For me, the National Park Service is easily one of the most amazing things about the United States. I am very fortunate to have seen many of these incredible places growing up, and even now when I plan trips back to the States, I always try to include a national or state park in my itinerary. The diversity and the beauty of North America is absolutely astounding, and I (and many others) can’t get enough of it. FDR once said that “there is nothing more American than our national parks”, and I really couldn’t agree more, which is why I want to share a few of my recent NPS experiences and ultimately spur others to get out there and see these beauties while we can!
Number and Size
The United States is a massive country. As the song goes, it stretches from sea to shining sea, covering a whopping 2.43 billion acres. Thankfully, in the 1800s, Americans realized that we might just need to protect some of our incredible land (mostly from ourselves). Thus, the first national park was born. These days, national parks make up about 80 million acres of the US, and when combined with state parks and other protected areas, represent about 14% of the total land area. As of January 2022, there are 63 congressionally-designated national parks and 423 national park sites located in the US, all chosen for “their natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and recreational opportunities”.
What’s in a Name?
As mentioned, we have 63 infamous national parks, but what is the distinction between the parks and the national park sites? And what about national monuments or state parks? Well, the national parks can be seen as the big kahunas. They are what the other parks, sites, and monuments hope to be when they grow up. To be designated as a national park there has to be an abundance and variety of natural resources and large swaths of land or water areas that enable the protection of these resources. National park sites and monuments on the other hand are usually smaller and singularly focused (as in one element of a national park or a historic site completely separate from the national parks). They might also include things that are not so park-like, such as Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.
State parks, however, are quite different. As the name suggests, they are run by each state as opposed to the federal government. This usually means that there is a lot more variety in how they are managed and upkept. Luckily, it also means that they are right outside your door (wherever that happens to be). Tucker and I really discovered the joys of state parks while we were pandemically pinned in Florida. Florida and most states east of the Mississippi are somewhat lacking in national parks, but they are not lacking whatsoever in state parks. Florida, for example, has 175 state parks, Illinois has 123, and Georgia has a still-respectable 46. While they might not be as big or famous as those in the NPS, they’ve also been chosen specifically for their natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential.
All Good Things
All of these protected areas are well worth seeing. Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, and so many others are the epitome of America’s beauty, and the lesser-known names are no less so. Our national and state parks are extremely accessible and fortunately not cost-prohibitive. The most expensive entrance fees are $35, but the vast majority of parks charge only a fraction of that, making national and state parks not only an incredible experience, but also one of the cheapest you can find (so much better than a day at the movies, in my opinion). Not to mention, the money you spend at the parks goes to an amazing cause: the conservation and preservation of our incredible homeland. So, who’s ready to get out there and explore our amazing parks?!
This year has thrown a lot of surprises at the world (and some not-so-surprising events as well really), but for me and Tucker one of the most unexpected occurrences has been our prolonged stay in Florida. We were only meant to be here for a few months as we gathered our lives from various corners of the world in order to head north for the next few years. Of course, with a brief snag in our immigration paperwork followed by a global pandemic, we’ve found ourselves in a holding pattern since March. And while, like everyone else, I’m still struggling to figure out what this all means for our jobs, our future, our society, etc. I’ve also been doing what I do best in a new place: exploring. Even though this exploring has taken place mostly online (and occasionally from a socially acceptable distance), life in Florida has still been quite interesting, and in some ways enlightening. Thus, for this month’s post, I have put together a list of my newly gleaned facts (and opinions) to share about our temporary home.
The first thing I have to mention is the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion about Florida. People who have never even been here feel one way or another about it, and plenty of people like to vocalize their opinions (many of which are quite negative) without much regard to facts or feelings. I say this as a non-Floridan, someone who doesn’t have a strong feeling one way or another about this particular state, but sheesh, even I feel bad listening to the many tirades and verbal attacks on the Sunshine State, especially those that can be found online. In our brief time here, I’ve come to view Florida as the state that’s often picked on, but that everyone secretly likes and takes advantage of (like an annoying kid in school that has a really nice pool).
