human behavior

Little American diplomats

Posted in Anti-Americanism, Foreign Impressions, The Expatriate Life by humanb on October 7, 2010

I just completed my final med school exams, and one of my 4 exams involved a series of stations, each manned by a physician, where I had 9 minutes to answer questions around a given patient scenario. At 9 minutes, time is of the essence. So I was surprised that after briefly introducing myself to one doctor, he didn’t proceed to the exam question, but remarked:

Huh, that accent. So where are you from? America or Canada?

And so began a 3-minute conversation about what an American was doing taking an Australian med school exam. “Yes, I’m an anomaly”, I explained. Sufficed to say that I was shocked he would steal my answer time to satiate his curiosity.

I also noticed during the course of my exams how med school staff with whom I had little contact over the years all seemed to know my name. This was unnerving, as I couldn’t remember theirs.

The same with my classmates: In a class of 200 or so, it seemed as if most kids knew my name, while I was generally reluctant to engage other students in conversation because I couldn’t remember their names. I need to work on that.

This demonstrates to me what I have long known: the American abroad is like a gnat in the soup. You can’t help but notice her and you’re not sure if it matters that she’s there.

So I’m keenly aware of my American-ess here – not because I’m self-conscious – but because Australians remind me of it constantly. This means something.

People make judgments, form prejudices, make exceptions, and develop world views from their lived experience. Anti-Americanism may have geopolitical justifications, but nothing is as powerful in shaping opinion than personal experience. This means I have power over the minds and hearts of the Australians I meet day-to-day, because I’m an ambassador. A walking, talking opportunity to change how Australians feel about Americans. I can be the evidence for their view that Americans are inherently decent blokes or bloody arrogant bastards. I suppose then that I am self-conscious, because I keep this in mind more often than not and try to behave in ways that reflect positively on my country. I consider it my civic responsibility.

This means I also keep an eye on the behavior of other Americans here…

During my pediatric rotation this year I was stationed at a major children’s hospital. It’s a very pleasant hospital thanks to the frequent fundraisers devoted to its beautification, but a place can only be so pleasant that cares for the sickest of children, many dying. The place is largely quiet and the mood can be sobering.

But one day at the hospital while having a bit of lunch, I detected an atmospheric anomaly.





I followed the sounds to the small lecture theatre to find 30-odd teenagers with matching uniforms and big brass instruments.

A marching band.

An American marching band.

I asked the grey-haired gentleman who seemed to be directing them: “What’s this about?” He replied in an uncanny Ned Flanders impression (i.e. Michigan accent):

Oh! This is a concert! You’re welcome to come in and enjoy! Everyone is welcome!

In the theatre I found hospital staff, doctors, and parents with sick children still connected to drips. They all had their eyes on the American kids with their quintessential American band gear. They were watching us.

Hospital staff and patients came and went as time permitted, and the kids kept on playing, whether there were 2 people in that theatre or 20.

The kids played big band music, swing, Disney tunes, and the American and Australian national anthems. The Aussies stood proudly to sing Advance Australia Fair and stood again, respectfully, as I sang along, hand to heart, to the Star Spangled Banner. And those kids played beautifully. Movingly. Skillfully. They played for Australia’s sick children.

I cried.

There was something so uplifting about 30-odd American kids packed into a tiny hospital theatre with oversized drums, trombones and clarinets making such loud and lovely music. They were the best of the American stereotype. I felt such pride in those kids. It was the kind of experience that makes you fall in love with Americans.

It was the best kind of American diplomacy.


3 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on October 8, 2010 at 10:36 am

    Nice! Welcome back to human behavoir.

    • humanb said, on October 8, 2010 at 4:16 pm

      Thanks. 😉

  2. Corinna Ashley said, on September 4, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Wow. Not only was this easy to read, it was really enjoyable, too! Thanks for being conscious of the impression you’re giving to those Aussies. We aren’t all bad. And the story about the band, heart warming. I find myself wondering what brought them there, had they been to other countries, and other inquiries (of course). I mostly want to relate on the fact that I, too, am always faced with the embarrassing situation where I can’t remember the name of the person who just addressed me by name. I’ve always wondered how everyone else does it. I can’t meet someone once and recall their name 6 months later. It must be a flaw in my brain.

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