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.
Years of misleading coverage left viewers so misinformed that many were shocked when confronted with the actual costs of repeal.
As the Republican Party struggled and then failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, pulling a wildly unpopular bill from the House without even taking a vote, a flurry of insightful articles helped the public understand what exactly just happened. Robert Draper explained the roles that Stephen Bannon, Paul Ryan, and others played in deciding what agenda items President Trump would pursue in what order. Politicoreported on how and why the House Freedom Caucus insisted that the health care bill repeal even relatively popular parts of Obamacare. Lest anyone pin blame for the GOP’s failure on that faction, Reihan Salam argued persuasively that responsibility rests with poor leadership by House Speaker Paul Ryan and a GOP coalition with “policy goals that simply can’t be achieved.”
The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from the courses—and, in an uncertain environment, students keep being suckered.
Fraudulent schemes come in all shapes and sizes. To work, they typically wear a patina of respectability. That's the case with Advanced Placement courses, one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students.
That's a pretty strong claim, right? You bet. But why not be straightforward when discussing a scam the scale and audacity of which would raise Bernie Madoff's eyebrows?
The miscellany of AP courses offered in U.S. high schools under the imprimatur of the College Board probably started with good intentions. The idea, going back to the 1950s, was to offer college-level courses and exams to high-school students. The courses allegedly provide students the kind of rigorous academic experience they will encounter in college as well as an opportunity to earn college credit for the work.
After the largest demonstrations in years erupted across the country on Sunday, the Kremlin is fighting back.
MOSCOW— It’s not a rare sight in this city to see tens of thousands of people pour into the streets to express their opposition to the government that makes its home here. Moscow was the epicenter of the massive pro-democracy protests of 2011-2012, and many others since, including rallies to commemorate slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. This is the city where Vladimir Putin lives, along with the tens of thousands of people who make his machine of state hum. But given its wealth and cosmopolitanism, Moscow is also the most oppositional city in Russia. In 2013, it nearly forced the Kremlin-installed mayor into a run-off with a charismatic young opposition leader, Alexey Navalny. So in some ways, it was not surprising to see thousands heed his call to come out and protest here on Sunday.
Despite the damage done to his reputation, the defeat may liberate him to pursue the agenda his voters support—not the one the Republican establishment favors.
Friday was the worst day of Donald Trump’s young presidency—an unprecedented defeat on his first legislative priority, which also happened to be his party’s signature promise for the last seven years and one of his own top campaign promises. What’s more, the collapse undercuts the central premise of Trump’s political identity, his supposedly formidable reputation as a dealmaker.
But what if, instead, Trump dodged a serious bullet on Friday, setting him up for a recovery? If that’s the case, Friday might even have perversely been the best day of Trump’s presidency so far—or at least the point where he hit rock-bottom, allowing him to turn things around.
Highly educated immigrants from South Asia have often been able to live comfortably in America. With a new wave of hate crimes, that’s changing.
Manik Suri is the archetypical overachiever from an Indian American family. The 34-year-old runs a start-up in Silicon Valley. He speaks four languages. He’s got two Ivy League degrees.
And yet, when the windows at an Indian restaurant near his house were shot out in late February, along with those of an Eritrean place nearby, he felt shaken. “We catered my wife’s sister’s wedding in that restaurant,” he said. “The whole conception of the Indian community as a model minority—we benefitted from that perception.” This is “the first time I’ve ever felt, ‘Wow, it doesn’t matter.’”
Many Indian Americans seem to be going through a period of disorientation during these first few months of the Trump administration. As more than one percent of the U.S. population, Indians are one of the country’s largest immigrant groups, and they’re also one of the most distinctive: They tend to be wealthier, more highly educated, and more geographically dispersed than other immigrants. While they do face discrimination, they’re often referred to as a “model minority,” as Suri noted: Middle- and upper-class Indians are more willing and able to assimilate to America’s majority culture because of their educational and economic status. The quickly growing minority has not always been that politically engaged, and their political identity isn’t necessarily connected to their ethnic or religious background: Mobilization around Indian or Hindu American identity is relatively rare compared to other minority groups, according to Sangay Mishra, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Drew University.