When reflecting on why there are so many negative associations with Florida and Floridians floating around out there, I feel it boils down to two things: 1) the Florida Man and 2) vacationers. Most everyone knows about the Florida Man trope nowadays. A long-lasting meme that has permeated the internet and beyond, it originally referred to the crazy headlines often found in Florida that always begin with “Florida man…” and usually end with his doing something absolutely absurd. But interestingly, one of the first things I learned about the Florida Man origins is that they were sparked by a change in state law. In the 1990’s Florida passed the Sunshine Law, which ensures public access to all government records, including police arrest records. As you can imagine, in 30 years, the spring break capital of the US has racked up quite a few crazy stories, which brings me to my next point.
Not a Florida Man…
Not really vacationers either…
Vacationers. Probably the first thing we noticed after a few months in Florida was the ebb and flow of the people. Renters in, renters out; snow birds in, snow birds out; spring-breakers in, and (thankfully) spring-breakers out. The state of Florida has approximately 22 million permanent residents, but sees 110 million tourists annually. That’s a lot of YOLOing for any place to deal with. I think I actually first noticed this phenomenon in grocery stores. People in bathing suits, vacation gear (lots of Disney paraphernalia where we are), and a general lack of care for their immediate environment. Many people are here for a short time and their mindset is to live it up; therefore, chaos ensues, sometimes in the form of drunken parties and possible police involvement (which is then publicly documented for all the word to see and share).
Of course, I completely understand why so many people choose to vacation to Florida. It’s an amazing place for affordable and varied entertainment. We’ve got theme parks all over the place: Disney World, Legoland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, (and for a select clientele) Gatorland. There is also an abundance of parks, lakes, and other natural features like the Everglades, hot springs, swamps, and of course, the many, many beaches. Florida actually has the longest coastline of any of the contiguous states, and the climate (especially in south FL) means beach-going is possible year-round.
Speaking of South Florida, another thing that became immediately clear upon moving here was the presence of three distinct regions. You have North Florida, Central Florida, and Southern Florida, and the people who live (and vacation) in these three places often differ as much as the geography. We’ve heard this said a few times now: the further north you go in Florida, the further South you are. This refers to the fact that northern Florida is very much like Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, etc. Demographically, linguistically, socially, north of Ocala is really part of the South. On the other side, you have South Florida which held onto its Spanish roots and still welcomes a large influx of immigrants from Central and South America. The influence can be seen, heard, felt, and tasted as soon as you drive south of Lake Okeechobee. And that leaves Central Florida, which is somewhat a mix of the two and also somewhat the result of many retirees from out of state. Orlando and many other cities in Central Florida are very much like any other major city in the US: professional, progressive, and a tad hipster.
Daytona Beach (North)
Lake Eola (Central)
Another part of life in Florida that caught my attention early on was the naming of the coasts. Most likely, at least in part due to tourism, each section of the coastline in Florida has a name and, for lack of a better word, a vibe. You have the Space Coast, which is the location of the Kennedy Space center and where all the rocket launches take place (which we can see from our driveway, btw). You also have the Gold Coast where the big cities (Fort Lauderdale and Miami) and the famous South Beach are located. There’s the Sun Coast with its beautiful sunsets, the Nature Coast with its natural springs and manatees, and even the First Coast, which is where you can find the first and longest continuously inhabited settlement in modern day USA.
Since our trip to Saint Augustine and the First Cost, I’ve been really interested in Florida’s history and particularly how it differs from that of the colonies. Perhaps most people remember that Florida was first claimed by Spain, which is why we still see so many names like: Boca Raton, Punta Gorda, Buena Vista, etc., but what I (having taken Georgia History, not Florida History, in school) found super interesting was the native American history here. Of course, it now seems quite obvious with place names like: Tallahassee, Kissimmee, and Osceola, but I never gave much thought to the tribes that called Florida home and were actually some of the first to be attacked and displaced. Indeed, the Creek/Seminole tribes, in particular, not only found themselves stuck in the middle of a fight between Britain and Spain during the Seven Years’ War, but went on to challenge the US settlers with what is now known as the Seminole Wars, some of the longest and most expensive in early US history. Historically, Florida has seen a lot, and I don’t think it gets much credit for its important place in US history, let alone world history.
Finally, the last surprising fact I am very pleased to share is about the weather. As cold weather people, Tucker and I were very much dreading our time spent in the humid and, yes, extremely sunny Florida, especially as that time started to stretch into summer. However, I’m happy to report that it’s really not so bad! Florida is really breezy, which certainly helps with the heat, and now that we’re officially in summer, I can say that there’s a bit of a rainy season here meaning the afternoon thunderstorms that happen almost every day also help to cool it down. We’ve both commented that while the warmer temps might last longer, they don’t feel near as oppressive as summer in Atlanta. Plus, the produce here is absolutely amazing! In addition to citrus, Florida produces significant percentages of the country’s tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, and sugar cane.
