12 Things About America That Always Surprise Tourists

iStock
iStock

by Reader's Digest Editors

Ask any foreign traveler who has visited the U.S. and they'll tell you that there are things about our culture that are as funny as they are wacky. Read on for 12 things that are as American as apple pie, yet give visitors pause.

1. DONUTS

"Why do Americans have pastries with holes in them? Why would you remove the center? And then you sell the holes separately? That's crazy," says Dmitry Kuzhanov, a Russian citizen who has been living in the U.S. for two years.

2. SQUIRRELS

Photo of a little girl feeding a squirrel
iStock

“Foreigners find it funny that some Americans go as far as to interact or feed squirrels in the park,” says Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette expert. “This is viewed as quite bizarre and eccentric!”

3. FOOD PORTIONS

“Food portions in the U.S. are much larger than in China, where food is served 'family style' for everyone to share,” say Glen Loveland, an American who has lived in China for over a decade. “Seeing the look on the faces of Chinese tourists at The Cheesecake Factory, for example, as their dishes are served is quite amusing!”

4. WHITE SOCKS

Photo of man in white socks and sandals.
iStock

"The white socks thing baffles many Europeans,” says Alex Bunten, who has lived in Scotland, Sweden, Spain, and Russia for over a decade. “You can pick an American tourist out from miles away—poor-fitting clothes, usually brand-new sneakers (if not sandals) with bright white socks!"

5. SUPER-SIZED BEVERAGES

"In most European countries, the sizes of beverage packaging are standardized, usually in the size of one liter or one and a half liters,” says Clemens Sehi, a Germany-based travel writer. “Also, most Europeans buy just as much milk as they really need. Not so in the U.S. where milk or red wine is often bought in huge containers so that it can last for weeks to come."

6. CHILD ATHLETES

Photo of Little League baseball team
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"Little League sports teams, and specifically parents coaching them, is something I just don't understand,” says Kuzhanov. “Maybe that's because children's sports teams don't exist in Russia."

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7. FAST FOOD

"It's hard to get used to all the fast food in America,” says Sehi. “It seems that many Americans love eating their food on the go and as quickly as possible, whether it's the drive-through, at In-N-Out Burger or a short stop at a favorite food truck on the corner."

8. INSTA-SMILES

Family photo selfie
iStock

"I find the 'American smile' really funny and endearing,” says Sonam Yadav, who lives in New Delhi, India. “I'm talking about the wide ardent 'say cheese' grin every kid and adult seems to have practiced and is visible in every image which appears at a second's notice.”

9. ENORMOUS HIGHWAYS

"Particularly as a German used to the Autobahn with its six lanes, it's shocking to see that in the U.S. you have highways with 12 or more lanes, on which most cars drive at the same speed,” Sehi says. “It can be hard to learn the rules of the road!"

10. ICED DRINKS

Photo of iced coffees
iStock

"Iced drinks are something Chinese people don't understand,” Loveland says. “Chinese people tend to drink lukewarm or hot water for beliefs related to traditional Chinese medicine."

11. EXTENDED SHELF LIVES

"I find it unbelievable that Americans buy groceries for one or even two weeks at a time,” says Landon Lin, who was born and raised in China. “I can't believe Americans trust food to stay fresh that long. In Asia, people go shopping every day, or at least once every two to three days!"

12. AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSIONS

Photo of an automatic car
iStock

"In Germany and other European countries, you mostly learn to drive with cars that have a gear shift and not with a transmission,” Sehi says. “This makes it weird for many foreigners to rent a car in the U.S., because most rental cars have automatic transmissions.” 

10 Out of This World Facts About Area 51

Nevada's Groom Lake Road, near Area 51.
Nevada's Groom Lake Road, near Area 51.
Robert Heinst/iStock via Getty Images

Though it's officially a a flight testing facility, the Nevada-based Area 51 has been associated with alien sightings and secret government studies for decades, and accounts of extraterrestrial sightings have sparked public imagination and conspiracy theories worldwide. Here are a few facts you might not already know about Area 51.

1. Area 51's existence wasn't officially acknowledged by the U.S. government until 2013.

Although it was chosen as a site to test aircraft in 1955, the government did not acknowledge that Area 51 even existed until 2013. According to CNN, maps and other documents created by the CIA were released thanks to Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives, who was granted access to the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, the papers made no mention of little green men running around the facility.

2. We still don't really know why it's called Area 51.

Out of all the things we don't know about Area 51, Encyclopedia Britannica says that the one for-certain uncertainty about the zone is its name. Like everything else involving the site, the theories are out there: A video published by Business Insider suggests the name stems from the location's proximity to nuclear test sites that were divided into numerically-designated areas.

3. Area 51 is still expanding.

Area 51 has been growing, something which true believers may attribute to the need for more UFO parking spaces. Business Insider points out that satellite imagery of Area 51 displays significant construction within the area between 1984 and 2016, including new runways and hangars. BI posits that this could mean the B-21 Raider stealth bomber is being tested at the site—"or this is what they want us to believe."

4. The Moon landings were supposedly faked at Area 51.

One of the bigger conspiracy theories out there not only questions the authenticity of the 1969 moon landing, but claims it was staged at Area 51. Bill Kaysing—author of We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle—believes NASA officials filmed the fake landing within the base, brainwashed the astronauts, and used lunar meteorites picked up in Antarctica as a stand-in for moon rocks.

5. The first UFO "sightings" in Area 51 were easily explained.

Unidentified Flying Object UFO
ktsimage/istock via getty images plus

In its early years, Area 51 was used to test U-2 planes—which flew at altitudes higher than 60,000 feet—in an area far from civilians and spies. During these tests, pilots flying commercial aircraft at 10,000 to 20,000 feet would detect the planes far above them, completely in the dark about the government’s project. Hence sightings of unidentified objects were reported when in reality it was a military plane ... unless that’s what they want you to think.

