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This is the biggest surprise about America I've heard from foreign visitors

A tourist takes a selfie with the Statue of Liberty.
A tourist takes a selfie with the Statue of Liberty.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty

I've always been fascinated with how non-Americans perceive the United States. Yes, it's true that Americans are already the global leaders in national narcissism without my indulging it any further. Still, I've found that the US really is a topic of relatively frequent discussion abroad, and not just when it comes to politics and foreign policy.

American cultural exports are consumed widely. The US draws 70-plus million foreign tourists every year, the second-highest number in the world after France. People often have a lot of thoughts about America, and those who visit often come away with a lot of surprises.

The Guardian's Paul Owen, a British journalist living in New York, compiled a list of his surprises as an Englishman in America. Many are Brit-specific; America's deficient tea culture gets heavy coverage. But there was one that really jumped out at me, because it's something I've heard first-time visitors to the US mention over and over again:

48. Americans are acutely conscious of race, in the way British people are acutely conscious of class.

The latter half of that is obviously British-specific (and undeniably true), but the former is something I've heard from Egyptians, Russians, Pakistanis, Chinese, and many others.

"You Americans," I've heard time and again, "are really obsessed with race."

Another way I've heard this put, and that has stuck with me every since: Americans are always talking about race, but they often do it in code and consider it impolite to actually reference race outright.

She is from China, and said that at first, on coming to the US, did not realize how many conversations that seemed to be about something else were really about race. And she was surprised how uncomfortable people got when she'd refer to someone's race; how could it be rude to mention someone's race to them when race was coming up all the time anyway?

Once, for a story on what foreign guidebooks tell visitors to the US, I came across a warning to tourists that struck me as a good one: Even though you'll hear lots of discussion about race, don't try to participate. There are a thousand unwritten rules for how to talk about race in America, and if you don't know how to navigate the land mines — which you won't — then you're better off avoiding the subject.

Some might consider this a bad thing, a sign of PC culture and speech policing run amok, but I take the opposite view. Race is indeed a major and central part of American life and history, a legacy of slavery, colonialism, mass immigration, and our own national identity as untied to any one ethnicity or race. We've learned — or, more accurately, are still learning — to engage the subject with appropriate care and sensitivity, to acknowledge the multitudinous American experiences and take them into account.

As an American, it can sometimes be easy to forget that the degree to which we talk and think about race, while not unique in the world, is relatively unusual. I'm always reminded of this when I talk to foreign visitors who are shocked at how much they hear about race and how difficult the subject can be to navigate. It can indeed make discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict seem pretty easy by comparison.

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