Lime trees one street over
Local community garden pineapples
All in all, Florida has been a surprise in many ways for us (including the very exciting news that there is no state income tax in Florida!). Ultimately, our time here has really just been another lesson in finding out how much there is to discover/learn, even in a place you think you already know pretty well. So, what have you learned so far in 2020?
Earlier this year I read China in Ten Words by Hua Yu, which I would highly recommend! It’s a short collection of personal stories centered around ten words that the author feels represent China and its history, people, culture, etc. As someone who (at the time) was living in China and had spent the previous two years learning all about said culture, I absolutely loved reading from the perspective of Yu, a native Chinese. He touched on so many of the things I have shared in my various posts and gave new meaning to some of the things Tucker and I experienced ourselves as residents in China. In short, I loved it so much that I thought maybe I could join Yu in sharing a bit about my own culture or at least how I, one American, view it.
Honestly, this is a slight departure for me because I typically choose to write about my discoveries and observations on places and cultures that I am newly discovering myself, but this required a different sort of reflection. Even though I definitely can’t live up to Hua Yu’s work with one short blog post, I hope to share a few of the traits and characteristics (in no particular order) that, for me, make America, America.
As an English teacher I’m often asked to describe the United States and Americans, and for as long as I can remember, the first word that has come to mind is: independent. We love to feel independent! Independent financially, politically, emotionally; in our families, in our workplace, and in the world. Many of us longed to “be out on our own” at a very young age, and most Americans follow that course throughout their lives. We love expressions like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “stand on your own two feet”. In our culture, there is an immense pride in (and often an expectation to) figure things out on our own. Whether this comes from the pioneer spirit of our history or from Hollywood’s “steal the spotlight” mentality, we can see the strong value placed on independence in all aspects of American lives. From our first declaration as a prospective country to our preference for ordering individual, non-shared meals, we focus every day on our individuality and personal independence, and if ever we feel it’s being threatened, look out.
You might have noticed that I didn’t get very far into this post without mentioning Hollywood. As much as many Americans like to think of that place as somehow “other”, the truth is, we are massive consumers (and producers) of entertainment, all thanks to Tinseltown. In fact, many of my students from all over the world have surprised me with facts and details about life in the US that were gleaned entirely from our movies and TV; some have even confessed that’s how they started learning English or even why they continue today. Of course, what they see in the movies is not always true to American life, but there are definitely many of our values and perspectives shared through our obsession with entertainment. It’s hard to imagine America without movie trailers, award shows, film conventions, and dedicated fandoms. As someone who hasn’t seen such American classics as the Godfather, Stars Wars, or Top Gun, I’ve been described a few times as “simply unamerican”, but I promise I’ll get to them eventually!
Being told I’m unamerican (even jokingly) to my face brings me to my next Americanism. We are a direct people. After living in China for a few years, I know this to be absolutely true of Americans. We like to be told upfront, no matter what it is, and often regardless of how it’s said. I’ve heard people refer to Americans as blunt or straightforward, and although we aren’t always trying to be, we are often quite direct in our daily lives. Imagine communicating with someone (a family member, a colleague, or even a stranger) and not being able to figure out what they mean. You would probably want to shake them and say “stop beating around the bush” or “just break it to me”. We have a certain intolerance for ambiguousness coupled with the idea that things should be said and done as efficiently as possible, feelings be damned. This is why in our culture it’s perfectly normal to decline invitations or to challenge a superior. We would rather ruffle some feathers right off the bat than leave things vague or unclear.
Another trait that I associate with America is our deep patriotism. We love our flag, our national anthem, and the values that we have long attached to our country, such as freedom, perseverance, and justice. Although patriotism means something a little different to each of us, as Americans this is our home, and we feel a certain pride and responsibility in that. Whether we show these feelings by hanging a flag outside our house, voting in every election, or representing our values abroad, we all like to feel that we have a role to play for America, and we’re happy to do it. Perhaps because we grew up with stories of how hard our forefathers, suffragettes, and civil rights activists fought for us to have what we have today, the sense that we need to take up the baton and continue to work for a better homeland has been deeply instilled. Or who knows, maybe it was just hearing that Lee Greenwood song year after year.
