The US claims to be the greatest success story of the modern world - a nation fashioned from an incredibly disparate population who, with little in common apart from a desire to choose their own paths to wealth or heaven, rallied around the ennobling ideals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to forge the richest, most inventive and most powerful country on earth.
Despite polemicists who justly cite the destruction of Native American cultures, racism and imperialism at the top of a long list of wrongdoings, half the world remains in love with the idea of America. This is, after all, the country that introduced the world to the right to the pursuit of happiness, free speech, electric light, airplanes, assembly-line automobiles, the space shuttle, computers, blues, jazz, rock & roll and movies that climax at the high-school prom.
On a short trip, it can be hard work dismantling your preconceptions. So much of the country has been filmed, photographed, painted and written about that you need to peel back layers of representation to stop it from looking like a stage setting. This worldwide representation can make the country seem strangely familiar when you first encounter novelties like 24-hour shopping, bottomless cups of coffee, 'Have a nice day,' drive-thru banks, TV evangelists, cheap gasoline and newspapers tossed onto lawns. But you'd be foolish to read too much into this surface familiarity, since you only have to watch Oprah for half an hour to realize that the rituals and currents of American life are as complex, seductive and bewildering as the most alien of cultures.
Come prepared to explore the USA's unique brand of 'foreignness' rather than stay in the comfort zone of the familiar. You'll discover several of the world's most exciting cities, some truly mind-blowing landscapes, a strong sense of regionalism, a trenchant mythology, more history than the country gives itself credit for and, arguably, some of the most approachable natives in the world.
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, followed with a highly publicized spate of anthrax-laced mailings that exposed government workers, media personel and mail carriers to the deadly disease, the entire USA has been on a heightened state of alert. Add to this rampant rumours of repercussions for the bombing of Afghanistan, and you're dealing with one nervous country.
While your chances of falling victim to shady terrorist plots are probably pretty slim (though you never know; perhaps packing that lucky penny isn't such a silly idea), you are very likely to experience a variety of potentially annoying security protocols, particularly surrounding airline travel. Make sure all your identification and other documents are up-to-date, confirm reservations and bag-checking procedures ahead of time, and arrive at the airport at least an hour before your flight departs.
No matter what form of transportation you're using to navigate the USA, however, it behooves the careful traveler to keep an eye on current events during these very interesting times.
'Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,' reads the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. And the world did, fueling the dynamism of America with waves of ambitious immigrants from every downtrodden corner of the globe. Immigration is one of the defining characteristics of America's national identity, though calling the US a 'nation of immigrants' neatly sidesteps Native Americans (already here) and African American slaves (brought against their will).
In the past 30 years, the old notion of America as a melting pot - a stew in which immigrants' individual differences are lost in uniformity - has given way to the salad-bowl model, in which the individual pieces still retain their flavor while contributing to the whole.
Americans are constitutionally guaranteed freedom of worship; dominant faiths include Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism, among others.There are plenty of indigenous faiths as well, such as Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons.
American English encompasses a multitude of regional accents of differing degrees of intelligibility. Spanish has effective dual-language status in parts of southern California, New Mexico, Texas and Miami. There are 400,000 speakers of Native American dialects.
Modern American culture is a juicy burger of mass culture garnished with 15 minutes of fame. It owes as much to marketing savvy, communications technology and mass-production techniques as it does to artists and entertainers. If you can name it, American companies have invented, packaged and disseminated it to as many consumers as cheaply and conveniently as possible.