Help me understand America.
October 22, 2009 9:35 PM   Subscribe

Americans: if you had to represent the USA with only three things, what would they be?

I've just moved to the US. For the moment I'm still in decompression mode: the fact that I've crossed the Atlantic hasn't properly sunk in yet. But I'm here, and will be for the next two years.

So--Americans: If you had to choose three things to represent what you take to be the essential parts of US history, culture, society, to help a recent arrival understand the place, what would they be? And why?

Three things for Britain might be a copy of What a carve up! by Jonathan Coe (I've given this to several UK-resident foreign friends: pretty good guide to the country, post-WWII); the way you can never get a decent cup of tea in places that sell you a cup of tea, only places that sell it to you in a pot; and, more positively, the view from the Malvern Hills. Obviously I could come up with loads more, good and bad.

In Damascus, just after arriving for the first of several long stays, I met a chap who was about to go and work as a pastry chef in the Taif Sheraton (Saudi Arabia). The night before his departure he invited me to join him and his friends for a night out eating fatteh (way too heavy for me) followed by a trip to the Midan for pastries ("the best!"). Then we all piled into a car and just drove around the city, which I'd just arrived in for the first time. It was his way of saying goodbye to his hometown, and it was also the most intensely "Syrian" evening I had in all my time there.

And a Canadian once made me watch Strange Brew so that I would understand Canada, though I've often wondered if that was more of a self-hatred thing.

It can be anything. Driving over the Brooklyn Bridge; Sunday morning service at a mega-church in exurban Illinois; or going to a certain Georgia diner on a Wednesday morning, getting a cup of coffee, and just looking out across the street. Please, tell me about it--and tell me why you think it represents America. Positive, negative, or sentimental things are all fine, provided they're thoughtful too.

Last weekend I saw this exhibition of Robert Frank photos, which was a start...
posted by lapsangsouchong to Society & Culture (93 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
The Declaration of Independence
A Baseball Game
Thanksgiving Dinner with family
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:45 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Statue of Liberty

Music by Aaron Copland

Nachos and cheap beer at a football game.
posted by coppermoss at 9:49 PM on October 22, 2009

"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." - Jacques Barzun.
posted by edverb at 9:50 PM on October 22, 2009

Best answer: A really good slice of NY pizza.

A photographic survey of the nation's agriculture and accompanying infrastructure, from the diversity of California to the immensity of Midwest grain fields.

American football. I would have said baseball, but it's fast becoming/has already become a global sport: elsewhere, American football is not nearly as popular.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:53 PM on October 22, 2009

New York City, mid-west plains, Los Angeles.

Big, dense city of urbanites alongside tourists.
Bread basket of America, but made of shrinking towns.
Sprawling media complex with lots of tourists.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:53 PM on October 22, 2009

Best answer: What an awesome and difficult question!! The US is so diverse from region-to-region.

Joe Rosenthal's powerful photo, "Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima" (posed or not, an epic image representing American resolve)

A copy of the PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize" (a moving account of the Civil Rights struggle, again depicting American resolve)

A mixed CD, featuring some American greats - from Cash to Madonna, Sinatra to Eminem, The King to the King of Pop, Ray Charles to Dave Matthews
posted by AlliKat75 at 9:54 PM on October 22, 2009

Best answer: Snoop Dogg, barbecue, and Robert Cato's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.
posted by anildash at 9:56 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

The devastation from Hurricane Katrina, still evident today.


Unemployment lines.
posted by runningwithscissors at 9:58 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


These things are related. I don't identify to the sport stuff at all.

Also, for an English immigrant, it's helpful to understand that despite the fact that we have strong class divisions, no one ever really talks about it or thinks about themselves in this way.
posted by lunalaguna at 10:00 PM on October 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

That's a rather difficult question, thinking about it...

The "melting pot" cliché is fairly accurate, though. There are so many examples of this, from the Chinese/Cuban fusion restaurants in New York City, to festivals that show almost anything from any culture you care to name. In Atlanta, as far as cuisine goes, I can find pretty much any traditional cultural items I want to. Not that other countries don't have this, but the primary culture here is one big mix of immigrant cultures and, I think, we come out better for it. The only other countries I've visited have been in the UK, and so perhaps I don't have a number of countries to compare, but I firmly believe that, at least in the cities and suburban areas, this is the basis of our culture - others.
In smaller towns, you can find the antithesis of this, of course, but even then many of the smaller towns have a mixture of other cultures. By the way, if you ever find yourself in a small mountain town in the south, find someone selling boiled peanuts or muscadines/scuppernongs. They're fabulous, just don't eat the seeds.

Also, very long road trips. You can drive from one end of this country to the other and the trip can last days.

Hamburgers. I know, this is also silly, but the burgers I had in England just didn't compare. They were great, mind you, but just not the same. Not worse, just different.
posted by neewom at 10:04 PM on October 22, 2009

Mega Churches

Urban Sprawl

Epidemic Obesity

(guess I'm in a ngeative mood tonight)
posted by nestor_makhno at 10:08 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Our immigrant culture, as seen by the diversity of people, languages, cultures, and religions represented here. I know many other countries have a diverse population and many immigrants, but it is so fundamentally American -- it's what makes us who we are. Some of my ancestors were Quakers, Huguenots, and fighters in the American Revolution; others were Sicilians who arrived within the last century; still others were Cherokees. They were all equally American. Sanjay Gupta is American. Tiger Woods is American. The guy who does my parents' lawn and who doesn't speak much English is American (born and raised). Craig Ferguson is an American (on purpose!). A friend of mine who was raised in this country but was only recently naturalized -- she's an American, and I'm damn glad to have her.
I say this as someone who identifies as a hyphenated American, and who pays a lot of attention to other people's ethnicities, even when they themselves discount their significance -- but I am delighted that we are all Americans together. I always cry when they show the big naturalization ceremonies and hundreds of new Americans. (And I love that the DAR shows up to celebrate with them.) Our food is even an immigrant mishmash. Everyone loves pizza, many Jews eat Chinese on Christmas, and you can get killer Italian sausage in Macalester, Oklahoma. My Sicilian family's Thanksgiving dinner involves turkey and pasta, cornbread stuffing and rice/Italian sausage stuffing.
That's the most fundamentally American thing I can think of.
posted by katemonster at 10:08 PM on October 22, 2009 [9 favorites]

