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Not many countries in the world rival the cultural and social milieu of the United States.
America is a country defined by its immigrants: There are 44.5 million foreign-born people living in the United States, and more than 1.1 million people were granted permanent residency permits—so-called Green Cards—in 2017. Navigating a country like the United States is no easy task, so we’ve put together a high-level guide to what makes America, America.
American government is composed of three branches: the Judicial, which oversees the legal system; the nonpartisan Legislative, which is responsible for writing laws; and the Executive, which is led by the President and his or her staff. Together, the system provides a set of “checks and balances” in order to ensure that no one branch or political party becomes too powerful and influential.
The two most dominant American political parties of the last 70 years have been the Democrats and Republicans. Democrats are left-leaning, in favor of more government activity and stronger social safety nets. Republicans are their right-leaning foil, in favor of smaller government and lower taxes. (The two parties’ political leanings were somewhat inverted in the 1950s and 1960s, a complicated transformation that had to do with the Civil Rights Movement. You can read more about that here.)
Any American citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote, and national elections happen every two years for Congresspeople, four years for Presidents, and six years for Senators. Voting day for national elections is the first Tuesday after November 1st, and voter participation rates hover between 40% and 60%.
Americans are some of the most religious people in the world. More than 70% of Americans identify as Christian, while 22% don’t identify with any religion in particular. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists make up the majority of the other religious groups.
The importance of organized religion is highly regional. A poll from the Pew Research Center found that 62% of people in Dallas considered religion “very important” in their lives, while only 48% of respondents in New York City said the same. Southern states tend to be more religious than northern ones. More than half of Alabama residents go to religious services at least once a week, while only one-fifth of Vermont and Maine residents do the same.
The influence of immigrants on America’s food culture is inescapable. You can get authentic Szechuan cuisine in New York and San Francisco and find food from all over Latin America in Los Angeles, Denver, and Miami. And that influence is only growing. According to food writer Sophie Egan, two-thirds of Americans are eating more diverse foods than they were five years ago.
The critique of chefs needing to “water down” flavors in order to satisfy American palates is growing outdated; we’re seeing a marked shift toward a desire for authenticity and traditional cooking. American and immigrant chefs are looking to their history for inspiration, and that movement has yielded stunning results. America’s gastronomical tradition is defined by its diversity, and as much as Americans love their cheeseburgers and apple pies, they also love their mapo tofu and molé.
Breaking down the U.S. into regions can be tricky. While major areas like New England, the Deep South, and the Southwest can be defined with broad cultural strokes, there are dozens of smaller quarters that have hyper-specific traditions, landscapes, and histories. There’s a reason the American road trip has been such a captivating cultural export: Exploring the country from the driver’s seat of a car lets you see those geographic transformations up close and personal.
Just like its geography, American culture is highly regionalized and influenced by distinct histories, including influxes of immigrants from all over the world.
- NEW ENGLAND
This northeast section of the U.S. was one of the first to be colonized by Europeans, and stretches from the verdant forests of Maine to the picturesque seaside towns that line Connecticut’s shores. Cities like Boston and Providence played central roles in American history, including the incubation of the American Revolution. As far as food goes, you can find signature dishes like New England clam chowder and lobster rolls at seafood shacks up and down the region’s coast. No trip to Boston is complete without a trip to Fenway Park, home to the city’s beloved baseball team, the Red Sox. The Boston Marathon, held on the third Monday of April every year, is one of the region’s most popular cultural events and much of the city treats the day like a holiday.
- The South
The South runs from South Carolina on the east to Louisiana a few states to the west. These states were the heart of the slave trade until 1865, and the influence of the South’s black population can be felt across the region. This is the birthplace of the blues and BBQ, two essential American traditions that trace their roots to those held in slavery. No trip to the South is complete without a trip to New Orleans, a city that’s Mardi Gras celebration is something to behold. Cities like Nashville and Memphis are home to some of the best blues and country music in America, and the cities’ gastronomic specialties—hot chicken in Nashville and a pork-centric version of barbecue in Memphis—are two of the tastiest the U.S. has to offer. Atlanta is one of the centers of America’s music scene, and one of the most influential cities when it comes to hip-hop and R&B.
The most densely populated section of the United States, the Mid-Atlantic is roughly defined as the stretch of states between New York and West Virginia. It’s also one of the most ethnically heterogeneous regions in the country, with large populations of immigrants and diverse enclaves in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Baltimore. New York is famous for a lot of things, but no visit is complete without a slice of pizza at Joe’s or Di Fara’s and a Broadway show. You can also wander through the city’s Chelsea neighborhood for hours checking out the endless number of art galleries that line the blocks. Baltimore is famous for Chesapeake Bay crabs, which will require a couple of tools and a bib to eat properly. Philadelphia is another sports-mad town, with the city’s hockey, football, basketball, and baseball teams all drawing legions of fans to games year-round. But it’s not just sports that Philly is famous for; it also has some of America’s best museums, including the Barnes Collection, as well as Philadelphia’s most famous export: The cheesesteak.
The Midwest stretches across the center of the United States, from populous states like Ohio and Michigan to more sparsely populated ones like North Dakota and Nebraska. Most of the Midwest is dominated by descendants of German and Scandinavian immigrants who came to the country after the Civil War, although metropolises like Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis are home to large populations of immigrants from the world over. Detroit is undergoing a renaissance, with many locals and transplants working to rebuild the city’s downtown after it fell on hard times. Now Detroit is home to a booming arts and design scene. Chicago’s architecture is an amazing collection of masterworks, and no visit to the city is complete without a tour of buildings like Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City. Chicago is also home to Lollapalooza, an annual music festival that happens every summer and attracts some of the biggest recording artists in the world. Minnesota and Michigan residents are avid outdoors people, and the camping, hiking, fishing, and hunting in both states are breathtaking.
Few places in America have as many dramatic landscapes as the Southwest, which stretches from the western section of Texas to Arizona, Nevada, and California. National wonders like the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park attract millions of visitors every year, and the hundreds of square miles of desert are as desolate as they are beautiful. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is one of the most stunning festivals in the country; hundreds of hot air balloons rise over the city and give the dramatic New Mexican landscape an aura of wonder. The Southwest is cowboy country, and is home to a large population of Latin Americans and Native American tribes like the Navajo and Apache. Many of Arizona and Utah’s most breathtaking natural sites sit on Native American land and can only be toured with a local guide. California is a geography unto its own, with pristine beaches, mountains, and forests lining the state. It also has the largest share with immigrants relative to its total population, with 27% of California residents born outside the U.S and many of them hailing from Central America and Asia. That means that California cuisine is a wonderful blend of international and domestic traditions, a blend that yields some of the nation’s best food.
- PACIFIC NORTHWEST
One of the greenest regions in the United States, the Pacific Northwest is relatively small, counting only Oregon and Washington in its ranks. The region’s two biggest cities, Portland and Seattle, are home to many immigrants from Asia and Latin America, and the international influence on both cities is clear in everything from food to music. Residents of both states love spending time outdoors, and natural wonders like the Cascade Mountains, Columbia River Gorge, and Crater Lake National Park are all stunning sites. Portland is one of the epicenters of the farm-to-table food movement, and the city’s restaurants are among the nation’s best. It’s also been a preferred destination for artists and creatives for years, which gives it a uniquely bohemian vibe. Seattle, too, is known for its food, especially seafood like that found at Pike Place Market where, if you’re brave enough, you can try your hand at catching a flying fish.
HSBC commissioned this article. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of HSBC.