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US Travel Diary 2

US Travel Diary 2

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Published by Rowan Smith

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Published by: Rowan Smith on Jan 23, 2011
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MAGIC MOMENTS IN Minnesota XVI!(Or more correctly: “Amazing Adventures in America " FINAL?(20 November 2001)It's a couple of months since I have written at length, and so much has happened from the more mundanedomestic front to the world events of 11 September and how that effected everybody. As our stay in theUnited States draws to a close, it is probably time (at the risk of boring you all) that I try to draw some of the strands of our life here together and to make some sense out of it all. This is as much for me toorganise my thoughts and impressions as it is for you, the poor readers who will be inflicted with myramblings.Living and working in another country has been a fascinating experience. After a little bit of initialdisorientation and even terror, subtle changes occur over the months, concerning getting about in adifferent society. They sneak up on you really. One day you suddenly find yourself completelycomfortable, know your way around and can operate on all levels, from shopping to experiencing the best the new environment has to offer. You start to fully understand the environment you live in, to thestage where many days, you don't even consider any differences from home. You are accepted and beginto be part of your new "home away from home". The US is a very easy place to do this. Then, just whenyou are at your most comfortable and having developed a full understanding of your adopted home, it'stime to leave!I think the experience has effected us all like this. The hardest part of leaving will be saying "good bye"to our American friends. Jessie certainly found this when her friends from Olsen Middle School"sprung" a surprise farewell party for her. It will be hard to part from so many wonderful people, perhaps forever.
Ce La Vie!
For me the people who I shall miss are the wonderful colleagues at Hidden Oaks Middle School. For thefamily, it will be our particular friends Alan and Mary Poulsen, Paul and Mary Ahern andneighbourhood friends.We had our big farewell last Saturday at a most enjoyable Thanksgiving "do" north of Minneapolis.About fifty people came together. Australian (SA, QLD, VIC) and New Zealand exchangees andAmericans who have been to Australia and been "Australiansed" (a partial lobotomy?). By now,everybody from Oz & NZ are looking forward to heading South, like the Canada geese.Our American hosts, Chuck (yes!) and Julie Hedstrom are very nice people indeed. Chuck had been aruckman for one of the funny little Aussie Rules country leagues up around Lake Bolac, where he'dtaught in 1997.The weather was wonderful (65 F) in the evening on their large country property, and all the kids (amini-United Nations) ran wild outside. We chatted and compared notes on our travels over good Aussiered! It was great.Jessie found a new friend in the host's daughter Kassie and she likes the oldest girl from the family whowill be in Colac next year. (Our social butterfly. Today she is off to another birthday party. Life is hard being a teenager.)I feel that some of the people who we have met here will end up being friends for life. The effects of thisexchange will be with us for years to come.Impressions of the USA and how have our thoughts been changed by living here? Where do I start? Ithink some of my ideas have remained essentially the same, although have been softened by thisexperience.Firstly, there are some very different aspects to the American psychology. Differences, subtle andsometimes not so subtle, from other places on earth to which we have been.Secondly, though we are no longer amazed by day to day things we have found, we remain veryimpressed by every aspect of American society. For me is that it works so well!
On the first point, I mentioned above that the experience of living in the USA has taught us somethingabout the American attitude to their place in the world and to their country.Earlier in the year I took a second job with Berlitz, the language people, as a "corporate resource" onAustralian cultural differences. (putting "Australian" and "cultural" in the same sentence maybesomewhat of an oxymoron!). The idea was that I was to help American corporations who send people towork in Australia. It was very interesting.I met the corporate psychologist person who was the main consultant for Berlitz in the course of thiswork. She was a very knowledgeable Welsh lady who is married to a Japanese, had lived in Tokyo,Sydney and currently New York with a flat in London.With apologies to Max Weber and the people I have already bored with this story, one of he psychological/sociological theories I found quite interesting and with a touch of truth to it. I wouldemphasise that such theories are certainly not true in all cases, as they are only "ideal types" I daresaywith plenty exceptions. Nevertheless I think it provides some insight.She contrasted Europe, the US and Australia by analogy. Saying that Europeans (including the English)were like a coconut. The hard shell on the outside proved to show that they were difficult people to getto know, and put up social barriers. Once you got past the shell however, the inside was an open book (to mix my metaphors) and they were easy to talk to about anything: family, region, politics, history andmorality.SOME Americans on the other hand were like a peach. (They are rather "peachy"!) These Americans atfirst meeting appear open, egalitarian, welcoming and unreserved. All this in obvious contrast to theEuropeans. However, once you delve deeper, there seems to be a hard kernel of social or ideologicaldistance that is hard to fathom or breach. Such an American finds it difficult to talk about the "biggies"such as their history, culture, place in the world, relationship to other countries, religion, politics andmorality etc. without being over-sensitive about these things and very defensive, or offended that anoutsider dare comment on them. They tend to lack a self-critical facility.According to our Welsh lady, Australians are neither of these, and are just "squishy". (maybe meaningthat we really lack all substance).Anyway, I have certainly found a good measure of truth in her metaphor. I think that much of this has todo with the fact that in so many