Yellowstone, The Wire, and Panama City Beach
posted by JohnFredra at 10:11 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Woody Guthrie singing This Land is Your Land"
Ground Zero, New York City, the former site of the World Trade Centers
The 4th of July in a small town.
posted by theora55 at 10:13 PM on October 22, 2009

NFL football game, including tailgating, and driving to/from game
Go to some church service, probably would have to be something Christian
Go shopping at a big-ass mall on the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas
posted by buzzv at 10:14 PM on October 22, 2009

Response by poster: Folks, thanks for these swift answers. I should stress that I'm looking for specific things, seen from your own personal viewpoint. And, although I like the idea of nachos and a cheap beer at a football game, they don't necessarily have to be things I could do myself. Lunalaguna, I see where you're coming from, but could you give me specific things or places that--to you--exemplify "Individualism", "Entitlement/Convenience", and "Sprawl"? Inspector.Gadget, where can I get that pizza? And, ah... please. Things that represent America, not things that you were taught to feel proud of at elementary school.

Sorry if that sounds snarky. "Children being taught to feel proud of X at elementary school" would work fine!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 10:15 PM on October 22, 2009

Best answer: 1. Go on a road-trip. in all of its glory. junk food; roadside attractions; the distances you can travel and still be in the USA; see a national park, a ballgame, a shopping mall.
2. Go to a saturday morning pancake breakfast at a firestation.
3. Attend a service at a southern baptist church.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:16 PM on October 22, 2009 [6 favorites]

  1. A roadtrip from New York to California.
  2. The Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence.
  3. A WalMart supercenter.
The first because I've never, ever met any non-American but a Russian or Chinese who understands the incredible vastness of this country.

The second because our government was supposed to be better than any alternative. And it certainly had the potential, even if we've squandered much of it.

The last because we really are a sadly consumption-oriented culture.

And lunalaguna is right about the class division thing. We have very poor and very rich people, and yet nearly everybody genuinely describes themselves as "middle class".
posted by Netzapper at 10:21 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Charles Mingus
The preface to Leaves of Grass
Rap battles
posted by creasy boy at 10:32 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

the Super Bowl (eg, all of Super Bowl Sunday, which is almost a national holiday, which includes having a party & lots of pizza, wings, chips and beer & all the ridiculous commercials & the halftime show and everything).

Election night when there's a change of administrations. Or Inauguration Day. You're going to have to wait until 2016 for that experience, unfortunately, and we can't turn the clock back and invite anyone else to have been here in DC for the last one, but I guess I still get a little choked up thinking about it. But if nothing else, go to a campaign event for an interesting political campaign, or try canvassing door to door for a candidate.
posted by citron at 10:35 PM on October 22, 2009

Thanksgiving dinner, yeah - that and the 4th of July are our two big national holidays. (Christmas is big, and for many people it's secular, but it's not uniquely American)

Thanksgiving dinner has a prescribed menu (turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie), with modifications for individual family tradition (creamed onions? green beans with almonds? sweet potatoes with marshmallows? Aunt Sally's apple brown betty?). Students get only a couple of days off university and will travel across the country to get home if they can. It's really just a day of getting together, cooking a giant meal and eating until you're groaningly full -- but it's a real family holiday, IME every family has their own traditions around it and it's not as commercialized as Christmas is here.

The 4th of July has the tradition of local parades and fairs, and then picnic/cookout supper and then a town fireworks show at a park. It's celebrated as a public, outdoor, town thing, or a get-together-with-friends/several-families thing.

Baseball games have their own enjoyable rhythm and are a great way to spend a summer afternoon or evening. You'll want someone to accompany you who can tell you what's going on. Minor league games are fun and much cheaper than major league games, and they're all over the place. (Sadly baseball season is almost over and won't resume until spring)

College (ie, university) sports are big in many parts of the country.

Visit the National Archives in DC and see the affection and respect Americans have for the Constitution and other founding documents. We don't have a monarchy, and we're often cynical about government, but man do we love those founding documents. (Visit some of the other monuments in DC, Lincoln memorial is a biggie. Vietnam war memorial, Arlington National Cemetary.)

Diners, truck stops, road food, a culture of lots and lots of driving. Drive-thru everything. I don't know how different this is from where you're from.

Giant amusement park with rollercoasters etc? These are expensive usually, but might be fun if you got the right people to join you. Old rickety local family amusment parks might be cheaper.

Also there is a lot of regional variation, even though it's been homogenized in the last several decades. Coastal New England (Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Conn to a lesser extent) has different people, different customs, etc than even inland New England (western Mass and Vermont, northern NH and Maine) -- and still more different from Louisiana, or a place in the desert southwest, etc. So to "understand America" is an ambitious undertaking. You'll want to travel around. Eat the local specialty dishes. (Don't write anybody off as stupid based on an accent; stupidity is well distributed throughout the whole population.) A roadtrip is an excellent idea, because the land is gorgeous and varied and you'd get to see the diners and truck stops and the million identical fast food places eating up the older stuff in their path.