Conservatives once warned that Obamacare would produce the Democratic Waterloo. Their inability to accept the principle of universal coverage has, instead, led to their own defeat.
Seven years and three days ago, the House of Representatives grumblingly voted to approve the Senate’s version of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats in the House were displeased by many of the changes introduced by Senate Democrats. But in the interval after Senate passage, the Republicans had gained a 41st seat in the Senate. Any further tinkering with the law could trigger a Republican filibuster. Rather than lose the whole thing, the House swallowed hard and accepted a bill that liberals regarded as a giveaway to insurance companies and other interest groups. The finished law proceeded to President Obama for signature on March 23, 2010.
A few minutes after the House vote, I wrote a short blog post for the website I edited in those days. The site had been founded early in 2009 to argue for a more modern and more moderate form of Republicanism. The timing could not have been worse. At precisely the moment we were urging the GOP to march in one direction, the great mass of conservatives and Republicans had turned on the double in the other, toward an ever more wild and even paranoid extremism. Those were the days of Glenn Beck’s 5 o’clock Fox News conspiracy rants, of Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” of Orly Taitz and her fellow Birthers, of Tea Party rallies at which men openly brandished assault rifles.
There are two personalities on display in Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. One Trump generally spells things correctly, tweets flattering news stories, and politely thanks visitors for meeting with him. The other Trump is easily provoked, capitalizes random words, and lashes out in real time at things that annoy him.
These two genres of tweets generally come from two different devices—an Android phone and an iPhone—and thus presumably from different people. Last year, David Robinson, a data scientist at Stack Overflow, poked through months of Trump’s timeline and found that tweets from the Android phone were far more negative than the bland iPhone tweets. Trump uses an Android phone as his personal device, suggesting that he was behind the angrier tweets; the iPhone tweets probably came from staff.
The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, under fire for excessive closeness to President Trump, visited the White House the day before lodging a bombshell allegation.
As House Intelligence Committee chairman, Representative Devin Nunes’s job is to oversee American spycraft. But Nunes’s own actions over the last few days suggest more the cloak-and-dagger actions of a would-be John Le Carré character than those of a sober government investigator.
Amid accusations from Democrats on the panel that Nunes is acting as a surrogate for the Trump administration, CNN revealed Monday that Nunes was seen on the White House grounds on Tuesday, the day before he announced he had new and important information about surveillance of Trump transition team figures by the intelligence community.
The show will air at the same time across the U.S. for the first time ever starting in April—thanks to social media.
In its 42 seasons, Saturday Night Live has been hosted by politicians and world leaders, has spun off countless films and television shows, and has served as America’s flagship sketch-comedy series. There’s one thing it hasn’t done, though—aired live for the entire country. For all these years, SNL has been live at 11:30 p.m. Eastern and 10:30 p.m. Central Time, then showed on tape delay for viewers in the Mountain and West time zones. That’s because the latertime slot has been of paramount importance to the show’s longevity and ratings success. But for its final April and May episodes this season, SNL will be live for all American viewers.
This season of SNL has been a ratings powerhouse, beating every network offering except for The Big Bang Theory in the “key demo” (viewers aged 18-49) as its political satire and guest appearances by Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy have captured the public’s attention. That kind of viewership is especially impressive considering audiences today tend to be happier binging shows online later or catching up on their DVRs. SNL is that rare non-sports, non-news broadcast show that works better if you actually watch it live, especially now that social media freely “spoils” the best laughs for viewers on the West Coast. So why not grant that experience to viewers across the U.S., even though it means some will have to tune in earlier?
Can we predict romantic prospects just from looking at a face?
Edward Royzman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asks me to list four qualities on a piece of paper: physical attractiveness, income, kindness, and fidelity. Then he gives me 200 virtual “date points” that I’m to distribute among the four traits. The more I allocate to each attribute, the more highly I supposedly value that quality in a mate.
This experiment, which Royzman sometimes runs with his college classes, is meant to inject scarcity into hypothetical dating decisions in order to force people to prioritize.
I think for a second, and then I write equal amounts (70) next to both hotness and kindness, then 40 next to income and 20 next to fidelity.