Although this word has taken on new meaning and significance in the last few years, the American Dream and the people who embody it are not new, nor I think are they bound by political lines. America was founded on dreams: dreams of a new nation, dreams of equal representation, dreams of prosperity. We can still hear the US referred to as a “Land of Opportunity” from both inside and out. We love the fact that “if you can dream it, you can do it”, and thanks to our lack of a formal class system, many Americans have been able to make it happen all throughout our history. Most of us have immigrants in our ancestry, which is maybe one of the most classic versions of the American Dream. Others have seen their dreams come true in regards to socioeconomic status or overall success. Just like independence, Americans value people who dream big and work hard to make it happen. In short, we believe dreams can come true.
Dreams are wonderful, but all dreams are based in some sort of reality. And for Americans, right now that reality is a strong division. Party lines are more evident than ever, generation gaps and racial divides exist, and there’s no doubt that whatever the topic of conversation, people tend to divide up into various groups or “sides”. We have the Left and the Right, Boomers and Millennials, white collar and blue collar, Black and white, gay and straight, religious and non-religious, and so many other labels that, like it or not, separate us in some way from our fellow Americans. Although we are the “United” States and a supposed “Melting Pot”, many events have recently been shining a spotlight on our divisions and differences instead. Diversity can often beget division, or at least the perception of division, but I think we’re all also aware of the classic “United we stand; divided we fall”. Trends change everyday, and we can change as well.
Another American feature that stands out to me is our penchant for privacy. On the whole, Americans are quite private (even with the growing popularity of oversharing on social media). We like privacy fences and secure passwords, and we fear Alexa and Siri are gleaning too much information from us. We have all sorts of privacy laws and generally feel that keeping things to ourselves is one of our inalienable rights. I often have students ask me “how old are you?”, “how much do you make?”, “why don’t you have kids?” and other such questions that, as an American, leave me feeling like my privacy has been breached. We talk about “personal boundaries” and “invasions of privacy” fairly regularly – both in the physical and figurative senses. It’s typically very clear to Americans where “the line” is and our use of small talk often demonstrates it: weather, sports, family members – all good; religion, politics, or anything “too personal”, strictly off the table.
Although we might like keeping things to ourselves at times, we are usually still quite good at small talk and making friends. From the outside looking in, Americans are often viewed as very friendly. We’re often smiling for no reason, making jokes with strangers about the broken elevator, or lending a hand in the form of opening doors for others or picking up something that has been dropped. Basically, we’re masters at “Meet-Cute Stories”. I think the reason we often come across as overly friendly is because we’re all pretty much willing to do these things regardless of where we are, who we’re with, or what we’re doing. We also tend to retell these little anecdotes throughout the rest of our day: “I ran into a man at the gas station, and you’ll never guess what he said…”, “Sorry, I’m late. I was chatting with a woman outside.”, etc. And don’t even get me started on what it’s like when two Americans meet while abroad; you’d think they had just met their long-lost cousin!
The US is big and only has two neighbors, a bit of a rarity in terms of geography, and these facts play into my next feature of “Americanness”: isolation. A large portion of Americans never feel the need to leave their homeland (and why would they with the bounty of things to do and see right at home?) or even keep track of what’s going on outside of their immediate surroundings. However, this tendency to face inward seems to contribute to a bit of ignorance about the rest of the world. You might have seen Jimmy Kimmel testing Americans on world geography, which as a geography nerd, definitely makes me cringe, but unlike other countries whose histories and even present day dealings have required a much more thorough knowledge of their surrounding nations, for Americans, it has rarely mattered (of course with increasing globalization that is changing every day). However, regardless of the underlying reasons, Americans can definitely be said to be “in our own little world”.
Perhaps because we’ve always been in our own little world, the US has also been a hotbed for inventiveness and creativity right from its start. From Thomas Edison and Clara Barton to Bill Gates and Katie Bouman, Americans have contributed a great deal to global innovation. Even the average American likes to think and talk about the future, and we always, as Walt Disney famously said, “keep moving forward”. It’s no wonder our people were among the first to take to the skies, race to space, and create all types of digital media. We simply love to take risks and try something new. We have the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”, but in America, it might not even require necessity.