Those are the things we say about ourselves. Of course there are a lot of things we don't say much about ourselves....
To understand the US you need to understand race in the US. It's a big, big deal; Americans are sort of nuts about race. (For example if you travelled all the way around the DC subway system, you'd have a short course in the interaction of the races, and some of the areas of extreme poverty in black neighborhoods there.) I don't know how to give you a capsule experience that will convey this, but it's something to keep one eye on while you're here.

Ditto for class and the gap between rich and poor, within a given city or between different regions. Again, road trip is the easiest solution here, or just travel around whatever city you're in; take the city bus for an afternoon. (get advice from friends about areas)

Suburban sprawl. Drive away from a city like DC in almost any direction and you'll see the former farmland being turned into tract housing.

Shopping - try an enormous grocery store. or Walmart, which in turn is a different thing from the mobs of shoppers in a big mall near Christmas; you'll have plenty of chance to sniff this out. In a grocery store see how much space is devoted to things like bottled water, sodapop, snack foods (potato chips, cookies), etc.

You'll also need to watch some of our increasingly idiotic TV and news.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:36 PM on October 22, 2009

Another point - most Americans don't have intimate experience of any other country; haven't lived there, haven't traveled much. The national consciousness just doesn't really include awareness of other countries very much. So (mostly) we don't know what's unique to us -- my guesses above come from talking to friends from elsewhere about what they found noteworthy in the US.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:41 PM on October 22, 2009

And, ah... please. Things that represent America, not things that you were taught to feel proud of at elementary school.

Okay, to rephrase my answer:
  1. Native grapes: muscadines/scuppernongs
  2. Boiled Peanuts
  3. A really long road trip, to demonstrate to yourself just how big this country is. For example, a Greyhound bus trip from New York City to San Diego takes almost three days by bus.

posted by neewom at 10:42 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Drive through Detroit, MI, through Dearborn to Bloomfield Hills. From abandoned homes, burned lots, and decaying factories, to museums, churches, libraries, casinos, and excellent Arab restaurants, to fabulous mansions in a dozen miles.

2. As long as you're in town, stick around for the Woodward Dream Cruise. Every car and motorcycle imaginable from the antique to the modern. It's not just Motor City (as much as that title has lost its luster); America is still the Land of the Automobile.

3. Drive on up to Birch Run for the outlet malls and a truck stop that serves BLTs with (no joke) an entire pound of bacon. Now that's American!
posted by Wyrmspace at 10:45 PM on October 22, 2009

I love the two "tones" that these are taking, positive and negative. Here are mine:


4th of July Parade in smalltown, USA

A trip through DC - the smithsonian, the memorials, arlington national cemetary, the white house, capital building, etc.

A camp out in Yellowstone/Yosemite/Grand Canyon

A trip to NYC's ethnic enclaves, to get a feel for our melting pot.


The Big Mac

Las Vegas

Suburban Sprawl

E! Television, Inside Hollywood, Inside Edition, crappy paparazzi shows

(I guess all these are a sign of american excess)
posted by unexpected at 10:45 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm having a lot of trouble with this one. It's a great question.

Let me propose some themes instead of giving you things to do:

- Distrust of government.
- Highly secular until religion is mentioned, then highly christian.
- Navel-gazing, and frankly flabbergasted that Americans are not more than 1/10th the world's population.
- Short sighted.

I say take advantage of the trio of holidays coming up -- Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas -- and get involved somewhere. Help someone's kids trick or treat. Help prepare Tgiving dinner, Crash someone's Christmas celebration.

I would road-trip for barbeque restaurants. See the Wikipedia article on barbeque and spend a week or two driving and hitting as many regions as you can. Find seedy joints. Go inside, in late lunch time, and stay as long as you can and soak up the clientele.
posted by cmiller at 11:26 PM on October 22, 2009

1. A county fair

2. The Interstate Highway System

3. Walmart
posted by mokuba at 11:31 PM on October 22, 2009

wait, walmart isn't so unique. . . In n Out for #3.
posted by mokuba at 11:32 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would say the battlefield at Gettysburg Pennsylvania, on a tour with someone who knows the history of the battle and can explain all the things that happened there.

Note especially the battle for Little Round Top, at which made Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain one of the very first recipients of the Medal of Honor.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:33 PM on October 22, 2009

I guess that was only one thing. Another thing would be to attend a rodeo.

A decent rodeo, one west of the Mississippi. (I went to a rodeo in Springfield Mass once, and they were terrible! The guys trying to rope calves kept missing.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:36 PM on October 22, 2009

Friday Night Lights (the TV series)
Interstate rest areas
The Air and Space Museum
posted by Tsuga at 11:39 PM on October 22, 2009

The stocks, for the Puritans who settled Massachusetts, and their Calvinist faith.

The lynching tree, for slavery and Jim Crow.

Little Boy or Fat Man, the only two atomic bombs used in war, for the US technological ascendancy, the immigrant experience*, and the realization of the American Empire.

* the Manhattan Project was staffed by many immigrant who fled Europe.
posted by orthogonality at 11:45 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

An interstate or cross country road trip, complete with wacky roadside attractions
A State Fair
A jazz festival
posted by KathrynT at 11:46 PM on October 22, 2009

1. Any midwest state fair (preferably Iowa's): Because it's been around for 100+ years, but manages to change and evolve with the times. It still draws 1,000,000 each year.
2. Alaska: Because it's one of the few places where you can still get a sense of how big this country was/is and, then, when you return to the lower 48, you get a sense of perspective on how that bigness that was once everywhere impacted the country as it grew. In a pinch, the upper plains will do (WY, MT, ND).
3. New York City: Because you really can't understand the dichotomy between the coasts and the rest of the country until you experience the awesomeness of NYC, in every sense.

