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.
When it comes to health care and entitlements, the party’s policies don't always align with its coalition’s beliefs.
The Senate Republican health-care bill has been repeatedly crushed in a slow-motion collision between the party’s historic ideology and the interests of its modern electoral coalition. Yet congressional Republicans appear determined to plow right through the wreckage.
Even as the Senate’s latest effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act collapsed on Tuesday, the House Republican leadership released a 10-year federal-budget blueprint that points them toward a similar confrontation, between their dominant small-government dogma and the economic needs of their increasingly blue-collar and older white base.
John F. Kennedy famously said that failure is an orphan. But the failure, at least for now, of the GOP drive against the ACA has many parents. One was a distracted and ineffectual President Trump. Even higher on the list sits Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who displayed a blinding hubris that will forever cloud his previous reputation for legislative wizardry. Operating with unprecedented secrecy and insularity, McConnell degraded Senate tradition by refusing to hold any public hearings or committee votes on the legislation. His closed-door process provoked not only unified opposition from Democrats, but also every major medical stakeholder. He sought to pressure dissenting senators with unrealistic vote deadlines—then retreated as they repeatedly called his bluff.
Paul Behrends, a controversial staffer associated with the California congressman’s pro-Russia stances, was pushed out of his role on a subcommittee after questions were raised about a recent trip to Moscow.
Paul Behrends, a top aide to Representative Dana Rohrabacher, has been ousted from his role as staff director for the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that Rohrabacher chairs, after stories appeared in the press highlighting his relationships with pro-Russia lobbyists.
“Paul Behrends no longer works at the committee,” a House Foreign Affairs Committee spokesperson said on Wednesday evening.
Behrends accompanied Rohrabacher on a 2016 trip to Moscow in which Rohrabacher said he received anti-Magnitsky Act materials from prosecutors. The Magnitsky Act is a 2012 bill that imposes sanctions on Russian officials associated with the 2009 death in prison of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had been investigating tax fraud. Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian attorney and lobbyist who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower last year, reportedly brought up the Magintsky Act during the meeting.
A new study explores why the latter are far more likely to opt for an elite college where they'd struggle than a so-so one where they'd excel.
There’s a saying in China that it’s better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of a phoenix. The premise of the aphorism—it’s better to be over-qualified than under-qualified relative to one’s surroundings—is so widely accepted that similar versions of it exist across cultures. In Japan, they tend to say that it’s better to be the head of a sardine than the tail of a whale. Americans and Brits often declare that it’s better to be a big frog (or fish) in a small pond than a little frog in a big pond.
Extensive research supports these axioms, particularly in the realm of education. Longitudinal studies have consistently shown that high-performing students at less-selective schools feel more competent, have higher GPAs, and have more ambitious career aspirations than low-performing students at more-selective schools.
The story of a duel between two men, one who dies, and the nature of the quest to build artificial intelligence
Marion Tinsley—math professor, minister, and the best checkers player in the world—sat across a game board from a computer, dying.
Tinsley had been the world’s best for 40 years, a time during which he'd lost a handful of games to humans, but never a match. It's possible no single person had ever dominated a competitive pursuit the way Tinsley dominated checkers. But this was a different sort of competition, the Man-Machine World Championship.
His opponent was Chinook, a checkers-playing program programmed by Jonathan Schaeffer, a round, frizzy-haired professor from the University of Alberta, who operated the machine. Through obsessive work, Chinook had become very good. It hadn't lost a game in its last 125—and since they’d come close to defeating Tinsley in 1992, Schaeffer’s team had spent thousands of hours perfecting his machine.
Some focus on the largest figures, like total student debt ($1.3 trillion) and average debt ($30,000.) So why is the most dangerous student loan number less than $5,000?
"I feel I kind of ruined my life by going to college," Jackie Krowen said. She first took out student loans at 19, to go to community college in Oregon. She borrowed more when she transferred to Portland State University, and even more to go to nursing school at the University of Rochester in New York. Now, more than $150,000 in debt, Krowen toldConsumer Reports that she cannot buy a house and fears the specter of her non-dischargeable debt will follow her for the rest of her life.
I read Jackie’s story earlier this summer, and I thought about it constantly while reading the student debt report from the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, which was released today. There’s no doubt that Jackie’s situation is disturbing and sad. It’s not unique: There are many students for whom college is not that promised ticket to the middle class, but rather an albatross that punishes their early adulthood. They are tens of thousands of dollars in debt, in jobs paying half what they expected to earn after college. They cannot buy a home, start a business. They are even afraid to get married and have a kid.
Senator John McCain’s glioblastoma diagnosis revives a longstanding debate over the safety of wireless technology.
Senator John McCain’s brain cancer diagnosis is likely to revive a persistent and complex question about the safety of wireless technologies, like cell phones, that emit electromagnetic radiation.
For years, researchers have explored whether cell-phone use can increase a person’s likelihood of getting cancer. And for years their findings have been mixed—and in many cases controversial. The consensus, if there is one, is that the health risks of regular cell-phone usage are probably quite small, if they exist at all. But it’s hard to prove a negative, so the question remains open-ended.
