Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Final Notes on Comparing Three Countries

John Gardner

I am just finishing my first ever February vacation. Never took a vacation in February before because either: 1) I was teaching and it was the middle of the semester; or 2) I just never made the effort to plan one; or 3) never thought about it because it was “winter” in the part of the world where I reside.

But I am just finishing a two week vacation with my wife Betsy Barefoot, to Australia and New Zealand, where neither of us had been before. And it has made us a believer in the February vacation.

I know, the December holiday period was just two months ago. But that’s in a cold time of year for us. And we have a house full of children and grandchildren whom we love to have come visit it, but it certainly isn’t any vacation.

There have been many levels of enjoyment for me of this vacation, but one I want to elaborate on here is that it has been kind of an experiential learning seminar. It has shown me time and again the value of the fine college education I received, because it was that education which taught me how to see what I could see, and how to understand, appreciate, celebrate, and embrace cultural and historical differences.

So, some final observations on the three countries I have been in in the last two weeks: the US, Australia, and New Zealand:
1. Those folks outside the US really do have a different sense of time than we “Yanks” do. They really are “laid back”. They deserve that reputation. For most people, there just isn’t any hurry. You see this in so many contexts: waiting for a bellman to retrieve your luggage; waiting for an order to be taken or the food prepared and served; the boarding process on airplanes which is not done by zone or priority and which totally lacks the American charactertistic “rush rush”. I could cite many other examples.
2. I was surprised to see so many educated, professional looking young (under 35) either pregnant or pushing babies around in strollers. Work and making money is obviously not the national obsession in these places, nor is it the same level of financial investment due to universal health care and generous social subsidies for new mothers (and fathers) and infants.
3. The number of responses New Zealand police have had to make in the past decade to incidents involving firearms, while minuscule in comparison to their peers in the US, nevertheless, has doubled. They attribute this entirely to the increase in proliferation of unlawful firearms. In our country, where over 100,000 Americans have died by gunfire since 1965 and where there are almost as many guns as there are people (300 million vs 340 million), guns are wreaking far more havoc but are held in sacred regard by members of all political groups.
4. My wife and I had rental cars in two countries for nine days, and only had one person blow a horn at us during that whole period. I am very in touch with just how much more aggressive we Americans are.
5. I encountered a number of citizens in both the countries we visited who were obviously members of what we would call in the States: working class. But in all of those, I did not detect any lack of subject verb agreement. If listening to people talk is a performance indicator of quality of education, these two countries are doing something we aren’t.
6. Politics and sports are the national past times in all three countries. But our politics are far more divisive and nasty. There is no “birther” movement in Australia or New Zealand. And no one is criticizing the party of the highest elected leader because that leader’s spouse recently made comments endorsing the health merits of breast feeding.

So, I find myself wondering, what would my students note of interest in these three places? How does foreign travel influence their understanding of their own country, other countries, and of their ultimate life choices?

I am now returning to the United States with even more pronounced reservations about the kind of society we have created for ourselves. But this is where my friends and family are, the basis of my professional work, my home, the familiar, what I still want most to invest in to help fulfill its potential for a stronger democracy and more humane way of life for all our citizens.