If travel ain't an option, then use these substitutes:

1. Garrison Keillor's PrairieHome Companion for #1
2. Ansel Adams photography of the west
3. NYC: Accept no substitutes.

Finally, n-ing LobsterMitten's suggestion of Thanksgiving Dinner. Over the years, I've had the good fortunate to host some European relatives and friends for Thanksgiving. It's perhaps the U.S.'s signature holiday. The visitors have always commented on it - both in terms of the actual experience and the symbolism behind it.
posted by webhund at 11:54 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

A gleaming Safeway supermarket.

Five+ kinds of meat, 50+ kinds of beer, cheapest gas pumps in town, customizable cakes, mylar balloons, any size battery you'd need, and fresh tomatoes and roses any time of year. All offered up by smiling efficient people who are making a pretty good living.

I mean, complain about consumerism all you like but I think it is an epic accomplishment.
posted by codswallop at 11:56 PM on October 22, 2009

Best answer: I'm from South Dakota, so this is mine:

1. A day at South Dakota State Fair. I agree that that's perfect for seeing a lot of sides of how people live and what they think is really important. It's also like three blocks from the house I grew up in. Eat some funnel cakes, check out the prize-winning produce, find the quilts in the "Women's Building," climb inside a tractor tire, talk to the local political wackos.

2. Camping at Center Lake in Custer State Park, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. No electricity, small (man-made) lake, lots of wildlife.

3. Go to an auto race at a small dirt track, and drink a lot of beer. All kinds of emotions there, man. You know that it's a terribly wasteful activity, but the people are pretty funny and nice. And sometimes scary. You sing the national anthem before it starts. It's a mix of the most wasteful attitudes of the US with hardworking people just having fun on a Saturday. Microcosms, man.
posted by lauranesson at 12:25 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

  • Pogo comic strips.
  • My favorite jazz records:
    ...Night Train by Oscar Peterson (a Canadian) and especially his song there called "Hymn To Freedom," which he dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. all-time favorite record, which is of Zutty Singleton, Lil Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet playing together in Paris on October 7th, 1952 (and which currently appears to be available here); especially their version of "Old Rockin' Chair"
    ...Duke Ellington's two greatest suites, Such Sweet Thunder (concerning Shakespeare) and The Queen's Suite (dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II)
  • Our greatest literature:
    ...William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses
    ...Herman Melville's Moby-Dick
    ...W. E. B. DuBois' The Souls Of Black Folk
  • Really, really good hamburgers and really, really good barbecue.

  • posted by koeselitz at 12:30 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    So that's, uh... four things, with two sets of three things interspersed... so... that's kinda like three things, innit?
    posted by koeselitz at 12:31 AM on October 23, 2009

    Holy crap, how can I forget

  • College football. Really, if there's any way to experience all of what America is in one day, college football is it.

  • posted by koeselitz at 12:32 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: 24 hour Supercenters (Wal-Mart or other local variations)
    They feed into the typical American "I want it all and I want it now" mindset. Three o'clock in the morning and you need a pair of sweat pants, a crock pot, an air filter for your car, a gallon of milk, some presciption medication and a sleeping bag? You'll find it all at the local 24-hour Supercenter, no problem.

    All-You-Can-Eat Buffets
    It's not haute cuisine, and it's blamed for our obesity epidemic, but in all my various travels I've never been to another country where for less than ten dollars you can get a steak, baked potato, salad with a wide array of trimmings, along with six or more different side dishes to choose from. Not to mention pizza or Chinese food all-you-can-eat buffets. (A few years ago friends of ours from Birmingham, England, came to stay for a few days and we took them to an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch at a local hotel. The husband went through the line four different times and kept saying "I've never seen so much food like this in all me life!")

    Thanksgiving and Halloween
    Halloween seems to be more of a major holiday in the US than anywhere else. Trick-or-treating is de rigueur for children, and adults delight in dressing in costume for parties. Many usually staid businesses also encourage employees to dress in costume for the occasion. Thanksgiving is more than just the huge turkey dinner - it's family getting together, men (and some of the women) watching football on TV, and getting up early on Friday morning for the "Black Friday" sales. It's also often the weekend that folks officially start decorating for Christmas.

    Road Trips
    Many Americans are very car-centric, and think nothing of taking long road trips for either a vacation, to satisfy a sudden craving to eat at at a particular restaurant or some other wacky reason, etc. Thanks to the Interstate System and plenty of 24-hour service plazas, it's not all that unusual for folks to drive 22 hours straight from Michigan to Florida for a quickie weekend vacation in the sun. Or, in Mr. Adams' case when he was younger, to drive from Cincinnati to Dallas after leaving work on Friday afternoon to meet his favorite rock star at his only US appearance (at a radio station) and be back in Cincinnati in time to go to work on Monday.
    posted by Oriole Adams at 12:41 AM on October 23, 2009

    American essayist and cultural expert Gerald Early said that 2000 years from now, the three quintessential American contributions to civilization will be the Constitution, baseball, and jazz music.

    Without sounding elitist, the Constitution of the United States of America is the most important, poignant and inspired political document humanity will ever see. It must be read and understood in order to understand America.

    Baseball was and is this galvanizing escape for Americans. One unique thing about baseball fandom is that for any baseball fan I've ever met (including myself), their love for the game, its history and its figures transcend their loyalty to any one team. But the MLB has always been an indicator of the social, spiritual, economical, etc. climate of the nation.