Doctors discovered McCain’s glioblastoma after the 80-year-old senator underwent a procedure to remove a blood clot, his office announced in a statement from the Mayo Clinic Wednesday night. Glioblastoma is one of the most common and also one of the most aggressive kinds of brain tumor. Senator Ted Kennedy received a similar diagnosis in the spring of 2008. He died from the disease about 15 months later, in August 2009. Could there be a connection between the aggressive form of cancer in Kennedy’s brain and his cell-phone usage? U.S. senators tend to do a good deal of business by phone, especially when they're in Washington and away from their constituencies.
Twenty years ago, Luc Besson’s visually stunning film hinged its story not on action or violence, but on love.
The most radical element of Luc Besson’s 1997 space opera The Fifth Element is not the absurdly opulent future-costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. It isn’t the bizarre Southern twang of the Hitler haircut-sporting villain Zorg (Gary Oldman), nor is it Chris Tucker’s performance as an intergalactic sex symbol who hosts a radio show. It’s that Bruce Willis cries at the opera. In budget, in scale, and in casting, The Fifth Element feels like any other big Hollywood sci-fi movie, featuring popular English-speaking actors running around a high-concept world, complete with lavish sets and CGI effects. But not many blockbusters would let its male star weep at a musical performance.
That set piece comes in the middle of the film as Willis’s character, Korben Dallas, a gun-wielding space cowboy with spiked, peroxide-blonde hair, takes in a show by the blue alien singer Diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn). Besson’s film has, up until now, been a relentless blitz of action, as Korben follows the mysterious Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) across the galaxy to help retrieve mystical stones that will help her save the world from a great, encroaching evil. But for a second, the movie grinds to a halt, letting Korben take in the extraterrestrial songstress’s solo with tears in his eyes.
Thirty years ago, with the help of a massive coffee table book, the American wedding theatrical complex was born.
There’s a ritual that takes place, several times, during each 22-minute episode of the reality-show juggernaut Say Yes to the Dress. A bride-to-be, who will typically arrive at Kleinfeld’s Manhattan wedding emporium with friends and family in tow, will first introduce the group (her “entourage,” the show will call them) to the person who will be her personal attendant throughout her Kleinfeld Experience. The bride will then be spirited away, from the “Bridal Floor” and its effusions of white, to a simple dressing room. There, she and her attendant will get down to business. “How do you want to look,” the consultant will ask her, with cheerful solemnity, “on your wedding day?”
The bride will reply instantly (“classic,” “ethereal,” “edgy,” “like Beyoncé,” “like a princess”), and if she does not—if, indeed, she betrays any uncertainty about her bridal Look and/or Style and/or Philosophy—the attendant will allow a shadow of disapproval to cross her face. This is part of the ritual. After all, in the Kleinfeld cosmos, a Wedding Day is not really a matter of legal pragmatism, or of religious tradition, or even, really, of love; it is an act of determined transformation. It is a day about Dreams—Dreams whose roots have been growing in the bride’s mind and heart ever since, as it goes, she was a little girl. Dreams made manifest in that most quintessentially American of manners: through the purchase of an extremely expensive piece of clothing.
Most of the country understands that when it comes to government, you pay for what you get.
When I was a young kid growing up in Montreal, our annual family trips to my grandparents’ Florida condo in the 1970s and ‘80s offered glimpses of a better life. Not just Bubbie and Zadie’s miniature, sun-bronzed world of Del Boca Vista, but the whole sprawling infrastructural colossus of Cold War America itself, with its famed interstate highway system and suburban sprawl. Many Canadians then saw themselves as America’s poor cousins, and our inferiority complex asserted itself the moment we got off the plane.
Decades later, the United States presents visitors from the north with a different impression. There hasn’t been a new major airport constructed in the United States since 1995. And the existing stock of terminals is badly in need of upgrades. Much of the surrounding road and rail infrastructure is in even worse shape (the trip from LaGuardia Airport to midtown Manhattan being particularly appalling). Washington, D.C.’s semi-functional subway system feels like a World’s Fair exhibit that someone forgot to close down. Detroit’s 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge—which carries close to $200 billion worth of goods across the Canada-U.S. border annually—has been operating beyond its engineering capacity for years. In 2015, the Canadian government announced it would be paying virtually the entire bill for a new bridge (including, amazingly, the U.S. customs plaza on the Detroit side), after Michigan’s government pled poverty. “We are unable to build bridges, we're unable to build airports, our inner city school kids are not graduating,” is how JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon summarized the state of things during an earnings conference call last week. “It’s almost embarrassing being an American citizen.”
In an interview with The New York Times, the president said he never would have chosen his attorney general if he knew he would end up recusing himself from the ongoing federal inquiry into the 2016 election.
President Trump strongly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the upper ranks of the Justice Department on Wednesday, telling The New York Times he would never have chosen Jeff Sessions as attorney general if he knew Sessions was going to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
The president delivered the extraordinary public rebuke of a close political ally and key Cabinet official in an Oval Office interview with the Times on Wednesday. “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” the president said.
Sessions, one of Trump’s earliest high-profile supporters, recused himself in March after media reports that he had met with Russian officials during the campaign, in direct contradiction of his testimony before the Senate that he had no contact with any such officials. The revelations meant Sessions could be questioned by investigators as part of the sprawling federal probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Internal ethics rules require Justice Department officials to remove themselves from investigations in which they may be a witness.