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.
By excusing Donald Trump’s behavior, some evangelical leaders enabled the internet provocateur’s ascent.
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) takes place this week near Washington, D.C., the first such gathering since Donald Trump took office. The conference purports to be a gathering for like-minded folks who believe, generally, in the well-established principles of the conservative movement, as enunciated by the American Conservative Union.
This year, aside from President Trump himself, activist Milo Yiannopoulos was briefly granted a featured speaking slot, and it caused a lot of disruption, garment-rending, gnashing of teeth, and in-fighting on the right.
Yiannopoulos, who prefers to go by MILO (yes, capitalized), is a controversial figure with dubious conservative credentials, most famous for being outrageous during speeches on his college campus tour, soberly called the “Dangerous Faggot” tour. Throughout the 2016 election, Yiannopoulos seemed to enjoy nothing quite so much as the crass, antagonistic side of candidate Trump. He didn’t just celebrate it; he rode it like a wave to greater stardom.
Trump’s attacks on the free press don’t just threaten the media—they undermine the public’s capacity to think, act, and defend democracy.
Are Donald Trump’s latest attacks on the press really that bad? Are they that out-of-the-ordinary, given the famous record of complaints nearly all his predecessors have lodged? (Even George Washington had a hostile-press problem.)
Are the bellows of protest from reporters, editors, and others of my press colleagues justified? Or just another sign that the press is nearly as thin-skinned as Trump himself, along with being even less popular?
I could prolong the buildup, but here is the case I’m going to make: Yes, they’re that bad, and worse.
I think Trump’s first month in office, capped by his “enemy of the people” announcement about the press, has been even more ominous and destructive than the Trump of the campaign trail would have prepared us for, which is of course saying something. And his “lying media” campaign matters not only in itself, which it does, but also because it is part of what is effectively an assault by Trump on the fundamentals of democratic governance.
New Homeland Security Department memos prioritize almost all undocumented immigrants for deportation, order the hiring of 10,000 more agents, and more.
The Department of Homeland Security issued new memos on Tuesday that give U.S. officials sweeping latitude to target “removable aliens” for deportation, effectively making most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. as priority targets.
The memos, issued by Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, enforce executive orders issued by Trump shortly after taking office. Obama administration policies previously directed immigration officials to focus on convicted criminals instead of the broader undocumented population.Kelly’s memos instruct agents to also prioritize undocumented immigrants who have been charged with a crime but not convicted of it, or committed an act that may be criminal offenses but haven’t been charged for it. Those categories mean that almost any brush with the American law-enforcement system could make an undocumented immigrant a target for removal.
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.
Neither truck drivers nor bankers would put up with a system like the one that influences medical residents’ schedules.
The path to becoming a doctor is notoriously difficult. Following pre-med studies and four years of medical school, freshly minted M.D.s must spend anywhere from three to seven years (depending on their chosen specialty) training as “residents” at an established teaching hospital. Medical residencies are institutional apprenticeships—and are therefore structured to serve the dual, often dueling, aims of training the profession’s next generation and minding the hospital’s labor needs.
How to manage this tension between “education and service” is a perennial question of residency training, according to Janis Orlowski, the chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Orlowski says that the amount of menial labor residents are required to perform, known in the profession as “scut work,” has decreased "tremendously" since she was a resident in the 1980s. But she acknowledges that even "institutions that are committed to education … constantly struggle with this,” trying to stay on the right side of the boundary between training and taking advantage of residents.
The journalist’s comments suggest gay men enjoy sex with children—an idea that has been widely debunked.
In the comment that cost him his book deal and speaker slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Breitbart journalist and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos defended “relationships in which those older men help those young boys to discover who they are.”
In the video, a clip of an old podcast episode that was tweeted this weekend by the group Reagan Battalion, Yiannopoulos says he isn’t defending pedophilia, before adding that “in the gay world, some of the most enriching ... relationships between younger boys and older men can be hugely positive experiences.” (Yiannopoulos later blamed “sloppy phrasing," saying when he was 17 he was in a relationship with a 29-year-old man. The age of consent in the U.K. is 16.)
The Italian philosopher Julius Evola is an unlikely hero for defenders of the “Judeo-Christian West.”
In the summer of 2014, years before he became the White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon gave a lecture via Skype at a conference held inside the Vatican. He spoke about the need to defend the values of the “Judeo-Christian West”—a term he used 11 times—against crony capitalism and libertarian capitalism, secularization, and Islam. He also mentioned the late Julius Evola, a far-right Italian philosopher popular with the American alt-right movement. What he did not mention is that Evola hated not only Jews, but Christianity, too.
References to Evola abounded on websites such as Breitbart News, The Daily Stormer, and AltRight.com well before The New York Timesnoted the Bannon-Evola connection earlier this month. But few have discussed the fundamental oddity of Evola serving as an intellectual inspiration for the alt-right. Yes, the thinker was a virulent anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer who influenced far-right movements in Italy from the 1950s until his death in 1974, but shouldn’t his contempt for Christianity make him an unlikely hero for those purporting to defend “Judeo-Christian” values?
In only now canceling the Breitbart editor’s book deal, the publisher is left with no goodwill, no payday, and no valid reason for working with him in the first place.
On Monday, when videos reemerged on social media in which the Breitbart News senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos seemed to condone sexual relationships between adult men and teenagers below the age of consent, the overwhelming response was one of outrage. The CNN host Jake Tapper posted several tweets excoriating Yiannopoulos and his followers, quoting a horrified friend who was a survivor of sex trafficking. The former Breitbart writer Michelle Fields described the tapes as “disgusting.” There were mounting calls for the Conservative Political Action Conference, which had announced Yiannopoulos as its keynote speaker last week, to cancel his appearance, which it subsequently did.
According to Washingtonian, even employees at Breitbart, which has elevated and supported Yiannopoulos in his rise to prominence as an outspoken supporter of the alt-right, threatened to walk out unless he was fired. And on Tuesday afternoon, Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart, stating that he didn’t want his “poor choice of words to detract from my colleagues’ important reporting.”
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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