    Jazz music is the only truly home-grown music in the country that actually speaks to and of the nation's soul and revolutionary character. Although it's rooted in African spirituals and aboriginal beats and meters, the transformation into jazz music was wholly American and born here on this continent, and because of and in response to the country's sometimes dark, sometimes inspiring history.
    posted by Detuned Radio at 12:49 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    The Grand Canyon


    Universal free education

    (The latter two have both huge positives and huge negatives.)
    posted by megatherium at 1:23 AM on October 23, 2009

    Ken Burns' "the Civil War"

    Coppola's "The Godfather( 1 and 2):

    Simon and Burns' "The Wire"
    posted by Neiltupper at 2:22 AM on October 23, 2009

    U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers.
    Native American reservations, in modern day.
    posted by so_gracefully at 2:55 AM on October 23, 2009

    posted by rokusan at 3:19 AM on October 23, 2009

    Weird... I was gonna add baseball, jazz, and apple pie.

    Ken Burns needs to do a series on apple pie to complete his Americana... quintilogy.
    posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 3:28 AM on October 23, 2009

    As someone who makes infrequent visits to the United States, I'd suggest:

    - a buffet on a Sunday lunchtime, which is usually half-full with people who have just come from Church or whatever

    - a basketball/baseball game. It epitomises the shock'n'awe aspect of American entertainment, which pretty much overshadows the point of everyone being there in the first place.

    - a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. Whenever you think (As I do, living in London) "Where have all the people gone?" - that's where you'll find them. Buying the same useless tat.

    Of course, nothing really compares to getting to know Americans, getting them to invite you into their world. Fortunately, nobody does superficial time-friendly attention like the Americans do ;)
    posted by almostwitty at 3:34 AM on October 23, 2009

    Four things you can do from your living room:

    Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    Just about any record by Thelonious Monk
    Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons
    Grateful Dead's Dick's Picks Volume 3
    posted by pasici at 4:47 AM on October 23, 2009

    Best answer: For me, the quintessentially American thing or idea is the cowboy. The cowboy epitomizes both the self-made man (in theory) and the downtrodden (in practice). His setting is the West - from the giant round-ups in Texas to the mountains of Montana. His musical backdrop is Copeland, back in the day, and his personal music is its own vernacular. The settling of the West *is* the American story, for good and for bad.

    To experience this in some part today, road trip. A day of driving across nothing but fields of grain, followed by incredible scenery. Truck stop coffee, kitsch, mansions on faraway hills. Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers. Pacing trains for hours.
    posted by notsnot at 4:52 AM on October 23, 2009

    Best answer: From Ms. Vegetable:

    1. Tractor trailer trucks. They are HUGE. especially when you've come from living in Denmark for a semester with all the small cars - all of a sudden, roads are FULL of gigantic tractor trailers.
    2. The Amish country - Lancaster, PA, specifically, but really anywhere you find a good community. Especially when directly contrasted with a 95-corridor city (Boston, NYC, Philly, DC, Atlanta, etc). Such a contrast. Awesome.
    3. Peanut butter. I cannot say enough good things about peanut butter and how you can't get it elsewhere. I'm talking Skippy, not the crushed raw peanuts healthy kind.
    posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:56 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Apple pie, baseball, and jazz.

    (Though I have to say that the uniquely American thing that I miss the *most* when I'm out of the country is supermarkets and having more food choices than any human could possibly process.)

    "As American as apple pie" is a true story. I've never had a decent apple pie out of the country - everything I've seen has been apple tart, which while delicious, is NOT apple pie.
    posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:57 AM on October 23, 2009

    Barbecue- real slow-cooked barbecue, that is. Like pulled pork or brisket. It's the food of the poor that made it to the gastronomic big-time. Culinary Horatio Alger, if you will.

    Fried Chicken- kinda the same story as above. But in my mind, everything from take-out KFC to Sunday Dinner at grandma's with all the fixin's is equally a signifier of America. There are a lot of aspects of Fried Chicken that you ignore at your peril.

    Chili. While there's a definite south-of-the-border influence that may make some decry it as not genuinely American, it's definitely become Americanized. I mean, Cincinnati chili bears little resemblance to anything that might have been consumed by Cowboys on the Chisholm Trail, for instance. It's a good representation of the melting pot.

    I should have eaten breakfast this morning.
    posted by Shohn at 5:20 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Endless Stripmalls
    posted by mary8nne at 5:39 AM on October 23, 2009

    Response by poster: Thanks for all these great answers--I've marked a few, but could have marked plenty of others. Keep them coming.

    Looks like I need to learn to drive...
    posted by lapsangsouchong at 6:08 AM on October 23, 2009

    Response by poster: Oh--Mr Adams, who was the rock star?
    posted by lapsangsouchong at 6:10 AM on October 23, 2009

    Best answer: New Orleans - a more intense melting pot than even NYC, producing jazz and the country's best food. It feels more European than American to me, though. Go to a music festival there during your stay here.

    Road trips through the desert and Thanksgiving with someone's family are great suggestions.
    Not my thing, but maybe a minor league baseball game.
    Waffle House at 3 a.m.
    Yellowstone is pretty amazing, what with the geysers and the bison and whatnot.
    Shops that sell guns and beef jerky.

    Having a Nigerian cabbie tell you "gesundheit" as you barrel through the streets of New York.
    posted by CunningLinguist at 6:15 AM on October 23, 2009

    Looks like I need to learn to drive...

    I can't think of a more American thing to do than learn to drive here, then rent something great and drive across the country. A detour down the Las Vegas strip, so insane after the vast featureless desert, is required by law.
    posted by CunningLinguist at 6:19 AM on October 23, 2009

    Opulent 1920’s-30’s art deco architecture.

