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.
Allegations against the comedian are proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful—and very, very dangerous.
Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.
This was my experience reading the account of one young woman’s alleged sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, published by the website Babe this weekend. The world in which it constituted an episode of sexual assault was so far from my own two experiences of near date rape (which took place, respectively, during the Carter and Reagan administrations, roughly between the kidnapping of the Iran hostages and the start of the Falklands War) that I just couldn’t pick up the tune. But, like the recent New Yorker story “Cat Person”—about a soulless and disappointing hookup between two people who mostly knew each other through texts—the account has proved deeply resonant and meaningful to a great number of young women, who have responded in large numbers on social media, saying that it is frighteningly and infuriatingly similar to crushing experiences of their own. It is therefore worth reading and, in its way, is an important contribution to the present conversation.
The stability of American society depends on conservatives finding a way forward from the Trump dead end.
Election 2016 looked on paper like the most sweeping Republican victory since the Jazz Age. Yet there was a hollowness to the Trump Republicans’ seeming ascendancy over the federal government and in so many of the states. The Republicans of the 1920s had drawn their strength from the country’s most economically and culturally dynamic places. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge won almost 56 percent of the vote in cosmopolitan New York State, 65 percent in mighty industrial Pennsylvania, 75 percent in Michigan, the hub of the new automotive economy.
Not so in 2016. Where technologies were invented and where styles were set, where diseases cured and innovations launched, where songs were composed and patents registered—there the GOP was weakest. Donald Trump won vast swathes of the nation’s landmass. Hillary Clinton won the counties that produced 64 percent of the nation’s wealth. Even in Trump states, Clinton won the knowledge centers, places like the Research Triangle of North Carolina.
The national-security adviser is one of the biggest hawks in the Trump administration.
In the increasingly urgent, dramatic debate about the North Korean nuclear threat, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster stands out in the Trump administration as the strongest advocate of a hawkish position. But where do H.R. McMaster’s views on North Korea really come from? Why, to pose a question The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman recently did, is he so worried about North Korea? Notwithstanding the suggestion, in Friedman’s piece and elsewhere, that McMaster’s views represent some kind of heresy of nuclear deterrence, his worries must be seen in light of how he views Kim’s motives. Indeed, those motives mean the possibility of military action against North Korea could be understood not as a “good thing,” but as the “least bad.”
Can a 3-D printed model of the organ change views on female sexuality? Yes and no. An Object Lesson.
The clitoris really isn’t that confusing. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. Nonetheless, acknowledging the shape, size, or even existence of this essential body part has not always been par for the course—even in the medical profession. As a 2005 report from the American Urological Association puts it, “the anatomy of the clitoris has not been stable with time as would be expected. To a major extent its study has been dominated by social factors.”
However, heralded by some as a sexual and physiological revolution, a new 3-D printed model of the clitoris is being used to change the public’s view of female sexuality. Free to download, the life-size model was designed by the French engineer, sociologist, and independent researcher Odile Fillod and released early last year.
Years after his daughter reiterated her allegation that the director sexually abused her, more actors are voicing their regret for collaborating with him.
Woody Allen won an Academy Award, the fourth of his career, just six years ago for writing Midnight in Paris. He was nominated again two years later for Blue Jasmine, a film that won Cate Blanchett a Best Actress Oscar. The last year that Allen didn’t release a movie in theaters that he wrote and directed was 1981. Despite the controversy that has dogged him since the early 1990s—when he was revealed to be having an affair with his girlfriend’s daughter and was subsequently accused of molesting his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow—Allen has continued to make movies with the same once-a-year regularity as always, and usually with major stars. He has long denied that he abused his daughter.
But the film industry’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the allegations against Allen seems to be coming to an end. More and more actors who have worked with him in the past are announcing that they regret the collaboration, and it appears the sheen of Oscar-winning prestige he has relied on to attract big names to his projects is fading. Allen, who released Wonder Wheel last month and is set to come out with A Rainy Day in New York this year, may try to helm more movies. But with Hollywood finally beginning to grapple with his enduring presence as an artist, could that be enough to destroy his career?
