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.
Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?
The country’s exceptionally thin safety net prompts residents—especially those with less-steady employment—to view partnership in more economic terms.
Over the last several decades, the proportion of Americans who get married has greatly diminished—a development known as well to those who lament marriage’s decline as those who take issue with it as an institution. But a development that’s much newer is that the demographic now leading the shift away from tradition is Americans without college degrees—who just a few decades ago were much more likely to be married by the age of 30 than college graduates were.
Today, though, just over half of women in their early 40s with a high-school degree or less education are married, compared to three-quarters of women with a bachelor’s degree; in the 1970s, there was barely a difference. The marriage gap for men has changed less over the years, but there the trend lines have flipped too: Twenty-five percent of men with high-school degrees or less education have never married, compared to 23 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees and 14 percent of those with advanced degrees. Meanwhile, divorce rates have continued to rise among the less educated, while staying more or less steady for college graduates in recent decades.
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.”
A best-selling author submits a draft to his editor. Hijinks ensue.
I had written five books for Scott Moyers, following him as he moved from editing jobs at Scribner’s to Random House and then to Penguin Press. We worked well together, and in part thanks to his strong editing hand, my last three books had been bestsellers.
So what happened when I finished years of work and sent him the manuscript of my sixth book stunned me. In fact, I was in for a series of surprises.
They began about 18 months ago, after I emailed to him that manuscript, a dual appreciation of Winston Churchill and George Orwell. When I had begun work on it, in 2013, some old friends of mine thought the subject was a bit obscure. Why would anyone care how two long-dead Englishmen, a conservative politician and a socialist journalist who never met, had dealt with the polarized political turmoil of the 1930s and the world war that followed? By 2016, as people on both the American left and right increasingly seemed to favor opinion over fact, the book had become more timely.
My boyfriend expected me to be lean and muscular. But I couldn't live up to that standard, and neither can a lot of guys--and we shouldn't have to.
I didn't know I was skinny-fat until my Russian boyfriend told me so. Actually, I didn't even know that was a thing until he told me so.
I did, however, suspect something was wrong with my body the first night I stayed over his house.
I went to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, and ran into his roommate, Julio. I don't remember what he said, but I remember where he looked. He seemed to direct his entire conversation--and disgust--at my exposed midsection.
Also known as my love handles.
Julio (gay) and my boyfriend both possess the envious V-shape: broad shoulders narrowing down to a waist that hasn't smelled a carb in years. Their arms are huge, their chests are cut, their abs are visibly defined.
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
“If you think strong statements or mere pressure from the U.S. will be sufficient to really convince Pakistan to change its calculus, that is like really living in a fool’s paradise.”
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” said President Trump in a Monday night speech outlining his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. With those words, he gave perhaps the strongest public criticism by a U.S. president of Pakistan’s policy in that war, but also echoed a widely held view among U.S. national-security experts. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”
But Pakistan itself has been the victim of several high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years, and its government quickly declared the remarks about safe havens part of a “false narrative,” insisting that “No country in the world has suffered more than Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism. ... It is, therefore disappointing that the US policy statement ignores the enormous sacrifices rendered by the Pakistani nation in this effort.”
Memorials to the Lost Cause have always meant something sinister for the descendants of enslaved people.
For most of my life I didn’t know Confederate statues could come down.
Throughout my childhood, those equestrian statues of victory, obelisks, and granite figures of soldiers were as immovable and immutable as the hills and the lakes. Other symbols of the South as it was before 1865 were also part of the fabric of reality. Old battle flags were inevitabilities, waving in the wind. Plantations might as well have been wonders of the world, and old battlefields holy places. Part of living in the South, just as much as eating and breathing were, was partaking in a perpetual reenactment.
In my hometown of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, we have our own little shrine to the Confederacy. The Nash County Confederate Monument is a column with one soldier standing atop its apex, surrounded by four shorter empty columns.The base is engraved with two rifles crossed.
Anti-Semitic logic fueled the violence over the weekend, no matter what the president says.
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was ostensibly about protecting a statue of Robert E. Lee. It was about asserting the legitimacy of “white culture” and white supremacy, and defending the legacy of the Confederacy.
So why did the demonstrators chant anti-Semitic lines like “Jews will not replace us”?
The demonstration was suffused with anti-black racism, but also with anti-Semitism. Marchers displayed swastikas on banners and shouted slogans like “blood and soil,” a phrase drawn from Nazi ideology. “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers,” one demonstrator told Vice News’ Elspeth Reeve during their march. As Jews prayed at a local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, men dressed in fatigues carrying semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, according to the temple’s president. Nazi websites posted a call to burn their building. As a precautionary measure, congregants had removed their Torah scrolls and exited through the back of the building when they were done praying.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.