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.
Should you drink more coffee? Should you take melatonin? Can you train yourself to need less sleep? A physician’s guide to sleep in a stressful age.
During residency, Iworked hospital shifts that could last 36 hours, without sleep, often without breaks of more than a few minutes. Even writing this now, it sounds to me like I’m bragging or laying claim to some fortitude of character. I can’t think of another type of self-injury that might be similarly lauded, except maybe binge drinking. Technically the shifts were 30 hours, the mandatory limit imposed by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, but we stayed longer because people kept getting sick. Being a doctor is supposed to be about putting other people’s needs before your own. Our job was to power through.
The shifts usually felt shorter than they were, because they were so hectic. There was always a new patient in the emergency room who needed to be admitted, or a staff member on the eighth floor (which was full of late-stage terminally ill people) who needed me to fill out a death certificate. Sleep deprivation manifested as bouts of anger and despair mixed in with some euphoria, along with other sensations I’ve not had before or since. I remember once sitting with the family of a patient in critical condition, discussing an advance directive—the terms defining what the patient would want done were his heart to stop, which seemed likely to happen at any minute. Would he want to have chest compressions, electrical shocks, a breathing tube? In the middle of this, I had to look straight down at the chart in my lap, because I was laughing. This was the least funny scenario possible. I was experiencing a physical reaction unrelated to anything I knew to be happening in my mind. There is a type of seizure, called a gelastic seizure, during which the seizing person appears to be laughing—but I don’t think that was it. I think it was plain old delirium. It was mortifying, though no one seemed to notice.
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.
The nation wants to eradicate all invasive mammal predators by 2050. Gene-editing technology could help—or it could trigger an ecological disaster of global proportions.
The first thing that hit me about Zealandia was the noise.
I was a 15-minute drive from the center of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, but instead of the honks of horns or the bustle of passersby, all I could hear was birdsong. It came in every flavor—resonant coos, high-pitched cheeps, and alien notes that seemed to come from otherworldly instruments.
Much of New Zealand, including national parks that supposedly epitomize the concept of wilderness, has been so denuded of birds that their melodies feel like a rare gift—a fleeting thing to make note of before it disappears. But Zealandia is a unique 225-hectare urban sanctuary into which many of the nation’s most critically endangered species have been relocated. There, they are thriving—and singing. There, their tunes are not a scarce treasure, but part of the world’s background hum. There, I realized how the nation must have sounded before it was invaded by mammals.
From Eve to Aristotle to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a brief history of looking at half the population and assuming the worst
The picture was striking. The military airplane. The sleeping woman. The outstretched hands. The mischievous smile. The look what I’m getting away with impishness directed at the camera.
On Thursday, Leeann Tweeden, a radio host and former model, came forward with the accusation that Senator Al Franken, of Minnesota, had kissed her against her will during a 2006 USO trip to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In a story posted to the website of Los Angeles’s KABC station, Tweeden shared her experience with Franken. She also shared that photo. “I couldn’t believe it,” she wrote. “He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep.”
I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated.
How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?
I told my husband everything that happened and showed him the picture.
I wanted to shout my story to the world with a megaphone to anyone who would listen, but even as angry as I was, I was worried about the potential backlash and damage going public might have on my career as a broadcaster.
But that was then, this is now. I’m no longer afraid.
The CNN correspondent on journalism, hypocrisy, how a Twitter fave can ruin his morning, and why he has a poster of George Wallace hanging in his office
Jake Tapper sometimes wakes up angry. This may be a good thing for America.
Amid the chaos of the Donald Trump presidency, and the deep partisanship that filters through seemingly all aspects of American life in 2017, Tapper is motivated by the same forces that have animated much of his career in journalism. He can’t stand hypocrisy. He can’t stand unfairness. He can’t stop talking about it.
“I recognize that it’s probably a pain in the ass for a lot of people now,” he told The Atlantic. “But it is just who I am.”
