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.
“I hope that my story will help you understand the methods of Russian operatives in Washington and how they use U.S. enablers to achieve major foreign policy goals without disclosing those interests,” Browder writes.
The financier Bill Browder has emerged as an unlikely central player in the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney Browder hired to investigate official corruption, died in Russian custody in 2009. Congress subsequently imposed sanctions on the officials it held responsible for his death, passing the Magnitsky Act in 2012. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government retaliated, among other ways, by suspending American adoptions of Russian children.
Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who secured a meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, was engaged in a campaign for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, and raised the subject of adoptions in that meeting. That’s put the spotlight back on Browder’s long campaign for Kremlin accountability, and against corruption—a campaign whose success has irritated Putin and those around him.
The vote he cast, more than the speech he gave, will help define his legacy.
The effort to repeal Barack Obama’s health-care bill is not over, and neither presumably is the public career of John McCain. But each crossed an important threshold yesterday, and Senator McCain gave us a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for.
The repeal effort isn’t over, because debate and further voting is now under way to determine whether the bill will pass and, more basically, to define what it would actually do. McCain will have more votes to cast, on this measure and others, and it’s possible that in the end he will turn against this bill because of its provisions (whatever they turn out to be) or because of the rushed and secretive process that led to it. Just this afternoon, McCain voted No on a “straight repeal” bill that would eliminate Obamacare without any replacement.
For the past few decades, the unstoppable increase in college tuition has been a fact of life, like death and taxes. The sticker price of American college increased nearly 400 percent in the last 30 years, while median household income growth was relatively flat. Student debt soared to more than $1 trillion, the result of loans to cover the difference.
Several people—with varyingdegreesof expertisein higher-ed economics—have predicted that it’s all a bubble, destined to burst. Now after decades of expansion, just about every meaningful statistic—including the number of college students, the growth of tuition costs, and even the total number of colleges—is going down, or at least growing more slowly.
The Arizona Republican is betting his Senate seat on the political appeal of decency—but can that pay off in Trump’s America?
The constituents filing into the Mesa Convention Center one evening in mid-April for the Republican senator Jeff Flake’s town hall had a decidedly un-Republican look. Tattoos and political T-shirts abounded. Activists stood near the entrance distributing stickers, flyers, and other paraphernalia of the resistance and urging attendees to get loud. While chants of “No stupid wall!” and “Health care for all!” echoed through the auditorium, a young woman in a chicken costume wandered the perimeter, clucking and posing for selfies in an act of protest whose meaning remained mysterious to me even after I asked her about it (“Jeff Flake is George Dubya’s chicken,” she said).
Flake couldn’t see any of this from backstage, but he knew that a hostile crowd likely awaited him. The early months of the Trump presidency had inflamed the grassroots left, and Republican lawmakers across the country had lately found themselves standing awkwardly in rooms like this one while liberal voters berated them. Flake is up for reelection next year, and some of his campaign advisers—wanting to avoid the kind of contentious scene that might end up in an attack ad—had suggested that he skip public forums for a while, as many of his colleagues were doing. But he insisted on going ahead.
Exclusion leaves the military weaker and the country more divided.
President Donald Trump issued a ruling on Wednesday outlawing military service by people who do not conform to a binary gender system.
“Please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” he wrote in a string of tweets. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
Trump previously promised to be an advocate for transgender people, writing during the campaign, “Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.”
The methods Senate Republicans are using to try to pass a new health law are confusing, but still bound by some clear rules.
What would Schoolhouse Rock! have to say about the reconciliation process? The old animated educational short was a useful introduction to “regular order” in Congress. Add a little additional knowledge on committees, filibusters, hearings, and lobbying, and you’d have a working basic understanding on how laws are passed in the United States.
That’s regular order. What’s happening on the Senate floor now is nothing close to that.
As Senate Republicans try to push through a law replacing or repealing Obamacare, they are relying on a byzantine set of procedures and tactics that are often indecipherable for the senators themselves. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s strategy to avoid a sure Democratic filibuster involves the reconciliation process, which itself necessitates tricky things like Congressional Budget Office scores, parliamentarian rulings, and the Byrd rule. Despite Arizona Senator John McCain’s rousing speech Tuesday urging a “return to regular order,” two procedural votes later, it’s clear that regular order isn’t coming back soon.
A federal judge affirmed a $1,000 fine for the leader of President Trump’s election-integrity panel, saying the Kansas secretary of state had undermined his credibility with misstatements.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach could use a little credibility at the moment. President Trump’s so-called election-integrity commission, of which he is the de facto chief, has come under suspicion for both its methods and its purpose. But citizens seeking assurance about Kobach’s motives won’t find that from the federal courts.
In a ruling yesterday, flagged by the indefatigable Rick Hasen, Judge Julie Robinson of the U.S. District Court of Kansas rejected Kobach’s request that she overturn a $1,000 fine levied on him by a U.S. magistrate judge. That wasn’t the most significant part of the ruling. Over 13 pages, Robinson carefully lays out ways in which Kobach appeared to be playing fast and loose with the facts in the lower court. And in affirming Magistrate Judge James O’Hara’s fine, she became the second federal judge to deem Kobach at the very least misleading in his court appearances:
Surprise eggs and slime are at the center of an online realm that’s changing the way the experts think about human development.
Toddlers crave power. Too bad for them, they have none. Hence the tantrums and absurd demands. (No, I want this banana, not that one, which looks identical in every way but which you just started peeling and is therefore worthless to me now.)
They just want to be in charge! This desire for autonomy clarifies so much about the behavior of a very small human. It also begins to explain the popularity of YouTube among toddlers and preschoolers, several developmental psychologists told me.
If you don’t have a 3-year-old in your life, you may not be aware of YouTube Kids, an app that’s essentially a stripped-down version of the original video blogging site, with videos filtered by the target audience’s age. And because the mobile app is designed for use on a phone or tablet, kids can tap their way across a digital ecosystem populated by countless videos—all conceived with them in mind.
The president addressed the quadrennial gathering like a campaign rally—talking to a group devoted to service as if it valued self-interest.
Donald Trump continued his ongoing tour of cherished American institutions on Monday night, delivering yet another jarringly partisan speech to an apolitical audience—this one, comprising tens of thousands still too young to vote.
During the campaign, his performance at the Al Smith dinner—where presidential candidates roast their rivals and themselves every four years—devolved into overt attacks on his opponent. Shortly after his election, he stunned CIA employees by delivering a campaign-style stump speech before the agency’s Memorial Wall. On Saturday, he surprised the crowd of uniformed personnel at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford by imploring them to lobby Congress in support of his agenda.
Many point to unromantic 20-somethings and women’s entry into the workforce, but an overlooked factor is the trouble young men have in finding steady, well-paid jobs.
TOKYO—Japan’s population is shrinking. For the first time since the government started keeping track more than a century ago, there were fewer than 1 million births last year, as the country’s population fell by more than 300,000 people. The blame has long been put on Japan’s young people, who are accused of not having enough sex, and on women, who, the narrative goes, put their careers before thoughts of getting married and having a family.
But there’s another, simpler explanation for the country’s low birth rate, one that has implications for the U.S.: Japan’s birth rate may be falling because there are fewer good opportunities for young people, and especially men, in the country’s economy. In a country where men are still widely expected to be breadwinners and support families, a lack of good jobs may be creating a class of men who don’t marry and have children because they—and their potential partners—know they can’t afford to.