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.
The most popular news channel in the Arab world sits uneasily at the center of the Qatar crisis.
Earlier this month, managers at Al Jazeera, the most popular news channel in the Arab world, summoned nervous journalists into a glass-paneled conference room in the network’s headquarters in Doha. A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia had just imposed an embargo on Qatar, closing its airspace and expelling thousands of Qatari citizens. One of the conditions for lifting the blockade, according to a list leaked on Thursday, was reportedly the closure of Al Jazeera. The network’s leadership wanted to reassure its staff that their jobs were safe. “We’re not planning any changes right now,” journalists were told, according to two participants in the meeting. That left quite a bit unsaid. (I resigned from Al Jazeera English in mid-2013 after working there for nearly four years.)
The president’s policies in office have aligned almost perfectly with Vladimir Putin’s goals.
Fifty-four years ago this month, former President John F. Kennedy delivered the “Strategy of Peace,” a powerful address that captured America’s indispensable leadership at the height of the Cold War. Kennedy knew that our country could not guard against the Soviet Union alone, for he believed that “genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts.”
Incredibly, the man who now leads the United States seems to find himself locked in an alarming and perilous embrace with the Russian government. These ties threaten to weaken a system of alliances that have held Russia—and countless other threats to the international community—at bay since the conclusion of the Second World War.
Mounting evidence that Trump’s election was aided by Russian interference presents a challenge to the American system of government—with lasting consequences for democracy.
Day by day, revelation after revelation, the legitimacy of the Trump presidency is seeping away. The question of what to do about this loss is becoming ever more urgent and frightening.
The already thick cloud of discredit over the Trump presidency thickened deeper Friday, June 23. The Washington Post reported that the CIA told President Obama last year that Vladimir Putin had personally and specifically instructed his intelligence agencies to intervene in the U.S. presidential election to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump.
Whether the Trump campaign knowingly coordinated its activities with the Russians remains uncertain. The Trump campaign may have been a wholly passive and unwitting beneficiary. Yes, it’s curious that the Russians allegedly directed their resources to the Rust Belt states also targeted by the Trump campaign. But it’s conceivable they were all just reading the same polls on FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics.
Richard Ben-Veniste on the uncanny parallels between the scandal he investigated and the controversy over the White House’s alleged links to Russia
Watching the national controversy over the White House and Russia unfold, I’m reminded of Karl Marx’s oft-quoted observation: “History repeats itself: first as tragedy, second as farce.” I was a close witness to the national tragedy that was Richard Nixon’s self-inflicted downfall as president, and I’ve recently contemplated whether a repeat of his “Saturday Night Massacre” may already be in the offing. Given how that incident doomed one president, Trump would do well to resist repeating his predecessor’s mistakes—and avoid his presidency’s descent into a quasi-Watergate parody.
The massacre began when Nixon gave the order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, a desperate effort to prevent him from hearing tape-recorded evidence that proved the White House’s involvement in a conspiracy to obstruct the investigation of a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters. Nixon’s misuse of executive power backfired, immediately costing him two highly respected members of his administration: Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus, who both resigned rather than follow Nixon’s directive. Third in command at the Justice Department was Solicitor General Robert Bork, who agreed to do the dirty deed and fired Cox.
Gyms and other secular communities are starting to fill spiritual and social needs for many nonreligious people.
“You always know if someone goes to Harvard or if they go to CrossFit—they’ll tell you,” said Casper ter Kuile, a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School. “It’s really interesting that evangelical zeal they have. They want to recruit you.”
CrossFit is his favorite example of a trend he has noticed: how, in the midst of the decline of religious affiliation in America, and the rise of isolation and loneliness, many ostensibly non-religious communities are “functioning in ways that look a little bit religious,” he explained on Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
“People’s behavior and practice is really being unbundled from the institutions and identities that would have been homes for it,” ter Kuile says. “[For example], ‘I was raised Catholic but yoga is really the practice where I find my experience of contemplation.’ As institutional affiliation decreases, people have the same age-old desires for connection, relationships, connection to something bigger than themselves.”