    A Friday night fish fry pretty much anywhere in the state of Wisconsin.

    posted by applemeat at 6:25 AM on October 23, 2009

    Walking the Freedom Trail in Boston gives you a good sense of the beginning of the country.

    Definitely the National Archives, and the other DC monuments: those tell you about who and what we think are important, and how those ideals should be represented.

    Three things is hard. I'm not sure what I'd suggest for the third...attend a Thanksgiving dinner, go to a big grocery store, visit the middle of the country, visit New York City, eat specific foods (everything mentioned above, plus maple syrup!), visit NYC and eat food from everywhere in the world within a few days, go to a college game, do a road trip, try to get a sense of the issues and history around race...any of those would tell you something about us.

    Definitely learn to drive--maybe that should be the third thing!

    This is a great question!
    posted by min at 6:28 AM on October 23, 2009

    The moon landing.
    A copy of The Gettysburg Address.
    posted by timdicator at 6:35 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: A Louisville Slugger
    A Fender Stratocaster
    A .32 caliber revolver
    posted by tylerfulltilt at 6:40 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Things that I missed and pinpointed as representative of America while I was abroad:

    1. 24-hour anything. Sure, other countries had clubs that were open late, but if I was in France and wanted to buy ingredients for dinner at 9pm, I was out of luck. If I wanted to eat dinner at 10pm at a diner, it was not going to happen. Now that I'm back here I love that I can go buy ice cream at 2am if I want to.

    2. Microbrews. People who don't get it say that all American beer sucks. That's false. America has an amazing array of small breweries that make unique beers. Some of my current favorites are Dogfish Head, Great Lakes, and Schlafly.

    3. Mexican food. Either the more authentic stuff or Tex-Mex. People take it for granted here that it'll be delicious, it'll be cheap, and it'll be ubiquitous.
    posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 6:44 AM on October 23, 2009

    This is a great question!
    I'm surprised that no one has mentioned this- blue jeans! The only person I have never seen in a pair of jeans is my mother and she's an immigrant... jeans are as much a part of our identity as baseball and Thanksgiving.
    Defining America is tricky. I think of America during certain moments. The national anthem before a ball game, small town Fourth of July celebrations, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day in New England with lilacs blooming over the old cemeteries and - you get the idea.
    I have a story that for me sums up being an American.
    A few years back I was at the local laundromat early. The Chinese owner was there as well as a young Latino couple. We were all quietly doing our laundry as the large TV in the background played a movie. After a moment I realized everyone was intent on the TV so I turned to see what was on.
    It was "The Quiet Man".
    We all watched as John Wayne as an American struggled with the mores of his Irish ancestry and we sighed as he kissed Maureen O'Hara.
    It occurred to me that while I may or may not have been the only person in the laundromat who completely understood the dialogue, we ALL understood the story and could identify with it on some level.
    It truly was, and is, one of the most cherished memories in my life
    posted by pentagoet at 6:47 AM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

    Part of me wants to say you should just follow Ken Burns - you can't get more American than Baseball, Jazz and the Civil War.

    But, for personal, specific, and experiential America I'll say: Ride the Staten Island ferry, in New York City. You get amazing views of the still busy harbor, the skylines of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey, the statue of Liberty & Ellis island, and you get it all in the context of an everyday commute - the tourism aspect, although giant, is essentially accidental. This is just how some people get to work.
    posted by dirtdirt at 7:15 AM on October 23, 2009

    Best answer: Go experience a day at the Big House. The American college football experience at its finest. Nothing like 108,000 people of all types having a good time without hooliganism and million dollar contracts.

    Go to Cedar Point. It has more roller coasters and rides than anywhere else. Some would say it is the best amusement park in the world. I am not sure you can have any more fun without involving nakedness or alcohol. You will see just about every type of person imaginable.

    Check out Meijers. At 4:30 in the morning you can buy a Playstation 3, a parakeet, and a pineapple. You can decide if this is a good or a bad thing.
    posted by jasondigitized at 7:25 AM on October 23, 2009

    Eat three slices of (Chicago-style) deep dish pizza and a cold beer at a table outside on a warm summer evening; read Twain's "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" to understand our mindset; and, uh, a minor-league baseball game.

    This strikes me as ignoring California, Texas, and the south, but it's what I know. (Maybe you could swap in a Texas high-school football game for the AA baseball game.)
    posted by wenestvedt at 7:34 AM on October 23, 2009

    1. A gun

    2. One of those belts that holds the bullets

    3. Another gun
    posted by Zambrano at 8:54 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: Sitting in the audience of a town council meeting, preferably a smaller one, listening to the business discussed, listening to the concerns that citizens bring up. It can be interesting to go on their website and scan the last few sets of meeting minutes to see how an issues has progressed over time and been dealt with. The stuff itself is not all that interesting - road construction contracts, zoning variances, millage rate debates - but it's interesting to watch from a sociological viewpoint. It's interesting to see regular people in the act of governing themselves and think about what that means. It drives home the point that government isn't some separate controlling force but is literally us.

    While it's more of a stretch, sitting in the audience at a court case, or a day of low-level court cases, can be another interesting window into how we govern and regulate ourselves. It's not that other countries don't do this, or that our system isn't similar to that of other offspring of the British Empire, but it's still a unique slice of life and vantage point.

    A fish doesn't really perceive water - it just is. Likewise we who grew up here often can't really see the medium in which we float, and we ignore the bones of our democracy most of the time even when we perceive them. But they're an important foundation to understanding everything that's built on top of them. So I think local government and law are great starting points for context.

    I feel most American and right with the world relaxing with a hot dog and a contented smile in the sunshine at an afternoon baseball game, major leagues or minor. There's a feeling of connection and shared identity there.

