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.
Trump’s supporters backed a time-honored American political tradition, disavowing racism while promising to enact a broad agenda of discrimination.
THIRTY YEARS AGO, nearly half of Louisiana voted for a Klansman, and the media struggled to explain why.
It was 1990 and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, astonished political observers when he came within striking distance of defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, earning 43 percent of the vote. If Johnston’s Republican rival hadn’t dropped out of the race and endorsed him at the last minute, the outcome might have been different.
Was it economic anxiety? The Washington Post reported that the state had “a large working class that has suffered through a long recession.” Was it a blow against the state’s hated political establishment? An editorial from United Press International explained, “Louisianans showed the nation by voting for Duke that they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” Was it anti-Washington rage? A Loyola University pollster argued, “There were the voters who liked Duke, those who hated J. Bennett Johnston, and those who just wanted to send a message to Washington.”
The Facebook founder has discussed "community" more than 150 times in public. A close reading reveals his road map for the platform’s future.
There’s a story that Mark Zuckerberg has told dozens of times over the years. Shortly after he’d launched Facebook in February 2004, he went to get pizza with Kang-Xing Jin, a coder friend who would become a Facebook executive, at a place around the corner from his dorm.
In one telling, Zuckerberg says he was thinking, “this is great that we have this community that now people can connect within our little school, but clearly one day, someone is going to build this for the world.”
But there was no reason to expect that this kid and his group of friends would be the people who would build this for the world. “It hadn’t even crossed my mind,” he said in 2013. They were technically gifted, but as Zuckerberg tells it, they had basically no resources or experience at a time when there were already massive technology companies trying to create social networks from MySpace to Microsoft, Google to Yahoo.
Released 50 years ago, “I Am the Walrus” is endlessly analyzable, and yet somehow analysis-proof.
“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
—Alice, upon first reading “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass
Inspired nonsense has held me in its spell for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a house full of books, I spent the most time with the ones that were seriously silly. I graduated from Dr. Seuss to The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, a well-thumbed Dover paperback adorned with Lear’s own absurd pen-and-ink drawings, so you could see just what he meant by the dolomphious duck and her runcible spoon. And I dove deep into The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner’s illuminating exposition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, its margins bursting with side notes that made the curious main text even curiouser.
The outspoken lawyer-turned-ESPN analyst may be the moral conscience college basketball needs this season, as it grapples with its biggest scandal in decades.
After 22 years as a college-basketball commentator for ESPN, Jay Bilas is now slogging through his busiest November yet. Finding himself far-flung during a monthstacked with tournaments and traveling from Chicago to Maui—with maybe a night to recharge in his Charlotte-area home—is common practice by now. But the addition of the Phil Knight 80, a Thanksgiving tournament in Oregon that commemorates the Nike founder’s 80th birthday, has thrown Bilas’s carefully controlled schedule for a loop. “For me to do 12 games in basically seven days,” Bilas told me by phone last week, “is unprecedented.”
Such is the life of perhaps the most well-regarded and trusted individual in all of college basketball. With his voice honed over the decades into a reassuring timbre, Bilas effectively serves as the sport’s Walter Cronkite—a respected commentator unafraid to speak openly about an American institution beset by a fraught and ongoing debate about amateurism (and whether student-athletes should be paid), as well as a bribery scandal that has mushroomed into its most serious crisis in years. “The NCAA makes its own rules, and their rules are bad,” Bilas said during a panel discussion in Baltimore last month. “That’s been pointed out forever, and so for the people in charge, and specifically the president of the NCAA, to talk about some code of silence in college basketball that people weren’t telling them what was going on—they knew exactly what was going on.”
As America has turned away from searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, China has built the world’s largest radio dish for precisely that purpose.
Last January, theChinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, China’s preeminent science-fiction writer, to visit its new state-of-the-art radio dish in the country’s southwest. Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle, the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.
Full of wit, music, and color, this Día de Muertos–themed tribute to family marks a return to form for the studio.
Well, that’s more like it. As someone who has written at some length about the decline of Pixar Studios since its acquisition by Disney, I am especially pleased to be proven wrong, even if only intermittently. The studio’s latest release, Coco, is one such occasion.
Though Pixar has never acknowledged as much publicly, its cinematic philosophy (and business model) has shifted notably: Where the studio once aspired to excellence with every single picture—Pixar President Ed Catmull wrote an entire book expressing this ideal, Creativity Inc.—it now seems content to roll out a few profitable, hyper-merchandise-friendly sequels for every genuinely original feature it unveils. (To put it another way, the studio has shifted away from “creativity” and toward “inc.”)
Can changing the structure of a language improve women’s status in society?
“My homeland is the French language,” author Albert Camus once wrote—and many French people would agree. That’s why any attempt at changing the language is often met with suspicion. So the uproar was almost instantaneous when, this fall, the first-ever school textbook promoting a gender-neutral version of French was released.
It was a victory for a subset ofFrench feminists who had argued that the gendered nature of the language promotes sexist outcomes, and that shifting to a gender-neutral version would improve women’s status in society. Educating the next generation in a gender-inclusive way, they claimed, would yield concrete positive changes, like professional environments that are more welcoming to women.
A study of the famous animal’s bones suggests the conventional wisdom about how clones age is probably wrong.
Dolly the sheep was the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell, and like many firsts, she came to stand in for all of her kind.
So when scientists suspected she had short telomeres—stretches of DNA that normally shorten with age—people wondered if it was because she was cloned from an adult cell. When she started to limp at age five, headlines said that her arthritis “dents faith in cloning.” And when she died at age six—as the result of a common lung virus that also killed other sheep in her barn—her short life again became a parable about cloning. A certain narrative took hold.
Then last year, Kevin Sinclair, a developmental biologist at the University of Nottingham, published a paper about several clones including Dolly’s four “sisters,” who were created from the same cell line as Dolly and lived to the old age of eight (about 70 in human years). They were quite healthy for their age. So of course, he kept getting questions, like if these animals are so healthy, then why was Dolly so unhealthy? It was Dolly that everyone cared about.
The post-Weinstein moment isn’t a war on sex. It’s a long-overdue revolution.
One of the principal pleasures of Mad Men, on rich display beginning with the pilot episode, was looking at all of the crazy things people used to be able to do in offices: smoke, drink, and—if they were male—grope and corner and sexually humiliate the women, who could either put up with it or quit.
It’s just about impossible to imagine someone lighting a cigarette in today’s hyper-sanitized workplace; anyone with liquor on his or her breath at midday is usually targeted as a massive loser or frog-marched to human resources. But to look at the shocking and ever-growing list of prominent men recently and credibly accused of acts ranging from sexual harassment to violent rape is to realize that abhorrent treatment of women is alive and well in many American workplaces.
How did Andrew Anglin go from being an antiracist vegan to the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist—and how might he be stopped?
On December 16, 2016, Tanya Gersh answered her phone and heard gunshots. Startled, she hung up. Gersh, a real-estate agent who lives in Whitefish, Montana, assumed it was a prank call. But the phone rang again. More gunshots. Again, she hung up. Another call. This time, she heard a man’s voice: “This is how we can keep the Holocaust alive,” he said. “We can bury you without touching you.”
When Gersh put down the phone, her hands were shaking. She was one of only about 100 Jews in Whitefish and the surrounding Flathead Valley, and she knew there were white nationalists and “sovereign citizens” in the area. But Gersh had lived in Whitefish for more than 20 years, since just after college, and had always considered the scenic ski town an idyllic place. She didn’t even have a key to her house—she’d never felt the need to lock her door. Now that sense of security was about to be shattered.