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.
Emma Perrier was deceived by an older man on the internet—a hoax that turned into an unbelievable love story.
Emma Perrier spent the summer of 2015 mending a broken heart, after a recent breakup. By September, the restaurant manager had grown tired of watching The Notebook alone in her apartment in Twickenham, a leafy suburb southwest of London, and decided it was time to get back out there. Despite the horror stories she’d heard about online dating, Emma, 33, downloaded a matchmaking app called Zoosk. The second “o” in the Zoosk logo looks like a diamond engagement ring, which suggested that its 38 million members were seeking more than the one-night stands offered by apps like Tinder.
She snapped the three selfies the app required to “verify her identity.” Emma, who is from a volcanic city near the French Alps, not far from the source of Perrier mineral water, is petite, and brunette. She found it difficult to meet men, especially as she avoided pubs and nightclubs, and worked such long hours at a coffee shop in the city’s financial district that she met only stockbrokers, who were mostly looking for cappuccinos, not love.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
Two centuries ago, America pioneered a way of thinking that puts human well-being in economic terms.
Money and markets have been around for thousands of years. Yet as central as currency has been to so many civilizations, people in societies as different as ancient Greece, imperial China, medieval Europe, and colonial America did not measure residents’ well-being in terms of monetary earnings or economic output.
In the mid-19th century, the United States—and to a lesser extent other industrializing nations such as England and Germany—departed from this historical pattern. It was then that American businesspeople and policymakers started to measure progress in dollar amounts, tabulating social welfare based on people’s capacity to generate income. This fundamental shift, in time, transformed the way Americans appraised not only investments and businesses but also their communities, their environment, and even themselves.
The views of religiously conservative Americans no longer dominate U.S. culture or law. How will LGBT supporters engage with their perspectives on sexuality?
Among socially conservative religious leaders, the rapid shift of the cultural and legal status quo on issues of sexuality has created a palpable sense of disorientation. Some, like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, have argued that this is a time of clarity for Christians: It will become harder for evangelicals to blend into mass culture, and while that separation comes with costs, it may actually be a boon to the faith. Others, like the writer Rod Dreher, have suggested that conservatives may be forced into a sort of cultural withdrawal, a retreat into self-sustaining communities of people who share similar values.
In a new book, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers a third way: stand up and debate, even on issues that seem to be moving toward an ever-firmer cultural consensus. In some ways, Mohler neatly fits the stereotype of an evangelical leader who has taken up a stand against queerness. He’s white, he’s male, he’s Southern; he makes no apologies for his view that homosexuality is intertwined with sin. But he could also probably ace a Women and Gender Studies seminar. (He even once wrote an essay for The Atlanticon the Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.) In his book, We Cannot Be Silent, he cites sociologists like Jürgen Habermas and discusses television shows like Modern Family. He explores the difference between gender and sex and transgender and intersex.
The White House chief of staff decried the desacralization of military deaths—but it was the president he serves who politicized condolence calls.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly made some extraordinary remarks during Thursday’s White House briefing. They were extraordinary not only because Kelly seldom speaks on the record to the press and was doing so for the second time in a week, but also for the deeply personal nature of what he said—discussing the death of his son in combat, a topic he has in the past been careful to avoid. Yet Kelly’s defense of President Trump, who is embroiled in a self-inflicted crisis over his condolences for the families of fallen servicemembers, also contained the grain of a strong rebuke to the president.
Kelly began with a description of what happens when a soldier, sailor, marine, or airman or -woman is killed in battle. Then he said:
In western Germany, populations of flying insects have fallen by around 80 percent in the last three decades.
The bottles were getting emptier: That was the first sign that something awful was happening.
Since 1989, scientists from the Entomological Society Krefeld had been collecting insects in the nature reserves and protected areas of western Germany. They set up malaise traps—large tents that funnel any incoming insect upward through a cone of fabric and into a bottle of alcohol. These traps are used by entomologists to collect specimens of local insects, for research or education. “But over the years, [the Krefeld team] realized that the bottles were getting emptier and emptier,” says Caspar Hallmann, from Radboud University.
By analyzing the Krefeld data—1,503 traps, and 27 years of work—Hallmann and his colleagues have shown that most of the flying insects in this part of Germany are flying no more. Between 1989 and 2016, the average weight of insects that were caught between May and October fell by an astonishing 77 percent. Over the same period, the weight of insects caught in the height of summer, when these creatures should be at their buzziest, fell by 82 percent.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keeps a Most Wanted list for flu viruses. The agency evaluates every potentially dangerous strain, and gives them two scores out of 10—one reflecting how likely they are to trigger a pandemic, and another that measures how bad that pandemic would be. At the top of the list, with scores of 6.5 for emergence and 7.5 for impact, is H7N9.
Influenza viruses come in many flavors—H5N1, H1N1, H3N2, and so on. The H and N refer to two proteins on their surface, and the numbers refer to the versions of those proteins that a particular virus carries. H1N1 was responsible for both the catastrophic pandemic of 1918 that killed millions of people, and the most recent (and much milder) one from 2009. H5N1 is the bird-flu subtype that has been worrying scientists for almost two decades. But H7N9? Until recently, it had flown under the radar.
A small group of programmers wants to change how we code—before catastrophe strikes.
There were six hours during the night of April 10, 2014, when the entire population of Washington State had no 911 service. People who called for help got a busy signal. One Seattle woman dialed 911 at least 37 times while a stranger was trying to break into her house. When he finally crawled into her living room through a window, she picked up a kitchen knife. The man fled.
The 911 outage, at the time the largest ever reported, was traced to software running on a server in Englewood, Colorado. Operated by a systems provider named Intrado, the server kept a running counter of how many calls it had routed to 911 dispatchers around the country. Intrado programmers had set a threshold for how high the counter could go. They picked a number in the millions.
By making it harder to punish official misconduct, the justices risk damage to America's republican institutions.
For a few days earlier this month, it looked like the years-long corruption probe targeting New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez would fall apart seven weeks into his trial. At issue was the prosecution’s “stream of benefits” theory, which argues that the steady flow of donations and gifts from a wealthy Florida doctor to the Democratic senator—and the flow of favors from the senator to the doctor—amounted to quid pro quo corruption.
During a hearing last week, Judge William Walls seemed to signal that argument was dead on arrival by citing a recent Supreme Court ruling that has vexed public-corruption investigators across the country. “I frankly don’t think McDonnell will allow that,” Walls told prosecutors, referring to the decision in McDonnell v. United States that fundamentally changed the standard for bribery.
In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.
Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.
Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.