By searching the church's famed family trees, scientists have tracked down a cancer-causing mutation that came west with a pioneer couple—just in time to save the lives of their great-great-great-great grandchildren.
Nobody knew it then, but the genetic mutation came to Utah by wagon with the Hinman family. Lyman Hinman found the Mormon faith in 1840. Amid a surge of religious fervor, he persuaded his wife, Aurelia, and five children to abandon their 21-room Massachusetts house in search of Zion. They went first to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the faith’s prophet and founder, Joseph Smith, was holding forth—until Smith was murdered by a mob and his followers were run out of town. They kept going west and west until there were no towns to be run out of. Food was scarce. They boiled elk horns.The children’s mouths erupted in sores from scurvy. Aurelia lost all her teeth. But they survived. And so did the mutation.
Republicans are going to insist otherwise, but that’s simply not the case.
If there was one goal Senate Republicans had set out to achieve in developing their health bill to show they were less “mean” than their colleagues in the House, it was to take away the House Republicans’ green light for insurers to once again discriminate against those with pre-existing health conditions. Senate Republicans were willing to drive up deductibles and co-pays and be more draconian on Medicaid cuts, but on the one issue of pre-existing conditions they were intent on being less “mean,” as President Trump termed the House bill. Now that the text of the bill has been released, it’s clear that they have failed to achieve that.
As they argue for the bill, Republicans are going to claim that it will not allow insurance plans to discriminate against people because they have a pre-existing condition. But that just isn’t the case. The Republican plan may not allow insurers to discriminate against a pre-existing condition through the front door, but they’ve created a backdoor way in.
Most used to work in July and August. Now the vast majority don’t. Are they being lazy, or strategic?
The summer job is considered a rite of passage for the American Teenager. It is a time when tossing newspaper bundles and bussing restaurant tables acts as a rehearsal for weightier adult responsibilities, like bundling investments and bussing dinner-party plates. But in the last few decades, the summer job has been disappearing. In the summer of 1978, 60 percent of teens were working or looking for work. Last summer, just 35 percent were.
Why did American teens stop trying to get summer jobs? One typical answer is: They’re just kids, and kids are getting lazier.
One can rule out that hypothesis pretty quickly. The number of teens in the workforce has collapsed since 2000, as the graph below shows. But the share of NEETs—young people who are “Neither in Education, Employment, or Training”—has been extraordinarily steady. In fact, it has not budged more than 0.1 percentage point since the late 1990s. Just 7 percent of American teens are NEETs, which is lower than France and about the same as the mean of all advanced economies in the OECD. The supposed laziness of American teenagers is unchanging and, literally, average.
If the party cares about winning, it needs to learn how to appeal to the white working class.
The strategy was simple. A demographic wave—long-building, still-building—would carry the party to victory, and liberalism to generational advantage. The wave was inevitable, unstoppable. It would not crest for many years, and in the meantime, there would be losses—losses in the midterms and in special elections; in statehouses and in districts and counties and municipalities outside major cities. Losses in places and elections where the white vote was especially strong.
But the presidency could offset these losses. Every four years the wave would swell, receding again thereafter but coming back in the next presidential cycle, higher, higher. The strategy was simple. The presidency was everything.
As Washington loses patience with the Gulf crisis, the Saudi-led campaign resorts to extreme measures.
Now, Qatar has a list.
On Thursday evening, news reports surfaced of 13 demands from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and four other nations that, if fulfilled by Doha, will resolve their ongoing standoff with the tiny Gulf nation. Among the more onerous demands appearing on the list, which may or may not be official, are that Qatar sever all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements in the Middle East, downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran, close all Al Jazeera affiliates and severalother Qatar-funded media outlets, pay an unspecified sum in compensation for loss of life and damage caused by Qatari regional policies in recent years, and submit to regular monitoring for up to 12 years to ensure compliance.