The discreet, disorienting passions of the Victorian era
Even by the formidable standards of eminent Victorian families, the Bensons were an intimidating lot. Edward Benson, the family’s patriarch, had vaulted up the clerical hierarchy, awing superiors with his ferocious work habits and cowing subordinates with his reforming zeal. Queen Victoria appointed him the archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church, in 1883. Edward’s wife, Minnie, was to all appearances a perfect match. Tender where he was severe, she was a warmhearted hostess renowned for her conversation. Most important, she was Edward’s equal in religious devotion. As a friend daringly pronounced, Minnie was “as good as God and as clever as the Devil.”
All five of Edward and Minnie Benson’s adult offspring distinguished themselves in public life. Arthur Benson served as the master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University, wrote the lyrics to Edward Elgar’s hymn “Land of Hope and Glory,” and was entrusted with the delicate task of co-editing Queen Victoria’s letters for publication. His brother Fred was a best-selling writer, well known today for the series of satirical Lucia novels (televised for the second time in 2014, on the BBC), which poked good-natured fun at the pomposities of English provincial life. Their sister Margaret became a pioneering Egyptologist, the first woman to lead an archaeological dig in the country and to publish her findings. Even the family’s apostate, the youngest brother, Hugh, a convert to Roman Catholicism, was considered a magnetic preacher and, like his brothers, was an irrepressible author of briskly selling books. All told, the family published more than 200 volumes.
Stories of gray areas are exactly what more men need to hear.
The story of Aziz Ansari and “Grace” is playing out as a sort of Rorschach test.
One night in the lives of two young people with vintage cameras is crystallizing debate over an entire movement. Depending on how readers were primed to see the ink blot, it can be taken as evidence that the ongoing cultural audit is exactly on track—getting more granular in challenging unhealthy sex-related power dynamics—or that it has gone off the rails, and innocent men are now suffering, and we are collectively on the brink of a sex panic.
Since the story’s publication on Saturday (on the website Babe, without comment from Ansari, and attributed to a single anonymous source), some readers have seen justice in Ansari’s humiliation. Some said they would no longer support his work. They saw in this story yet another case of a man who persisted despite literal and implied cues that sex was not what a woman wanted.Some saw further proof that the problems are systemic, permeating even “normal” encounters.
The last four months have been by far the most productive of his presidency. Will they also prove to be a high-water mark?
Nothing comes easy in the Trump presidency, but over the last few months the White House has shown fitful but real progress toward more effective policymaking.
From domestic policy to foreign affairs, President Trump has notched more real victories over the fall and winter months than during the rest of his administration combined. This includes the passage of a large tax-cut package, the long delayed first major legislative achievement of his presidency. Trump has appointed conservative judges and further cut regulations. He has fulfilled campaign promises by announcing the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and announcing a plan to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. He has also presided over the end of ISIS’s territorial control in Syria and Iraq.
When cities compete to attract big employers, the country as a whole suffers.
Since Amazon announced last year that it is going to build a second corporate campus, cities—238 of them in North America, in three countries—quickly started courting the company. They scrambled to propose the most generous package of financial incentives they could muster, in hopes of luring the online-retailing and cloud-computing giant.
On Thursday, Amazon announced that it had whittled its list down to 20 finalist cities spanning the country, from Los Angeles to Austin to Boston and Miami. What does the future hold for the lucky winner? In Amazon’s request for proposals, it dangled the promise of hiring up to 50,000 full-time employees (at an average salary of more than $100,000 a year) over the next 10 or 15 years, and spending $5 billion in the process of executing the project.
In a brilliant new experiment, physicists have confirmed one of the most mysterious laws of the cosmos.
There might be no getting around what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” With an experiment described this week in Physical Review Letters—a feat that involved harnessing starlight to control measurements of particles shot between buildings in Vienna—some of the world’s leading cosmologists and quantum physicists are closing the door on an intriguing alternative to “quantum entanglement.”
“Technically, this experiment is truly impressive,” said Nicolas Gisin, a quantum physicist at the University of Geneva who has studied this loophole around entanglement.