    Definitely get yourself invited to a friend's family Thanksgiving, preferably one where plenty of extended family gathers together. What a treat. Great food that has become a ritual, football, drinkin', naps, pie, and actual giving of thanks for family, friends, health, fortune, etc. Thanksgiving day is an oasis where the rest of life goes on pause.

    Spending some time in New York City is a turbo crash course in the melting pot/salad bowl idea, and lots of other Americana besides.

    Nthing the cross-country road trip. That's something most Americans haven't even done and can yield richly varied perspectives. It's easy to think that every place is like wherever you grew up, but there are so many different regional subcultures and environments. Try to get to the old south, new england, the desert southwest, pacific northwest, farmy heartland, midwest, Gulf coast, California metropolises, DC, the rust belt, the big national parks.

    Welcome! Good luck finding good tea.
    posted by Askr at 8:57 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    If you listen to Woody Guthrie's verses of This Land is Your Land, you'll find that it's not quite "Things that represent America, not things that you were taught to feel proud of at elementary school."
    posted by theora55 at 9:50 AM on October 23, 2009

    mustcatchmooseandsquirrel: "Microbrews."

    Exactly what I came here to say. BUT, find a local microbrewery and go to one of their tours/tastings. Don't just go buy a beer in a store, see the passion of the people who make the beer, then taste it with them. There is no experience quite like this (in my eyes).

    Also: nthing the baseball game, but go see it where the fans have passion - any game remaining this year would fit those qualifications. Otherwise, I'd limit it to the Cubs (at Wrigley!) or Red Sox (at Fenway!).

    And: the Smithsonian museums, and monuments in Washington, DC. Go see the Vietnam Memorial, Lincoln, and the Mall.
    posted by pkphy39 at 9:58 AM on October 23, 2009

    Three things to show someone: A Twinkie; Representative of all that is American. The Gettysburg Address; representative of why we are American. As It has been stated- Before the Civil War we said The United States ARE, afterward we said the United States IS. the Space Shuttle; representative of where Americans hope to be.
    posted by Gungho at 10:13 AM on October 23, 2009

    And a Canadian once made me watch Strange Brew so that I would understand Canada, though I've often wondered if that was more of a self-hatred thing.

    Look, you can poop on our flag, screech our national anthem, and deface our currency, but you do NOT get to shrug off Strange Brew.
    posted by Sys Rq at 10:53 AM on October 23, 2009

    1. A non-American ranting about everything bad about America (guns, capitalism, corporations, religion, racism, etc.) while wearing

    2. A pair of blue jeans and holding

    3. A cell phone.
    posted by dw at 10:59 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Paddling a canoe to a gas station that sells fried chicken.
    posted by applemeat at 11:33 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    no time for three things, but to me America == road trip. Even most Americans have no idea how diverse this country is. I'm not saying that it's like going from France to Germany, but (especially on the north/south axis) it's amazing to ... hear the accents change, and the terrain, and the food ...
    posted by lex mercatoria at 11:49 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Lately, the most American thing I've come across is the giant TV screen in the new Dallas Cowboys stadium. There's something very American about building the biggest stadium in the world so that people can come and watch a TV show version of the game they're actually attending in person on the biggest TV screen in the world.

    In Texas, of course.
    posted by dyobmit at 11:56 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Mod note: few comments removed - on-topic please? thank you
    posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:01 PM on October 23, 2009

    Best answer: Feeling embarrassed almost every day because your country is so tacky/wasteful/puritanical/anti-intellectual/arrogent, etc., etc...


    Misting up during "America The Beautiful." Every time.
    posted by applemeat at 12:02 PM on October 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

    Iced tea. Not nestea or McDonalds, but quality, maybe homemade iced tea. We don't do hot tea all that well, and the Brits I've known never well get on board with cold tea. But some iced tea with mint on a spring or summer day, before you get to the beer, is awesome. Which brings me to...

    An outdoor BBQ. Sure, do ka-bobs or whatever, but there has to be hamburgers and hot dogs. And beer. Play lawn games while you are doing it; horse shoes, bag toss, touch football, maybe softball. And since you're outside...

    The vastness of the American outdoors. Climb hills in the historic towns of the Appalachians, go crabbing in the marshes of the Chesapeake, gaze at the natural beauty of the desert, see the starkness and enormity of the badlands, wander the very different forests of New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest. Get lost in the endless plains.
    posted by spaltavian at 12:24 PM on October 23, 2009

    For me personaly I never feel more american than when I
  • Drive a Combine through a wheat field
  • Shop a a Supercenter
    Like everyone before me has said the size of America is not something easily comprehended with out 3 friends and assload of snacks and a car.

  • posted by Uncle at 1:32 PM on October 23, 2009

    1. Roadside diners. Especially when experienced late at night after a long day road tripping, when it feels so ridiculously good to get out of the car after driving through 3 states straight.
    2. A baseball game. A drink, peanuts whose shells you leave on the ground, and a hotdog are not optional. I'm more of a football/basketball person, but the experience of going to a baseball game is like no other and I love it.
    3. Normal Rockwell's paintings.
    posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:52 PM on October 23, 2009

    *norman! Especially this one, especially in juxtaposition with all of his others. You kind of have to consider them all together, in my opinion.
    posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:52 PM on October 23, 2009

    Best answer: Disneyland/Disney World. In particular, at Disney World, the Hall of Presidents. How great is a country that celebrates its democratically elected rulers by creating lifelike robots of all of them, to nod thoughtfully as they "listen" to a robot of the current president saying a few sentences from his inaugural address? The best part is that they try to make the best-known presidents kind of seem like their personality is being expressed in the the Andrew Jackson robot kind of looks like a dick who may, at any moment, throw a spitball or blow a raspberry. It's really, really, really the most American thing I have ever been to in my life.

