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.
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.
The Obama years left Republicans with excellent ratings from the Heritage Foundation, and no idea how to whip a vote.
The Republican Party’s marquee legislative initiative had just imploded in spectacular, and humiliating, fashion Friday afternoon when Paul Ryan stepped up to a podium on Capitol Hill. The beleaguered house speaker wasted no time in diagnosing the failure of his caucus. “Moving from an opposition party to a governing party comes with some growing pains,” he said. “And, well, we’re feeling those growing pains today.”
Ryan wasn’t wrong. The GOP’s inability to maneuver a health-care bill through the House this week—after seven years of promising to repeal and replace Obamacare—is, indeed, emblematic of a deeper dysfunction that grips his party. But that dysfunction may not be as easy to cure as Ryan and other GOP leaders believe.
Speaking after the collapse of the Republican health-care bill, the president assigned blame to plenty of parties but cast himself as a mere bystander.
Speaking in the Oval Office Friday afternoon, President Trump surveyed the wreckage of the Obamacare repeal effort and issued a crisp, definitive verdict: I didn’t do it.
The president said he didn’t blame Speaker Paul Ryan, though he had plenty of implied criticism for the speaker. “I like Speaker Ryan. He worked very hard,” Trump said, but he added: “I'm not going to speak badly about anybody within the Republican Party. Certainly there's a big history. I really think Paul worked hard.” He added ruefully that the GOP could have taken up tax-reform first, instead of Obamacare—the reverse of Ryan’s desired sequence. “Now we’re going to go for tax reform, which I’ve always liked,” he said.
The House abandoned its legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, handing President Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan a major defeat.
Updated on March 24 at 6:28 p.m. ET
To a man and woman, nearly every one of the 237 Republicans elected to the House last November made the same promise to voters: Give us control of Congress and the White House, and we will repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
On Friday, those lawmakers abandoned that effort, conceding that the Republican Party’s core campaign pledge of the last seven years will go unfulfilled. “I will not sugarcoat this: This is a disappointing day for us,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a press conference after he informed Republicans that he was ditching the American Health Care Act.
“We did not have quite the votes to replace this law,” Ryan said. “And, so yeah, we’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”
Most of management theory is inane, writes our correspondent, the founder of a consulting firm. If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an M.B.A. Study philosophy instead
During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.
If the lobbyist’s work did indeed “greatly benefit the Putin Government,” the contract wouldn’t be especially out of the ordinary for an American lobbyist—or for Russia.
MOSCOW—The reports that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had had a contract for tens of millions of dollars to “greatly benefit the Putin Government” were not exactly news here. And, in a certain sense, they didn’t have to be news in Washington, either.
Manafort, who has reportedly just volunteered to testify in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, had been a lobbyist, a notorious one, for decades. His work for less-than-democratic governments, including various African strongmen and the Marcos family of the Philippines, had been well-known in Washington and reported over the last year. It is also not uncommon for lobbyists and political operatives waiting out an administration of the opposite party to work abroad, helping foreign governments of whatever stripe sharpen their political game. Democratic operatives who had worked on the Obama and Clinton campaigns, for example, have done work advising politicians in Britain, Ukraine, and Georgia. Manafort seemed to have fewer moral qualms and filters than others—the only ticket to access his political skills, it seems, was the right amount of money—but it was all part of the swamp the Donald Trump campaign, with Manafort at the helm for about five months, promised to drain.
In the business world, a catastrophic deal can be forgotten. The president may find it’s not that easy in politics.
In 1985, Donald Trump bought West Side Yards*, a huge real-estate parcel on the West Side of Manhattan. (Actually, it was his second try at the property, which he’d failed to develop in the 1970s.) Trump paid $115 million to buy the parcel, with huge plans to create a sparkling center on one of the few remaining undeveloped parts of the island.
It didn’t work. Trump quarreled with Mayor Ed Koch, failed to start the work, and steadily lost tens of millions of dollars. In 1989, he declined an offer to sell the land for a more than $400 million profit. Five years later, he finally threw in the towel, selling it for just $82 million—and on condition that the buyer take on a quarter of a billion in debt. But Trump was right about the commercial potential of West Side Yards. The developers who bought the land from him sold it for $1.8 billion in 2005, the largest residential real-estate deal in New York history. A sparkling new neighborhood is finally rising on the site.
A new study finds that deliberately considering the perspectives of others can help conceited people feel empathy.
Love is great, but it’s actually empathy that makes the world go ‘round. Understanding other peoples’ viewpoints is so essential to human functioning that psychologists sometimes refer to empathy as “social glue, binding people together and creating harmonious relationships.”
Narcissists tend to lack this ability. Think of the charismatic co-worker who refuses to cover for a colleague who’s been in a car accident. Or the affable friend who nonetheless seems to delight in back-stabbing.
These types of individuals are what’s known as “sub-clinical” narcissists—the everyday egoists who, though they may not merit psychiatric attention, don’t make very good friends or lovers.
Social-service organizations are reporting a drop in enrollments in food stamps and other programs.
NEW YORK CITY—As the evening rush hour peaked, Blanca Palomeque stationed herself by the carts selling roasted corn, tamales, and ice cream at the exit to the 90th Street-Elmhurst Avenue subway stop in Queens. She spotted a woman pushing a baby in a pink stroller and tugging along two school-aged girls with pigtails.
“Excuse me, good afternoon, how are you?” Palomeque said in Spanish. “Do you have food stamps for your children? Here is some information.” She pushed a flyer into the mother’s hand before rushing over to a pregnant woman to speak with her as well. Palomeque repeated this process over and over again until the trains became less crowded, urging mothers and fathers and grandparents to look into their eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid, for themselves, for their children, for a friend, for a neighbor.
How “graphic medicine” is helping some students survive the bottom of the hospital pecking order
A young woman in a black suit and heels, with a leather portfolio hanging squarely at her side, stares at the wall across from the admissions office. She’s an applicant for medical school, on campus to interview with physicians, eat with first-year medical students, and tour the hospital with a docent in a pale-blue vest. At the moment, though, she’s contemplating a comic that hangs before her, a caricature of a doctor in a white coat. The doctor, who has devil horns and shark teeth, screams at a bewildered medical trainee then bites off her head.
Dozens of prospective students like this young woman show up in this hallway every week. It’s the most highly trafficked corridor at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine, because the wall is covered with comics. On the way to the cafeteria, clinicians, staff, and medical students—current, yes, but especially aspiring—slow their hurried pace, intrigued by the unusual presence of speech balloons and cartoon images.