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.
Among the more practical advice that can be offered to international travelers is wisdom of the bathroom. So let me say, as someone who recently returned from China, that you should be prepared to one, carry your own toilet paper and two, practice your squat.
I do not mean those goofy chairless sits you see at the gym. No, toned glutes will not save you here. I mean the deep squat, where you plop your butt down as far as it can go while staying aloft and balanced on the heels. This position—in contrast to deep squatting on your toes as most Americans naturally attempt instead—is so stable that people in China can hold it for minutes and perhaps even hours ...
Despite physical limitations, the late scientist had a singular, stubborn insistence on living life on his own terms.
As a theoretical physicist who specializes in cosmology and gravitation, I naturally had many opportunities to interact with Stephen Hawking before his death. We attended the same physics conferences, where he was always rightfully celebrated as one of the world’s great scientists. He regularly visited the California Institute of Technology, where I work as a researcher. And, in perhaps my greatest contribution to world culture, I helped arrange Stephen’s cameo appearance on The Big Bang Theory.
But to get a glimpse of what Stephen was really like, let me tell you the story of time I picked him up at the airport.
Usually picking someone up at the airport is not a major logistical operation. Stephen, who lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, traveled with a retinue of students and nurses, as well as his custom-made wheelchair and various pieces of medical equipment. But this should have made my job easier, rather than harder: All I was actually asked to do was to meet them upon their arrival and point them toward the special van that had been rented for Stephen’s use. In-and-out job, right?
The first female speaker of the House has become the most effective congressional leader of modern times—and, not coincidentally, the most vilified.
Last May, TheWashington Post’s James Hohmann noted “an uncovered dynamic” that helped explain the GOP’s failure to repeal Obamacare. Three current Democratic House members had opposed the Affordable Care Act when it first passed. Twelve Democratic House members represent districts that Donald Trump won. Yet none voted for repeal. The “uncovered dynamic,” Hohmann suggested, was Nancy Pelosi’s skill at keeping her party in line.
She’s been keeping it in line for more than a decade. In 2005, George W. Bush launched his second presidential term with an aggressive push to partially privatize Social Security. For nine months, Republicans demanded that Democrats admit the retirement system was in crisis and offer their own program to change it. Pelosi refused. Democratic members of Congress hosted more than 1,000 town-hall meetings to rally opposition to privatization. That fall, Republicans backed down, and Bush’s second term never recovered.
Inside Germany’s high-stakes operation to sort people fleeing death from opportunists and pretenders
Three years ago, overcome by the squalor of my home, I decided to hire a cleaner. I scanned Craigslist, feeling a prick of guilt; few things arouse class angst as reliably as the purchase of domestic help. Then I remembered another option. Near my Connecticut home was a refugee-resettlement center. On weekdays, dozens of recent arrivals loitered there, eager for work. This seemed to offer a solution to both my squalor and my angst. To pay a Craigslist gig worker felt a little icky. To pay a refugee—well, that felt magnanimous, almost patriotic.
I wrote to the resettlement center, which sent me a stack of résumés. Even the ones from Congolese herders were well formatted and in English—the result, surely, of polishing by the center’s staff. The stories, I found, made propulsive reading, despite the outline form. I was tempted to request more résumés for the understated drama alone. Each was the timeline of a life interrupted in a distant, volatile land and now picked up, improbably, in a snowy New England town.
The strange, cosmic reason our evolutionary path will look ever luckier the longer we survive
It was hard times for the bomber pilots that floated over Europe, their planes incinerating cities below, like birds of prey. Even as they turned the once-bustling streets beneath to howling firestorms, death had become a close companion to the crews of the Allied bombers as well. In fact, surviving a tour with the Bomber Command had become a virtual coin flip. While their munitions fell mutely from bomb bays, an upward sleet of fire from smoldering city grids and darkened farmland shot the planes out of the sky like clay pigeons. For recruits encountering the freshly empty bunk beds of dead airmen, morale was sapped before they could even get in the cockpit. Hoping to slow this attrition, Allied officers studied the pattern of bullet holes in returning aircraft for vulnerable parts to reinforce with armor.
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory
One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.
For a brief moment, NASA found itself at the center of a digital misinformation campaign.
“After year in space, astronaut Scott Kelly no longer has same DNA as identical twin,” the headline of a story on the Today show’s website, published Thursday, declared. Seven percent of his DNA, the story says, “has not returned to normal since he returned from space.”
Pretty amazing news, right? Too bad it’s not true.
This week, dozens of news organizations published stories with this or similar information. They cited a NASA study on the effects of space travel on the human body, with two subjects: astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly, identical twins. In 2015, Scott flew to the International Space Station and lived there for 340 days—a record for an American astronaut—while Mark stayed on Earth. Scientists examined the twins before, during, and after the mission.
Most days, I am tethered to my phone. I walk around gorging myself on news from my mobile devices, constantly absorbing information, soaking in stories without satiation or satisfaction. I am bombarded by alerts and notifications, retweets and likes and faves. I’ve been on Twitter pretty much continuously for seven whole years, and the algorithm of virality and in-case-you-missed-its has all but replaced the chemical and emotional signals in my brain. My anxiety mounts with each passing day, and even in my sleep—which is of course bracketed by Twitter browsing sessions—I have recurring nightmares about getting ratioed. My fingers burn from touch-screen use, my eyesight is strained, my spine is slowly changing shape to accommodate my hunched-over poring. I am becoming post-human, in the crappiest and least-cool way possible.
Shortly after he was dismissed Friday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the former FBI deputy director pinned the blame directly on President Trump.
Andrew McCabe, a former acting and deputy FBI director who had drawn the ire of President Trump, was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions late Friday evening, a decision that raises important questions about the independence of both the Justice Department and the FBI.
Trump and his associates are a focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and McCabe’s firing could send the message to federal law-enforcement officials that they risk their jobs and reputations if they displease the president.
In his first public comments on the matter, just after midnight, Trump effusively praised McCabe’s dismissal:
Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI - A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!
A half-century after a brutal massacre in Vietnam, the United States still struggles to hold itself accountable for atrocities.
When U.S. Army soldiers ended their massacre of elderly men, women, and children in a South Vietnamese hamlet 50 years ago—on March 16, 1968—perhaps 500 civilians lay dead.
The green troops expected to meet Vietcong forces, but instead found unarmed families. “During the next few hours, the civilians were murdered,” Seymour Hersh later wrote. “Many were rounded up in small groups and shot, others were flung into a drainage ditch at one edge of the hamlet and shot, and many more were shot at random in or near their homes. Some of the younger women and girls were raped and then murdered. After the shootings, the G.I.s systematically burned each home, destroyed the livestock and food, and fouled the area’s drinking supplies.”