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.
Why is President Trump badmouthing his attorney general, why doesn’t he just fire him, and what does he hope to accomplish by pushing him out?
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has spent much of his career making enemies. The Alabaman’s strident views have won him plenty of detractors, from civil-rights activists to fellow members of the Senate. But in Donald Trump, Sessions believed he had finally found a champion and fellow traveler. Instead, it seems Sessions has found his most formidable enemy yet.
Trump is now on his second consecutive day of publicly humiliating the attorney general on Twitter, following an interview with The New York Times last week in which he said he wished he’d never appointed Sessions. The attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from investigation into Russian interference in the election infuriated Trump, who has repeatedly tried to end the investigation, including by firing FBI Director James Comey. Instead, Comey’s firing resulted in the appointment of a special counsel to take the case. Here’s Trump’s latest broadside against Sessions:
The president addressed the quadrennial gathering like a campaign rally—talking to a group devoted to service as if it valued self-interest.
Donald Trump continued his ongoing tour of cherished American institutions on Monday night, delivering yet another jarringly partisan speech to an apolitical audience—this one, comprising tens of thousands still too young to vote.
During the campaign, his performance at the Al Smith dinner—where presidential candidates roast their rivals and themselves every four years—devolved into overt attacks on his opponent. Shortly after his election, he stunned CIA employees by delivering a campaign-style stump speech before the agency’s Memorial Wall. On Saturday, he surprised the crowd of uniformed personnel at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford by imploring them to lobby Congress in support of his agenda.
The internet’s favorite fact-checkers are caught in a messy dispute.
On Monday, the editorial staff of Snopes.com wrote a short plea for help. The post said that the site needed money to fund its operations because another company that Snopes had contracted with “continues to essentially hold the Snopes.com web site hostage.”
“Our legal team is fighting hard for us, but, having been cut off from all revenue, we are facing the prospect of having no financial means to continue operating the site and paying our staff (not to mention covering our legal fees) in the meanwhile,” the note continued.
It was a shocking message from a website that’s been around for more than 20 years—and that’s become a vital part of internet infrastructure in the #fakenews era. The site’s readers have responded. Already, more than $92,000 has been donated to a GoFundMe with a goal of $500,000.
Partly, it’s simple rage. Mueller threatens Trump. And when Trump sees someone as a threat, he tries to discredit and destroy them—conventional norms of propriety, decency and legality be damned.
But there’s another, more calculated, reason. Trump and his advisors may genuinely believe that firing Mueller is a smart move. And if you put morality aside, and see the question in nakedly political terms, they may be right.
The chances that Mueller will uncover something damning seem very high. Trump has already admitted to firing former FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation. Donald Trump Jr. has already admitted to welcoming the opportunity to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from people he believed were representatives of the Russian government. Even if Mueller doesn’t accuse anyone of a crime, he’s likely to paint a brutal picture. And that’s just on the question of election collusion and obstruction of justice. If Mueller uses Russia to segue into Trump’s business dealings, who knows what he might find. An all-star team of legal and financial sleuths, with unlimited time and money, and the ability to subpoena documents and people, have been let loose on the affairs of a man whose own autobiographer called him a “sociopath.” No wonder Trump is scared.
Ninni Holmqvist’s 2009 book “The Unit,” newly reissued, imagines a world in which people who haven’t procreated are forced to make a different—ultimate—contribution to society.
“It was more comfortable than I could have imagined,” is how The Unit begins, with Dorrit, a single, impoverished 50-year-old woman picked up from her home in a metallic red SUV and transported to a luxury facility constructed by the government for people just like her. Her new, two-room apartment is bright and spacious, “tastefully decorated,” inside a complex that includes a theater, art studios, a cinema, a library, and gourmet restaurants. For the first time, Dorrit is surrounded by likeminded people and included rather than ostracized. At the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material, she’s one among a community of people who couldn’t—or didn’t want to—have children.
The cost is that, for the remaining four or five years of her life, Dorrit will be subjected to medical testing and will donate her organs one by one until her final, fatal donation. The Unit’s author, the Swedish writer Ninni Holmqvist, has imagined a society fixated on capital, but in human form. Those who have children or who work in fields like teaching and healthcare are seen as enabling growth; the childless and creative types like Dorrit, a writer, are deemed “dispensable,” removed, and forced to make their own biological contributions. The unit itself is a fantasy of government welfare for aging citizens (it offers delicious meals, culture, and companionship), but with a particularly sharp twist.
