Being Colonial: Geography

A few months ago, I was at Gatwick flying back to the states when I struck up a conversation with two women who were shocked to discover how much I knew about British history. Of course a lot of that is just me, but where I’m from a cursory knowledge of the mother country is expected; America simply doesn’t have that much history to know.

In turn, I was shocked to discover how little American history they knew: They didn’t know that the U.S. was formed from British colonies, and in my explaining so assumed that it broke away sometime in the early twentieth century like the others. I’ve read online that typical American history courses in Europe skip the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights movement– an oversight so ridiculous it’s no wonder anti-American sentiment is so prevalent!

So in the spirit of international understanding I’ve decided to start a series explaining my home country to outsiders, which is difficult, because it’s so huge and most of what I say will seem completely alien. To wit: Israelis, no slouches in the cultural cringe, admired America for it’s amazing public transport system, which was rather jarring to hear until I realized that in Israel, America is New York City. The British are slightly better: to them, America consists of New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, California, possibly Illinois, and Washington DC, though nobody’s quite sure where that last one is.

It is said that in England, a hundred miles is a long way, but in America a hundred years is a long time. This is correct. A journey from my hometown to the largest city, New York, takes six hours by air and several days by land. But New York is less than four hundred years old, and Pasadena a paltry 138. Pasadena is considered an “old” city not because it is actually old, but because it became big earlier than most other places in the west.

Most British I met didn’t believe that America has cold winters. After all, it’s at a lower latitude, nobody goes there in the winter, and it’s not like they’ve seen our Christmas specials. Most people in America live in a humid continental climate, with extreme winters and summers. It’s completely miserable, by the way, don’t ever go to New York in July. You will beg for an icy death and if you wait six months, you’ll get it.

The rest of the country is either subtropical, tropical, semiarid, desert, oceanic, subpolar, or in my case Mediterranean. But these are mostly peripheral areas. California is a colony of a colony; we grew up learning east coast weather, east coast plants, east coast traditions and so forth. California history is relegated to two semesters of your pre-teens, and most of what you learn comes from your friends and parents. As it happens, there started to be a renewed interest in Pasadenan history and identity in my teens, and now the situation seems to be slightly better, though teachers are still wary about telling little kids the good parts (for which read: the violent parts).

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