“I’m just like, I don’t want any of this to be happening,” he added. “There are so many lies and so much indecency, and I’m not only talking about President Trump. There is just a world of it exploding—and we are, I fear, as a nation, becoming conditioned and accepting of it. And it’s horrific.”
The young men of the alt-right could define American politics for a generation.
The sudden emergence of the so-called alt-right from the dark recesses of the internet into the American mainstream was at first more baffling than shocking. The young people sharing strange, coded frog memes and declaring their commitment to white identity politics on obscure websites remained in the realm of the unserious—or at least the unknowable and weird.
Then, last November, The Atlanticpublished footage of a prominent alt-right provocateur, Richard Spencer, raising a glass to Donald Trump’s election at a conference in Washington, D.C. “Hail Trump!” he shouted, and in response, audience members saluted in unmistakably Nazi style. The incident made waves—here were young men behaving, in public, like fascists. But Spencer laughed it off, claiming that the gestures were “ironic.” The methods and meaning of the alt-right were as yet elusive.
Feminists saved the 42nd president of the United States in the 1990s. They were on the wrong side of history; is it finally time to make things right?
The most remarkable thing about the current tide of sexual assault and harassment accusations is not their number. If every woman in America started talking about the things that happen during the course of an ordinary female life, it would never end. Nor is it the power of the men involved: History instructs us that for countless men, the ability to possess women sexually is not a spoil of power; it’s the point of power. What’s remarkable is that these women are being believed.
Most of them don’t have police reports or witnesses or physical evidence. Many of them are recounting events that transpired years—sometimes decades—ago. In some cases, their accusations are validated by a vague, carefully couched quasi-admission of guilt; in others they are met with outright denial. It doesn’t matter. We believe them. Moreover, we have finally come to some kind of national consensus about the workplace; it naturally fosters a level of romance and flirtation, but the line between those impulses and the sexual predation of a boss is clear.
A No. 1 bestseller by a respected physician argues that gluten and carbohydrates are at the root of Alzheimer's disease, anxiety, depression, and ADHD. What to make of the controversial theory?
“If you could make just three simple changes in your life to prevent, or even reverse, memory loss and other brain disorders, wouldn’t you?”
So asks Dr. David Perlmutter, in promotion of his PBS special Brain Change, coming soon to your regional affiliate. Three changes. Simple ones. Wouldn’t you?
The 90-minute special is a companion to Perlmutter’s blockbuster book on how gluten and carbs are destroying our brains. In November it became a New York Times number one bestseller. Since its September release, as Perlmutter told me, “It’s never not been on the bestseller list, frankly.”
“Is it still number one?” I asked. A pause over the phone as he checked. In modern interview style, we were both also on our computers.
Writing in The Atlantic this week, Kurt Andersen praises members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormons for their “sincere commitment to leading virtuous lives” while simultaneously snickering at their “extreme and strange” beliefs.
There is, of course, a long and rather ignoble tradition of simultaneously praising and mocking Mormons. In the throes of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt sent off a friendly missive to Winston Churchill and his wife. Roosevelt noted his “very high opinion of the Mormons” while also taking the opportunity to poke fun at Mormon polygamy, which had officially ended in 1890.
Hillary Clinton once tweeted that “every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” What about Juanita Broaddrick?
If the ground beneath your feet feels cold, it’s because hell froze over the other day. It happened at 8:02 p.m. on Monday, when The New York Times published an op-ed called “I Believe Juanita.”
Written by Michelle Goldberg, it was a piece that, 20 years ago, likely would have inflamed the readership of the paper and scandalized its editors. Reviewing the credibility of Broaddrick’s claim, Goldberg wrote that “five witnesses said she confided in them about the assault right after it happened,” an important standard in reviewing the veracity of claims of past sex crimes.
But Goldberg’s was not a single snowflake of truth; rather it was part of an avalanche of honesty in the elite press, following a seemingly innocuous tweet by the MSNBC host Chris Hayes. “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is,” he wrote, “it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”