Surprise eggs and slime are at the center of an online realm that’s changing the way the experts think about human development.
Toddlers crave power. Too bad for them, they have none. Hence the tantrums and absurd demands. (No, I want this banana, not that one, which looks identical in every way but which you just started peeling and is therefore worthless to me now.)
They just want to be in charge! This desire for autonomy clarifies so much about the behavior of a very small human. It also begins to explain the popularity of YouTube among toddlers and preschoolers, several development psychologists told me.
If you don’t have a 3-year-old in your life, you may not be aware of YouTube Kids, an app that’s essentially a stripped-down version of the original video blogging site, with videos filtered by the target audience’s age. And because the mobile app is designed for use on a phone or tablet, kids can tap their way across a digital ecosystem populated by countless videos—all conceived with them in mind.
There is plenty of reason to be confident that if ISIS could reliably and easily make a dirty bomb, they would do so.
In the last three years, I have not spent much time wondering whether ISIS has access to radioactive material. I know they have had access, because I had a hand in getting it to them.
In 2005, while working for an air cargo company in Mosul, I delivered a large wooden box, marked for consignment to the University of Mosul. To fly it in, we needed a special plane, an Antonov-12, whose cargo hold was cavernous compared to our usual 727s and DC-8s. The box contained, according to its air waybill, radiological imaging equipment for the university’s teaching hospital. The next day, workers from the hospital met me at my office, and I gently forklifted the crate into their truck. The load seemed off-balance, and I winced when I heard a corner of the box splinter as we strapped it down. But they drove away, and unless that million-dollar piece of medical equipment fell off the back of the truck and ended up strewn across the road, it probably made it safely to the hospital, where it was captured by ISIS nine years later.
Without insurance, millions of Americans will find themselves in dire financial straits as they struggle to pay for medical services.
Senate Republicans are working to pass legislation scaling back government support for health coverage, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calling for a vote on Tuesday to begin debate on a bill whose precise contents remain unknown. “Every Republican running for office promised immediate relief from this disastrous law,” President Trump said on Monday, referring to Obamacare. “But so far, Senate Republicans have not done their job in ending the Obamacare nightmare.”
Even without more specifics on the details of the legislation, one thing is clear: The options under consideration would increase the number of uninsured by 15 to 30 million over the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated. A consequence of this will be not only a loss of access to medical services, but an increase in financial crises for millions of American families. Insurance, after all, is also a financial product, protecting people from economic ruin.
Republicans are now considering a bill that would only scrap the law’s insurance mandates and some taxes as they struggle to round up votes in the Senate.
Senate Republicans may be dramatically scaling back their ambitions for repealing the Affordable Care Act as they struggle to find the votes necessary to pass any legislation dismantling the 2010 law.
Ahead of a crucial procedural vote on Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Senator Rand Paul that if the Senate could not pass either McConnell’s proposed replacement for Obamacare or a broad repeal of the law, he would try to pass a bill that merely scrapped Obamacare’s insurance mandates and some of its taxes. The goal would be to find the lowest-common denominator of what at least 50 Republican senators could report, and it would set up a conference committee with the House on a final health-care bill.
As pay TV slowly declines, cable news faces a demographic cliff. And nobody has further to fall than the merchant of right-wing outrage.
Updated at 12:05 p.m.
October 7, 2016, will be the 20th birthday of the Fox News Channel, and at the moment, the network is experiencing the soap-operatic highs and lows typical of any teenager on television. In many ways, the summer of 2016 may go down in Fox News history as the company’s nadir. Its founder and leader Roger Ailes has been dishonorably dispatched, the remaining executives are dealing with a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits, and one of its most public faces, Sean Hannity, has ignominiously remodeled himself as a gutless Trump whisperer.
And yet Fox News’ fortunes are ascendant, at least in the most quantifiable sense. The network’s annual profit in 2015 soared by about 20 percent. For the first time ever, Fox News has been the most-watched cable network among both primetime and daytime viewers for several months, with a larger audience than its nominal rivals, CNN and MSNBC, combined. Led by “The O'Reilly Factor,” Fox News doesn’t just have the best-rated news show on cable television; according to The Wrap, it has the 13 best-rated news shows on cable television.