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.
Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones are running for the seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Alabama voters will decide on Tuesday whether to send Republican Roy Moore or Democrat Doug Jones to the Senate in the race to fill the seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Polls in the closely-watched, and surprisingly competitive, race close at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Alabama is a deeply conservative state. But Moore’s campaign is embroiled in controversy and allegations of past sexual misconduct, creating an opening for a possible upset by Jones. Moore has a lead of 2.2 points in polling averages, but polls have been all over the place and the race could go either way.
Moore is a former Alabama Chief Justice who gained notoriety for defying federal court orders to take down a monument to the Ten Commandments and uphold the legality of same-sex marriage. He faces allegations of sexual assault from multiple women, including women who say they were teenagers when he made advances toward them. Moore has denied the accusations.
The president attacked a senator who has emerged as a crusader against all manner of sexual misbehavior by political leaders.
Just after 8:00 on Tuesday morning, President Trump whipped out his phone and fired off this incendiary, insinuating tweet:
Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign donations not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!
It’s hardly surprising that Trump is miffed at Gillibrand. On Monday, the gentlewoman from New York publicly called on the president to step down in light of the multiple accusations of harassment and assault swirling around him. Having long pressed for the military to address its sexual-assault problem, Gillibrand has emerged more recently as a crusader against all manner of sexual misbehavior by political leaders: She was the first Senate Democrat to call on her Minnesota colleague Al Franken to step down, and she contends that elected officials absolutely should be held to higher standards than regular folks.
There’s a fiction at the heart of the debate over entitlements: The carefully cultivated impression that beneficiaries are simply receiving back their “own” money.
One day in 1984, Kurt Vonnegut called.
I was ditching my law school classes to work on the presidential campaign of Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate against Ronald Reagan, when one of those formerly-ubiquitous pink telephone messages was delivered to me saying that Vonnegut had called, asking to speak to one of Mondale’s speechwriters.
All sorts of people called to talk to the speechwriters with all sorts of whacky suggestions; this certainly had to be the most interesting. I stared at the 212 phone number on the pink slip, picked up a phone, and dialed.
A voice, so gravelly and deep that it seemed to lie at the outer edge of the human auditory range, rasped, “Hello.” I introduced myself. There was a short pause, as if Vonnegut were fixing his gaze on me from the other end of the line, then he spoke.
Russia's strongman president has many Americans convinced of his manipulative genius. He's really just a gambler who won big.
I. The Hack
The large, sunny room at Volgograd State University smelled like its contents: 45 college students, all but one of them male, hunched over keyboards, whispering and quietly clacking away among empty cans of Juicy energy drink. “It looks like they’re just picking at their screens, but the battle is intense,” Victor Minin said as we sat watching them.
Clustered in seven teams from universities across Russia, they were almost halfway into an eight-hour hacking competition, trying to solve forensic problems that ranged from identifying a computer virus’s origins to finding secret messages embedded in images. Minin was there to oversee the competition, called Capture the Flag, which had been put on by his organization, the Association of Chief Information Security Officers, or ARSIB in Russian. ARSIB runs Capture the Flag competitions at schools all over Russia, as well as massive, multiday hackathons in which one team defends its server as another team attacks it. In April, hundreds of young hackers participated in one of them.
A good marriage is no guarantee against infidelity.
“Most descriptions of troubled marriages don’t seem to fit my situation,” Priya insists. “Colin and I have a wonderful relationship. Great kids, no financial stresses, careers we love, great friends. He is a phenom at work, fucking handsome, attentive lover, fit, and generous to everyone, including my parents. My life is good.” Yet Priya is having an affair. “Not someone I would ever date—ever, ever, ever. He drives a truck and has tattoos. It’s so clichéd, it pains me to say it out loud. It could ruin everything I’ve built.”
