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Getting to know the U.S.A.

“Get to know ‘your’ country…”

… is one of the things that I consider essential in understanding who I am, where I am and it’s really about the people, the landscape, the cultures, and all it contains and not just the geographical base knowledge.  This underlying focus of mine came to the forefront again when I took my family on a short RV get-away in July.  We traveled through 13 states in 10 ½ days.  Yes, we did get one of those rare RV rentals – rare in COVID-19 time where that seems to be the preferred way to travel.   The reason being partially my daughter’s school project this past school year:  one of the states of the U.S. – North Dakota; so off we went.

That said, I hear a lot of people talk about “my country” or “I am American” and I have wondered for a long time what they mean by that and how they define it.  Why do you ask? 
Being a historian by trade, let me start by clarifying that “America” is not a country.  There are two continents that have the word “America” in it.  What most people refer to when saying “America” is actually the country of the United States.  To some people that may not make a lot of difference since the term “America” nowadays seems to be used as a synonym for the U.S.  However, geographically and culturally speaking it is highly inaccurate.  If there is an underlying philosophy connected (e.g. “Manifest Destiny”) is a different – and likely-  story that we can tackle another time.  Here I’d like to stay focused on getting to know the U.S, which is a big country.

Having clarified that naming issue let me continue by asking – as I used to ask my students, friends and colleagues – what does it mean to be “American” (a citizen of the U.S.A.)?  What is that person that is uniquely “American” and how can I spot them? 

You see, I am asking that because many people don’t know their home country, or town for that matter. We often learn more about our home town, for example, when we have visitors coming who want to see all the sights and learn about the history.  That’s when we get going on research and showing and sharing and – getting to know our hometown. 

Is the same true for the country we call “home” or we reside in?  And if not, how can we claim to be one of that country? You see, it’s especially fascinating in the U.S.  A lot of people I have met have learned about the geography of the U.S. and yet, few have traveled their own country.  If more did, what would they say about “America” and being “American” I wonder…

I have traveled a number of U.S. states in person, not all I admit, and it has been fascinating to see the differences.  This time, on our trip, it was even more so as now I travelled through states I had not spend a lot of time in and drove through some where I has visited the major cities.  

It is a fascinating thing to live in a country as big and with as much variety as the U.S.  The landscape changes from the ocean side in Maryland to more small farms and mountains in Pennsylvania, then to small lake areas in Indiana, up to the Great Lakes with major cities, then to Minnesota and Wisconsin with thousands of lakes to see – suddenly – turning to miles and miles of huge agricultural fields with few houses in between, to arrive at Badlands and rugged areas of North Dakota which is sprinkled with hundreds of small oil rigs and wild animals, to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the lakes of Missouri, to the mounds of Cahokia in Ohio … you get the idea.

The U.S.A.

Witnessing the changing landscape means gaining insight into the different lifestyles those landscapes require.  So all areas showcase a different part of life, a different approach to life and then there is the variety of peoples and cultures.  Historically speaking the U.S. is young.  At the same time there is a lot of history to consider and a lot that has been neglected and avoided, buried and hidden, showcased and celebrated.  The landscape and the people with their cultures are living history so that we can see the values, beliefs, and attitudes – the philosophies in their actions and their lifestyle.   Witnessing all that while driving and then witnessing people’s actions and interaction when visiting national parks, monuments, less known-areas, meeting people at campgrounds or seeing them in grocery stores is a lesson for understanding.  There are vast differences.  It, at times could be seen as different countries (which the name U.S.A. of course signifies), and that makes my initial point so crucial.  There is a sense of “culture shock” when travelling to different areas within the U.S. because they all have their own special character!

Being aware of all the differences, the unique identifies and ways of peoples in various states: what does it mean to be “an American” (a citizen of the U.S.A to be precise)? It also leads us to the question: how can I claim to be “American” if I am not fully aware of all the amazing variety and subtlety?  Am I claiming something I don’t know or have or own?  That, in turn, leads to the possibly most important point: if we don’t know our own country and don’t’ relate to our “fellow citizens in all the beautiful uniqueness”, how can we know others and relate to other countries? 

This question and the quest of getting to know your country (the one you were born in and the one you live in) is so important as an deep understanding of that country actually helps us to better to relate to others, connect more deeply and connect without judgment.  It leads to an appreciation of the diversity and all that is being added by every country, state, and individual. 

So, before venturing to a country that may “seem” exciting in the brochure and explore that country:  how about getting to know your own country?

After all… everything starts at home – does it not?

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