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.
Passengers on a domestic flight deplaning in New York were asked to present ID by Customs and Border Protection agents—a likely unenforceable demand that nevertheless diminishes freedom.
American citizens had their introduction to the Trump-era immigration machine Wednesday, when Customs and Border Protection agents met an airliner that had just landed at New York’s JFK airport after a flight from San Francisco. According to passenger accounts, a flight attendant announced that all passengers would have to show their “documents” as they deplaned, and they did. The reason for the search, Homeland Security officials said, was to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a search for a specific immigrant who had received a deportation order after multiple criminal convictions. The target was not on the flight.
After days of research, I can find no legal authority for ICE or CBP to require passengers to show identification on an entirely domestic fight. The ICE authorizing statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1357, provides that agents can conduct warrantless searches of “any person seeking admission to the United States”—if, that is, the officer has “reasonable cause to suspect” that the individual searched may be deportable. CBP’s statute, 19 U.S.C. § 1467, grants search authority “whenever a vessel from a foreign port or place or from a port or place in any Territory or possession of the United States arrives at a port or place in the United States.” CBP regulations, set out at 19 C.F.R. § 162.6, allow agents to search “persons, baggage, and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the United States from places outside thereof.”
When President Obama left, I stayed on at the National Security Council in order to serve my country. I lasted eight days.
In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.
Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America's Muslim citizens.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
John Krakaeur, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been asked to BRAIN Initiative meetings before, and describes it like “Maleficent being invited to Sleeping Beauty’s birthday.” That’s because he and four like-minded friends have become increasingly disenchanted by their colleagues’ obsession with their toys. And in a new paper that’s part philosophical treatise and part shot across the bow, they argue that this technological fetish is leading the field astray. “People think technology + big data + machine learning = science,” says Krakauer. “And it’s not.”
Two of the world’s three richest people extol the virtue, and relevance, of optimism in the age of Trump—and predict a comeback for fact-based discourse.
Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, and Warren Buffett, the third richest, are—not entirely coincidentally—two of the most unremittingly optimistic men on the planet. So when I met the two of them in New York recently to talk about the state of humankind, and about the future of American democracy, I had a clear understanding of my mission, which was to pressure-test their sanguinity at every turn.
I tried, and failed, though not completely. Both men appear to doubt some of President Trump’s innovations in rhetoric and policy. Both men have warm feelings about immigrants, and also about facts, and so are predisposed to react skeptically to recent developments in the capital. When I asked whether they believed America needed to be made great again, Buffett nearly jumped out of his chair: “We are great! We are great!” And when I asked about the Trump Administration’s problematic relationship with empiricism, Gates said, “I predict a comeback for the truth.” He went on to say, “To the degree that certain solutions are created not based on facts, I believe these won’t be as successful as those that are based on facts. Democracy is a self-correcting thing.”
In an era when audiences are so sure about so much, the mistake—simple, dramatic, human—can be a wonderful thing.
Last year, the comedian Marc Maron brought the author Chuck Klosterman on as a guest on his WTF podcast. The two discussed many things (including Klosterman’s then-new book, But What If We’re Wrong?, which he was there to promote), but one of them was sports—and the particular thrill that they offer to audiences. Sporting events, Klosterman argued, promise that most dramatic of things: an unknown outcome. Unlike other widely watched events—the Super Bowl halftime show, the Grammys, the Oscars—the primary selling point of sporting events is that their endings are, by definition, unpredictable. Within them, anything can happen.
Well. While you can say a lot about the Oscars on Sunday, you can’t say that the glitzy awards show was boringly predictable. The 89th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, right at its conclusion, brought a mixture of confusion and shock and full, deep delight to its viewers as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway teamed up to announce the Best Picture winner and proceeded to, because of a backstage flub, announce the wrong movie. Chaos—and really, really good TV—ensued. Tired East Coasters were summoned back to their living rooms from their bedrooms, on the grounds that “ohmyGodyou’veGOTtoseethis.” Twitter erupted with jokes—about Bonnie and Clyde being at it again, about Schrödinger’s envelope, about “Dewey Defeats Truman” getting an Oscars-friendly update. It was late on a Sunday evening, and the unexpected had happened in the most unexpected of ways, and the whole thing was, as my colleague Adam Serwer perfectly summed it up, Moon-lit.
Did the prank with “Gary from Chicago” and his band of tourists humble Hollywood—or just condescend?
If the last-minute twist at the Oscars was seen to echo all the last-minute twists in American culture lately—the Super Bowl, the election—a silly five-minute segment earlier in the night should be noted for what it captured about the country’s ongoing tensions and tastes in iPhone peripherals.
Host Jimmy Kimmel’s team arranged for a sightseeing bus of supposedly “real” tourists to walk into the room, expecting a museum exhibit about the Oscars but instead finding themselves in the middle of the actual thing. “Welcome to the Dolby Theater,” Kimmel announced. “This is the home of the Academy Awards, which are, in fact, happening right now.”
Maybe it’s a good thing the trucking industry is ripe for automation.
INDIANAPOLIS—James Ford worked at various printing presses for decades, eventually becoming head pressman at a bookbinding shop in Michigan. But the industry was changing, and as the work required fewer and fewer people, he searched around for his next career. He settled on truck driving.
“I want to see America and get paid for it,” he told me in December, in the cafeteria of Celadon Driving Academy, where he was completing a six-week driving course in order to get his commercial driver’s license (CDL). Celadon, which is also a trucking company, offers a job to everyone who completes the school and receives a commercial driver’s license.
Ford is one of thousands of workers going through schools like Celadon, which promise to get people out on the road and into employment in short order. Every year, the trucking industry makes a big push to recruit new workers like Ford, bemoaning a driver shortage in a booming industry.
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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