6. Area 51 employees might travel to work via plane.

Those who work at Area 51 appear to have a pretty sweet commuter transportation program. According to USA Today, employees board unmarked aircraft at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas which ferries them to and from an undisclosed location. Referred to as “Janet” due to its call sign—which some say stands for “Just Another Non-Existent Terminal”—the exact destination of the Boeing 737-600s is officially unknown, though some speculate that the planes go to Area 51 and other top-secret locations. A former posting for an open flight attendant position stated applicants “must be level-headed and clear thinking while handling unusual incidents and situations,” but didn't mention any encounters of the third kind.

7. Former Area 51 employees who were sworn to secrecy are opening up about their work there.

Some former employees who were once sworn to secrecy about what happened at Area 51 are now free to share their stories. One Area 51 veteran, James Noce, recalled handling various mishaps that were accidentally exposed to the public eye—for example, the crash of a secret aircraft that was witnessed by a police officer and a vacationing family. The family had taken photos; Noce confiscated the film from their camera and told the family and the deputy not to mention the crash to anyone.

Noce recounted how there was no official documentation stating he worked at Area 51, and that his salary was paid in cash. He also confirmed that he never saw any alien activity at the site.

8. Area 51 employees once took the facility to court over hazardous working conditions.

In the 1990s, Jonathan Turley—a lawyer and professor at George Washington University—was approached by workers from Area 51 who claimed exposure to the site’s hazardous materials and waste was making them sick. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Turley wrote that the workers "described how the government had placed discarded equipment and hazardous waste in open trenches the length of football fields, then doused them with jet fuel and set them on fire. The highly toxic smoke blowing through the desert base was known as 'London fog' by workers. Many came down with classic skin and respiratory illnesses associated with exposure to burning hazardous waste. A chief aim of the lawsuits was to discover exactly what the workers had been exposed to so they could get appropriate medical care."

According to Turley, "we prevailed in demonstrating that the government had acted in violation of federal law. However, the government refused to declassify information about what it had burned in the trenches, which meant that workers (and their doctors) still didn’t know what they had been exposed to. The government also refused to acknowledge the name of the base. The burning at Area 51 was in all likelihood a federal crime. But the government escaped responsibility by hiding behind secrecy[.]"

9. The best place for UFO-spotting near Area 51 is supposedly by a mailbox.

According to one person who claims to have worked in Area 51 and to have seen alien technology there (whose "claims about his education and employment could not be verified," according to How Stuff Works, which raises doubts about his credibility), there's one spot in particular where he would bring people to see scheduled UFO flights: The Black Mailbox, an unassuming pair of mailboxes which is apparently a hotspot for alien action (they're located about 12 miles from Area 51). It was originally a single black box for owner Steve Medlin's mail, but as people who wanted to believe began to tamper with and destroy that mail (and pop in letters to aliens), Medlin was forced to put another mailbox labeled “Alien” beneath it to appease visitors and to preserve his own post.

10. It's impossible to sneak into Area 51 without being spotted—and use of deadly force is authorized if anyone tries to evade security.

Given the intense nature of its secrecy, it comes as no surprise that Area 51 is heavily guarded. Pilots who purposefully fly into the restricted air zone can face court-martial, dishonorable discharge, and a stint in the can. The land is patrolled by “cammo dudes,” men wearing camouflage that have been seen driving around the area keeping an eye out for pesky civilians looking to break into the area. But truth-seekers, beware: Signs placed outside the area warn that Area 51 security is authorized to use deadly force on anyone looking to sneak onto the property.

This Convenient, Comfortable Travel Pillow Doesn’t Wrap Around Your Neck

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

If an angry bit of airplane turbulence has recently whammed your forehead into the window, you probably have the bruises to prove that sleeping on the go can be a dangerous game. Though neck pillows can offer some security, not everyone’s a fan—some people can’t sleep totally upright, some don’t think it provides enough support, and others simply don’t like the feeling of a plush toilet seat curled around their necks.

For those people, there’s the Ostrich Pillow Mini, a tiny, oblong pillow into which you slip your hand, forearm, or elbow, depending on what’s most comfortable for you. It will stay in place and protect your head from airplane turbulence in a way that no balled-up, threadbare hoodie ever could, but it’s not just for those lucky winners (or purchasers) of window seats. You can use the pillow wherever you might be inclined to rest your head on top of your arms, including plane or train trays, piles of library books, and office desks. One Amazon customer even used the pillows as elbow pads to protect himself from unforgivingly hard arm rests.

Ostrich pillow mini
Amazon

Since the Ostrich Pillow Mini essentially works as an extension of your arm, you don’t have to stay stone-still while you sleep. As Travel + Leisure’s Claudia Fisher puts it, “Sometimes, I even wake up from a nap to discover I’ve shifted in my sleep but brought my little arm pillow with me to support my head in its new spot.”

In addition to its main opening, the pillow has two other holes. One is a small, finger-sized opening through which you slide your thumb if you’re keeping the pillow on your hand. The other is a larger hole at the other end, through which you slide your hand if you want the pillow to stay on your forearm or elbow.

Ostrich pillow mini
Amazon

It’s compact enough that you can easily fit it into your carry-on bag, backpack, or briefcase, and understated enough that you can power nap in public without drawing attention to yourself. The outer layer is light gray, and the inner layer comes in Midnight Grey, Blue Reef, or Sleepy Blue. You can order it for $35 from Amazon.

Check out some other ways to make flying more comfortable here.

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