So that’s my list. Of course, there are about a hundred words I sifted through before deciding on these ten! America is complicated; culture is complicated! And we can’t always fit everything into ten neat little categories. But maybe we can agree that reflection and openness can be great for developing a better understanding of ourselves and our communities. I would love to see some of the words you would add to your “America in 10 Words” list, or if you’re from another country, what words would you assign to your culture? We have a lot we can learn from each other’s perspectives, and I can’t wait to continue shifting mine!
Tucker and I eased our way back into Western culture this summer by spending three weeks in Australia followed by almost a month back in the States, and while we happily gorged ourselves on some of our favorite food and drinks, we also noticed some distinct changes in our behavior and perspectives this time around. This phenomenon is typically called reverse culture shock (when you return to your home culture after getting used to a new one), and although we had actually experienced this a bit in the past, this time I was determined to not only experience it but also take note of what things stuck out to us as clear effects of living immersed in a different way of life. As usual, in my head I’ve grouped these things in some arbitrary way in order to more clearly share them, and the three main areas of change I’ve come up with regarded: our eating habits, our annoyance at inefficiencies, and a shift in our manners.
Eating Habits: One large area of difference between American and Chinese culture lies in the food and eating. Upon our return to the US we realized there are a few things that we found it hard to get used to again when it comes to food and drink. Ice in water, for example, is way too cold, and it feels like you get less water (ugh, waiting for the ice to melt – who has time for that?). Another thing we immediately missed upon ordering in an American restaurant was that we didn’t order and eat together. It’s sort of an every person for themselves situation, which now feels a little lonely and much more complicated when the bill comes. Tucker also realized he had picked up some Chinese habits when we were out to eat in Australia one night. In the middle of dinner, he started putting his discarded food items on the table rather than in a napkin or on the edge of his plate. I laughed, knowing his reasoning was because that’s what we do in China, but I’m sure the Aussie waitress was thinking, “what is wrong with that guy!”
Annoying Inefficiencies: Another somewhat general category I identified had to do with the speed/way some things are done in the US. Maybe we wouldn’t have ever noticed if we didn’t spend a year in China, but there were some really obvious points of frustration for us upon our return. First, having to pay with a credit card felt as bad as standing there and writing a check. It’s so much slower than the simple scan of a QR code! We were also surprised at how inconvenient it was to have to drive everywhere. Traffic became much more irritating, someone had to shoulder the responsibility of driving, and without practice, we found that we even forget to monitor the gas situation! The third inefficiency that really grated on our nerves almost as soon as we got back was the ineptitude and inefficiency of lines. Say what you will about the crowds in China, but this place knows how to move people! We waited in much shorter lines in the US for much more time than it would have taken in China. At one point, I was also reminded that Americans are not quite as independent as I had previously thought because the airport staff in multiple US cities chose to herd every single individual into the designated waiting areas (slowly and somewhat apathetically) rather than just letting the masses fill in the available spaces naturally.
Forgetting Our Manners: The last bit of reverse culture shock we noticed revolved around our manners. There were several instances where we completely missed our public duty of saying “bless you” because in China (like many other cultures) it’s a bit rude to comment on bodily functions. I was also caught a few times using language in public that perhaps I wouldn’t have used in the same situation a year ago…it’s amazing how being surrounded by people who don’t understand you can desensitize you to that sort of thing! (To the lady I startled in Target with my English swear words, I’m so sorry! And to the people I perhaps gave too much information to on the flight home – sorry again!) Finally, the last difference that completely took me by surprise was the choice of small talk topics. In China we pretty much stay on subjects like family, hometowns, vacations, etc., but immediately when surrounded by those heading back to the US, it was back to politics, the news, and lots of really direct questions that after a year of light, indirect conversation felt super personal and sometimes rude.
Of course, now that we’re back in China I suppose we’re undergoing reverse, reverse culture shock (like forgetting to carry toilet paper with me everywhere I go and ignoring the slight hand cramp I have after using chopsticks for the first time in months), but overall the more we go back and forth, the more I notice about all the cultures with which I’m familiar. It’s a huge part of why I prefer living abroad to traveling abroad – there’s so much deeper we can go when learning about ourselves and all the amazing customs in the world, and lucky me, I get to do it all again with another year immersed in the Far East!