What Surprises Foreigners About the USA? PART 13

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the first presidential debate in 2012

Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Today is Sunday, September 22, 2013.

With this post, I will conclude the series on what surprises foreign visitors and immigrants about the United States.

Politics and Government

Some are surprised to find that every aspect of political candidates’ lives is scrutinized during an election campaign.  I’m not sure what, exactly, surprises them about this, but I would guess that our scrutiny of candidates’ personal lives might be the issue.  We pay attention to some things that might seem trivial in other countries, where there is, perhaps, a little more forgiving – or more blasé – attitude about moral scruples.  We’ve always known that politicians say one thing to the public and other things privately, and I’m sure this practice goes on in other countries around the world, as well.  Even so, Americans stubbornly cling to the idea that a political leader should be above reproach.  At times, this attitude seems like an oxymoron, given the fact that, for even those with totally honorable intentions, a fascination with power underlies all politicians’ activities.  Nowadays, the media has taken an almost fiendish delight in catching politicians in “open mike” situations, where they thought they were speaking “off the record.”  President Obama has had to live down some awkward comments, as did Mr. Romney during his election campaign.

Even though many Americans eschew the political debates on TV, enough of us watch them to spark quite a little controversy afterwards.  Foreigners have commented that our debates seem to be a valuable platform for judging a candidate on the issues.  I know they have debates in the U.K., Australia, and India, but I have no idea whether candidates debate in other countries, or whether the debates are carried live on TV, as they are here.  One comment from the U.K. that I read regarding the debates in 2012 between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama was that the debates seemed to give Americans an “illusion of choice,” when in reality, it was necessary for voters to discern how much the candidates agreed on the issues, rather than how they differed.

Europeans have commented also on the difference in the political spectrum here, as opposed to that in Western Europe.  It seems that Americans are far to the right of Europe, so that the American left wing is equivalent to their center.  The Western European right wing is equivalent to the American center, and the American right wing, particularly our “Tea Party,” is extremely fascist.

While some have commented that private bribes are not the norm in the U.S., particularly for lower echelon government workers, one person commented that corruption is legally institutionalized here, in the form of lobbying.  I do like the idea that people can get together in a group to bring  attention to a particular issue, and I actively participate in petition campaigns, but I also agree that when money in the form of “campaign contributions” is given, or when expensive gifts, such as vacations, are given to politicians, it needs to be called what it is: bribery – in other words, corruption!   So although individuals don’t generally pay bribes, group entities, called “Political Action Campaigns” or PACs, do occasionally do this.  When the PAC is actually a large corporation that can afford to spend serious amounts of cash, it gets a little scary.  Now that the Supreme Court has given the OK for corporations to behave like individual people, this practice will no doubt be carried to its extreme until and unless it is stopped.

Although we don’t pay bribes, Americans do have to get all kinds of permits do do just about anything, including driving, getting married, practicing law or medicine, teaching, or doing any kind of service on the human body, such as hairdressing, barbering, or massage.  What complicates this process is that one has to have a license in each state that they practice, so if one moves from one state to another, the licensing process has to begin anew.  That’s called “license hell” in the U.S.A.   Americans also need a permit to purchase and carry a weapon, to hunt, and to catch fish, as well as a permit to stay in a state or national park overnight.  Apparently, this astounds some foreigners.  Frankly, if you are competent in your field, the license is generally not hard to get, just time-consuming.  My mom had licenses to be a registered nurse in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas, and she made the effort to renew them each year until she retired.  My father had licenses to teach in South Dakota and Minnesota.  I have held licenses to teach in Oregon, Minnesota and Missouri.


It apparently surprises foreigners how many United States flags are on display, both in public places and on private property.  In my town, for Memorial Day and Labor Day, flags are planted at every street corner along one route, and this year, they were left up a little longer than usual to honor the people who died in a mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.  All public schools fly flags on a pole in front of the building, as well as on the wall in the gymnasium.   All public government buildings fly flags, as well – not only the national flag, but also the state flag.  Some chain restaurants, such as Perkins, are known for flying large national flags.  The flags are flown at half-staff to honor various people, such as politicians who have died, or victims of a mass tragedy.   The President of the United States can order flags flown at half-staff all over the country, and governors of the fifty states can order flags flown at half-staff in their own state.

Since the United States was born as an political concept, patriotism is strong here, and symbols such as the “Stars and Stripes” (the nickname of the American national flag) and the bald eagle are shown special respect.  It amazed one foreigner that we have a list of official rules for handling a flag, including how it must be displayed, raised, lowered, and folded.

Freedom in America

The pessimists may say that our political freedoms are an illusion, and they may be right, but it still strikes foreign visitors and immigrants to this country that these freedoms are very real, as they impact our daily lives.  My immigrant friends are strongly grateful for the freedoms they have here that they did not have in their country of origin, and many of them are very vocal in their opposition to NSA spying, putting fingerprint technology on smart phones, and companies tracking private citizens on the Internet.  It’s true that we have lost a few freedoms in recent years, in the form of the Patriot Act, due to our fear of terrorism. In that sense, perhaps Americans are like the proverbial frog that continues to sit in the boiling water because it doesn’t notice how hot the water is getting until it’s too late.  :-/


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