In most of what makes it to television screens and news feeds inside the US and beyond its borders, the world’s most famous country looks like a whitewashed monolith whose culture is best represented by big gulps and disposable income.
Hidden behind the glow and glamor of the now-global narrative of “mainstream” American culture is a tapestry of identities woven in a pattern seen nowhere else in the world. The United States is demographically distinct in a way that’s attracted immigrants and strengthened regional identities, and historically distinct in a way that’s bred a complex assortment of cultural identities that resemble a spectrum in some areas and a mosaic in others.
If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, this is definitely it.
While a tossed salad is usually seen as a better metaphor than the traditional melting pot, in some places in the US, multiple cultures have indeed melded together over time and under social pressure, resulting in cultures and identities that are uniquely American. Some are the hybrid offspring of decades of immigrant communities living prominently alongside established ones, others the descendants of European religious refugees, and others of enslaved people trafficked en masse across the ocean. Together, they make up the untold narratives of millions of Americans living in one of the most naturally multicultural countries in the world.
For a glimpse into a few of the many expressions of what it means to be an American, you could start with one of these four destinations.
1) Acadiana: Far from France
The Southern half of Louisiana forms a cultural continuum that ranges from Louisiana Creole in and around New Orleans to Cajun Country extending West from the Mississippi river and spilling over the border into Texas. Acadiana—the 22 parishes that together make up the Cajuns’ historical namesake—is now home to one of the best-preserved American-born cultures and the most vibrant French-speaking community in the United States.
Louisiana’s Cajuns trace their lineage to Acadia—les cadiens becoming overtime Cajun in English—in the Canadian Maritimes, from which the Acadians fled the British Empire in favor of then-French Louisiana.
But there’s nothing French about the region.
It’s true that many of the words spoken by a Cajun and a Parisian are similar, but put them in conversation and they’ll struggle at best, and ask the Frenchman to sample some gumbo or a colchon de lait and they might faint from cultural chauvinism.
Zydeco music and bacon fat roux form the focal points of most Cajun get-togethers, especially at community favorites in Lafayette like the Feed ‘n Seed or the Blue Moon Saloon, where you can also spend the night in the hostel or guesthouse. If you’re around in the summer, head to the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, a festival dedicated to the food and music found nowhere outside the region, and an implicit celebration of the Cajun identity.
2) The Carolina Sea Islands and the Gullah-Geechee Corridor
While living alongside stereotypical images of Southern charm in cities like Savannah and Charleston, Gullah communities have quietly but tenaciously reclaimed and retained a strong sense of cultural identity on the Atlantic edge of the Deep South. Historically comprised of a blend of the languages and cultures of enslaved families uprooted from a geographic swath that centers around modern-day Sierra Leone and expands as far as Senegal and Angola, communities of these descendants of the African Diaspora today dot the lowlands and sea islands between Jacksonville, Florida and Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Also sometimes called Geechee, Gullah communities live along the islands and lowlands between Jacksonville, Florida and Jacksonville, North Carolina. The oldest generations of today’s Gullah communities still speak Gullah at home, a creole language that combines a heavily English vocabulary base with grammatical and phonological influences from several West African Mandé languages that result in a sound unmistakably similar to Bahamian Creole or Jamaican Patois.
While Gullah culture is becoming more visible in the form of Gullah basket weaving booths and craft tables like at the Charleston City Market, most Americans, including those living along the Sea Islands, know little of the history of the first community of free black men and women in the South, or of the Gullah community programs still run by the first school for free African Americans in the South.
To learn about the community’s history and see it in action today, let your curiosity show to younger Gullah vendors at the Charleston City Market, or take local Gullah culture expert Alphonso Brown’s Gullah City Tour.
3) Pennsylvania Dutch Country: More than the Amish
An hour’s drive inland from Philadelphia and the Beltway is Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country and home to one of the largest populations of American Amish today.
Living in Mainstream American Culture’s backyard, the Pennsylvania Dutch range from misunderstood to ignored in popular media. Descended not from the Dutch but primarily from German (Deutsch) religious migrants, the culture that today speaks the Pennsylvania Dutch language named after them is made up historically of disparate European groups whose only commonality is a religiously-inspired desire for a life free of technological distractions. These Amish, Mennonites, and other conservative German-speaking religious groups over time became today’s “Plain People” of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.
Be wary of “authentic” tours throughout the region that promise you an “Amish experience”: unless the tour is run by members of the Pennsylvania Dutch community themselves, you’d be better off buying some Amish butter at the Lancaster Central Market, the oldest continuously operated farmers’ market in the US.
4) South Florida: More than the Sum of its Parts
South Florida has always cultivated its own identity in a vigorous mix of all the regional influences it protrudes geographically into, surrounded by Caribbean islands with their own histories and reaching toward Latin America, of which many see Miami as the unofficial capital.
The only region of the continental States with a tropical climate, even the weather makes South Florida feel more like a Caribbean city than one like you’d find in the Northeast or the West Coast. In the dense urban strip stretching from deep in the Keys all the way up to West Palm Beach and reaching toward Orlando, an eclectic mix of norms and values imported from around the hemisphere make Latin America’s unofficial capital like a glimpse into the future of globalization in the Americas.
The culture of Greater Miami and the areas sprawling out from it along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico don’t belong to Havana or Port-au-Prince any more than they do to New York or Washington—today South Florida has its own recognizable English accent, a burgeoning American art capital, and is now exporting its culture of multicultural innovation in the form of dual immersion public school programs throughout the US.