Priya is right. Few events in the life of a couple, except illness and death, carry such devastating force. For years, I have worked as a therapist with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. And my conversations about affairs have not been confined within the cloistered walls of my therapy practice; they’ve happened on airplanes, at dinner parties, at conferences, at the nail salon, with colleagues, with the cable guy, and of course, on social media. From Pittsburgh to Buenos Aires, Delhi to Paris, I have been conducting an open-ended survey about infidelity.
Winning images and honorable mentions from the four categories: Wildlife, Landscapes, Aerials, and Underwater.
National Geographic has announced the winners of its annual photo competition, with the Grand Prize Winner Jayaprakash Joghee Bojan receiving a prize of $7,500 for his image of an orangutan in Borneo. National Geographic was once again kind enough to let us display the winning images and honorable mentions here from the four categories: Wildlife, Landscapes, Aerials, and Underwater.
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner says if the space rock 'Oumuamua is giving off radio signals, his team will be able to detect them—and they may get the results within days.
The email about “a most peculiar object” in the solar system arrived in Yuri Milner’s inbox last week.
Milner, the Russian billionaire behind Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, had already heard about the peculiar object. ‘Oumuamua barreled into view in October, the first interstellar object seen in our solar system.
Astronomers around the world chased after the mysterious space rock with their telescopes, collecting as much data as they could as it sped away. Their observations revealed a truly unusual object with puzzling properties. Scientists have long predicted an interstellar visitor would someday coast into our corner of the universe, but not something like this.
H.R. McMaster previewed the administration’s new plan on Tuesday, which offers a striking contrast to the visions of other recent presidents.
The Trump administration unveils a National Security Strategy next week, but National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster provided an advance glimpse of the plan on Tuesday.
A helpful way to understand where this still-new administration is leading is to compare McMaster’s bullet-pointed speech to the final Strategy documents released by two previous administrations, in 2015 and 2006, and note what is changing. McMaster spoke at a Washington conference hosted by Policy Exchange, a U.K. think tank that I chaired from 2014 until earlier this year. Granted, his short speech inevitably abridged the long-form document. Yet even allowing for that, the differences can be seen.
The Obama administration’s 2015 document addressed in some detail epidemics and climate change. The Bush administration committed the United States to supporting human dignity, opening societies, and supporting the building of democracy. The main lines of the Trump approach jettison these concerns. If McMaster fairly summarized the new approach, the United States will soon formally commit itself to a lonelier and less generous course.
In remarks at Berkeley, the professor suggested the need for greater limits on free expression.
Judith Butler worries that UC Berkeley risks dire consequences if it fails to put more limits on the sorts of speech and free expression that it allows on campus.
In remarks to a campus forum, “Perspectives on Freedom of Expression on Campus,” she argued against “free speech absolutists.” For instance, she believes incitements to violence should not be protected by the First Amendment. Of course, that view reflects longstanding law and is shared by the Federalist Society, the ACLU, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the vast majority of Americans, including most staunch free-speech advocates. Support for repealing all laws against incitement is almost nil, as is the constituency for literal free-speech “absolutism.”
Top picks from a year of personal stories, protest songs, and escapism
In a year when world events seemed to push pop culture aside—or else become pop culture itself—the albums that hit most deeply for me were about individuals, not issues. Many of the picks below are autobiographies of sorts, and even the more “political” records blend their songs of social crackups with ones of personal breakups. The other albums here offer much-needed escape, whether with guitar solos, rave immersion, or, in one case, a new word game: “raindrop / drop top.”
1. Kendrick Lamar, Damn
The title of Damn refers in part to a divine curse, which in turn ties in with the Black Hebrew Israelite theology the Compton rapper flirts with throughout his latest masterpiece. But Lamar raps about damnation as not only a spiritual state, but also an inheritance of history, of society, and of one’s own past. The dizzying “DNA”establishes the controlling metaphor: Each person is a double helix of information and attributes, containing War and Peace and war and peace. The album then makes clear he’s not interested in drawing cute contradictions, but in drawing out truth—or rather, truths next to truths next to truths.