ways, the USA really is the biggest, best and brightest, and so relatively,Americans know little about the rest of the world. They therefore have a tendency to become intimidatedwhen they find that many foreigners know so much about the United States, perhaps even more thansome Americans. I think this may account for the apparent sensitivity and quickness to take offence.The recent crisis of the terrorist attack on 11 September has confirmed these thoughts. Not manyAmericans knew anything about Afghanistan or the Middle East prior to the tragedy.Americans remain fascinated by Australia, or the idea of Australia, and some ask good questions. Mostlyhowever, their questions indicate a near complete ignorance about Australia. This is bothunderstandable, excusable and not their fault!The whole rationale for such exchanges in a small way addresses some of these problems. That is, thatwe all have the opportunity to learn from one-another in a frank and honest exchange of observations,warts and all, free of rancour, free of fear of offence and of imputing other than honest motives to thecorrespondents. Only in this way, do I believe we can develop genuine insights and learn from one-another at a level deeper than a tourist watch a "strange" country pass by through the bus window.Most importantly, we have to be willing to learn and to change our opinions based on what we learn aswe go. After all, this is what life should be all about. We never stop learning, we never stop changingand we should listen to others without cultural blinkers, hidden agendas or closed minds. For me, thiswas the real point of this exchange and what I will take with me about America when I return toAustralia.
 No self-censorship at all and this correspondent may say the occasional thing that others may disagreewith, but it's just my opinion after all, and may be cheerfully discounted as "that's just Rowan." Myopinions are honest ones, written mainly for myself, but hopefully of interest to others. "You gotta takethe good with the bad!" otherwise my observations such as they are, have a danger in becoming sosanitised that are meaningless and are not worth saying.So where does this leave us talking about the United States? I have said that it is a wonderful andamazing country, full of opportunity and the very epicentre of the good things that our Western politicaland economic system can give. Many other Western countries, of course, have essentially the samevalues, and the US is not unique by any means in this regard. It is just that the US is the most importantand influential example of Western values in the world today.Although the values between Americans and Australians are very much alike in most important ways,America tends to be big and inward looking whilst Australia is largely the opposite. The US is a littlelike the ancient Chinese Middle Kingdom. It sees itself as the biggest, best, strongest, most advanced,most important and most democratic country on earth. It is! It sees itself as the hope of the planet, the"grand experiment" without peer in history. Maybe!? It therefore looks inward, seeing itself in mostways as THE world. Apart from the three week vacation to Europe, when Americans travel "the world",it is within the United States (and sometimes Canada and Mexico)All this is quite understandable. The US is HUGE and so diverse, Its "lower 48" are like "the world".There is so much going on and there are just so many people, that it holds the interest almost exclusivelyof the American media and the education system. For these reasons people here cannot be blamed for knowing little about the rest of the world.This I'm afraid has compounded the problems of the terrible events of September 11. Many Americansseemed incapable of understanding why they are disliked in some parts of the world. They were caught by surprise. There is minimal media coverage of this and there is precious little light being shed on it dueto continued preoccupation with what is happening on the domestic front.The country seems to have turned even more inward, and citizens take comfort from "showing the flag"and reminding themselves how great they are. Any moderating views are sometimes heard but usuallygiven short shrift in the media. The US media is being censured by many Americans for showing pictureof people killed by American bombing or giving any airplay to the Taliban point of view. Talk such asof conspiracies over Azubaijan oil; half a million dead Iraqi children since the UN/US embargoes beganten years ago; the plight of the Palestinians; or the inappropriateness of a declaration of "War" againstterrorists, in what should really have been an international police action, ARE sometimes heard but mostoften discounted. So we are left with total media saturation of "America Strikes Back" or the problemsof "Homeland Defence".FDR's Fourth Freedom: "The Freedom from Fear" has gone out of the window and I fear in the longterm this pre-occupation is deeply psychologically unhealthy for the country. This is far scarier than anyanthrax hoax or attack. Custom at the Mall of America has fallen by seventy percent, and this weekendis Thanksgiving, but few will fly.A wonderful story from one of our fellow exchangees is worth re-telling here. Brett, a real "dag"(colourful character) from New Zealand and his family are from north of the Bay of Islands. The Kiwisare having a much worse time than us with the exchange rate. Anyway, they are posted ("stuck") up innorthern Minnesota at a one-horse-town called Grand Forks in the Red River valley. He says its likeliving on a cold billiard table, being so flat and featureless. It's near the Canadian border and boring old North Dakota. Anyway, he told a very funny story about all this Anthrax bull... which says a lot aboutAntipodean VS American attitudes. They got this letter, with "Anthrax" written on it in a kid'shandwriting. They just laughed, tore it up and put it in the trash/rubbish. The following day, on the front page of the local Grand Forks newspaper, in banner headlines, something like... "Major Anthrax Scare,Two letters found, one missing." They panicked a little, and rang 911. Next thing, about half a dozenFBI agents interviewed them and spent half a day trying to piece the bits of the letter back together again. I think they had visions of "disappearing without a trace". They are laughing about it now butwere a bit worried at the time (not about Anthrax, but about the FBI).

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