so hard that I don’t think there has ever been a GIF on the site.
New research on the creatures’ family tree could “shake dinosaur paleontology to its core.”
When I first read Matthew Baron’s new dinosaur study, I actually gasped.
For most of my life, I’ve believed that the dinosaurs fell into two major groups: the lizard-hipped saurischians, which included the meat-eating theropods like Tyrannosaurus and long-necked sauropodomorphs like BrontosaurusYes, Brontosaurus. It’s a thing again. ; and the bird-hipped ornithischians, which included horned species like Triceratops and armored ones like Stegosaurus. That’s how dinosaurs have been divided since 1887. It’s what I learned as a kid. It’s what all the textbooks and museums have always said. And according to Baron, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, it’s wrong.
By thoroughly comparing 74 early dinosaurs and their relatives, Baron has radically redrawn the two major branches of the dinosaur family tree. Defying 130 years of accepted dogma, he splits the saurischians apart, leaving the sauropods in one branch, and placing the theropods with the ornthischians on the other. Put it this way: This is like someone telling you that neither cats nor dogs are what you thought they were, and some of the animals you call “cats” are actually dogs.