    Also known for making me feel patriotic is the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland but I think that's just because it's a great, great ride where they shoot flames at you and scare you with a giant robot snake while you ride in a fake Jeep and a robot of Harrison Ford yells at you. America!!
    posted by crinklebat at 3:01 PM on October 23, 2009 [6 favorites]

    1. Fried okra, made at home.
    2. The frog jumping, popcorn eating, and bubblegum blowing contests at Popcorn Day in Ridgway, Illinois (town of ~1,000 people just off the Ohio River).
    3. Visiting my cousins, aunts, and uncles, in (West to East) California, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland, and Connecticut.

    posted by ocherdraco at 3:32 PM on October 23, 2009

    Best answer: Yellowstone which, to me, represents a tiny sliver of the utter wild American frontier that Frederick Jackson Turner argued disappeared forever in 1890. There is nothing like facing a gorgeous mountain range bathed in the purples and blues of twilight and feeling so alive and insignificant. It's also amazing to watch the wide range of wildlife that lives in the park. I'm used to seeing deer, coyotes, and turkeys on a daily basis, but not bears, elk, moose, whooping cranes, bison, and mountain goats all in one location. Come to think of it, the whole National Park Service system is amazing. There is nothing comparable in the entire world with such a diverse offering of battlefields, national monuments, natural wonders, and other national treasures all under one umbrella.

    The Ozark Mountains where I was born, raised, and still live. Small towns. Watching John Deere tractors cutting hay in the river bottoms, Case combines roaring through wheat fields, swimming in crystal clear streams, following winding dirt roads, sitting on the front porch with my elderly neighbors who have lived on their farm for over seventy years, waving hello to folks when driving down the highway, listening to impromptu music sessions down at the courthouse square, going down to the local Democratic headquarters to hear the latest news and listening to soft Southern accents.

    Attending a Sunday service at my Southern Baptist church (which is actually progressive!) and singing old gospel songs like "I'll Fly Away" and "Amazing Grace."

    Barbeque! My favorite is from the man who sells barbeque from a trailer by one of the gas stations at Jane, Missouri located on the Missouri/Arkansas border.

    I could go on, but I'll end here.
    posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 3:53 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    It's hard to represent America in three images, but I guess this is an exercise in being concise. Here's mine:
    posted by tomwheeler at 3:56 PM on October 23, 2009

    Best answer: Oh--Mr Adams, who was the rock star?
    Brian May.
    posted by Oriole Adams at 9:01 PM on October 23, 2009

    Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

    John Coltrane, My Favorite Things

    Allen Ginsberg, "America"
    posted by bardic at 10:30 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: Three experiences which exemplify various aspects of America to me:

    1) During a road trip in Colorado, visiting Bishop's Castle. It's an enormous castle built by Jim Bishop, a local ironworker who dreamed of building his childhood dream home and has devoted the last 40 years to it. The signs outside are filled with libertarian rants such as "unreasonable & unfair laws force me to write this sign by my hard earned power" and brag that no building codes were followed in the construction. Bishop stole the rocks from the nearby national forest and got into legal trouble because of it. It brought to mind the libertarian paranoia of government, do it yourself ethos, and frontier mentality which pervades America.

    2) Travelling by Greyhound bus across Arizona near some border towns. At night, the passengers were all sleeping when the bus stopped and some border patrol police came aboard checking for illegal immigrants. The border patrol checked the IDs closely of all the Hispanic-looking passengers silently, then departed. The bus started up again without anyone saying a word. This brought to mind the weird deference to authority and the odd quasi-legal status of illegal immigrants in the USA.

    3) In California, driving 15 miles to go to a 24-hour gym inside a mall, and taking an aerobics class at 8:30 pm in an air conditioned room, even though the weather could not be more ideal outside for a run or walk. Watch the numerous people walking on a treadmill at 11pm while completely isolated with a row of identical ipods. Listen to girls chattering about agressively sexual hip hop lyrics and their church duties on the weekend. Afterwards, walk by the juice bar selling 900 calorie fruit juice drinks marketed as healthy because they have vitamin powder sprinkled on them. This brought to mind the obsession with body image, convenience, isolation, and compartmentalization of modern American life.
    posted by benzenedream at 11:03 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

    Wow, this is an incredible question. One that is painfully difficult to answer.

    Representing Memphis and the south:

    -Dancing with friends and strangers at a tiny dive bar at 3 a.m. to a good blues band (the specific place I'm refrencing sells 40 oz. bottles of beer and nothing else). I have never felt more love for my city than in these rare moments. Memphis is notoriously a racially charged city, so my heart swells when I see people of all demographics and all ages letting their hair down and having fun together.

    -The low-lying fields of the Mississippi delta in the dead heat of summer. Birthplace of the blues.

    -Backyard barbecues, especially on the 4th of July. You get a little bit of everything with this one: fireworks, mosquitos, sweat, popsicles, beer, BBQ (the real kind, not the anything-put-on-a-grill definition), hot dogs, "America the Beautiful." It's like all the Americana you can squeeze into one night.
    posted by a.steele at 5:26 PM on October 24, 2009

    I've already said my piece, but...also, hardware stores. Not big-box Lowes and Home Depot. I'm talking about the old guy and his nephew behind the counter, cut your keys, hinges for that cabinet door? No problem.
    posted by notsnot at 3:50 PM on October 25, 2009

    They have those all over the world. Not dizzy-making Home Depots, though.
    posted by CunningLinguist at 3:55 PM on October 25, 2009

    Breakfast at a diner.
    Target. (the store)
    A road trip.
    posted by rocco at 6:36 PM on March 15, 2010

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