No boomerangs or kangaroos

September 05, 2006|by SARAH JOHNSTON

News flash: Americans have a misleading image of Australians. Kids from Down Under don't all toss boomerangs and hang with kangaroos, according to Liz Cooper, 16, of Goulburn, Australia.

"In most regions of the country, Australians don't say 'G'day' or call girls 'sheilas,'" Liz explained.

North Hagerstown High School families hosted a group of Australian students this summer. Liz stayed with my family. All of the Australians found our preconceived notions about Australians both surprising and amusing.

The five-week trip, sponsored by Professional Association of Student Representative Council Teacher Advisers, was an exhilirating albeit exhausting cross-country enterprise. Advisers Ken and Sue Page have brought about 200 students to America over the past nine years. In less than a decade, the couple has seen more of the United States than many Americans see over the course of an entire lifetime. Their ambitious travel itinerary allotted a one-week stay at each of five destinations. Hagerstown was their third stop. Here's a glimpse into their week in Hagerstown:


Cunningham Falls

Showcasing the gems of Western Maryland, we took the Australians to Cunningham Falls State Park, near Thurmont, Md. This was my first time with the Australians as a group, and I was amazed by the deep camaraderie they displayed. The tightly knit group consisted of eight high school students and three advisers. Of the group, Liz said, "anytime we're all together is memorable." The connection they had forged was so strong that from time to time the North Hagerstown High School host students felt like the outsiders.

Marsha Nissel, physical education teacher at North Hagerstown High School, made arrangements for a special showing of local indigenous wildlife. The highlight of the program was a majestic bald American eagle. Viewing the eagle was a privilege not only for the Australian students, but for the American students, as our experience with this feathered symbol of our country was limited to its image on the back of the quarter.

The Australians' impression of Cunningham Falls was comical: As we were leaving the state park, they wondered out loud whether the lake was anything like Lake Tahoe, where they would be spending the next leg of their journey.

Antietam Battlefield

As the Australians would be spending July Fourth in Hagerstown, a fireworks display was mandatory. We pitched camp in the center of Antietam Battlefield, where an estimated 30,000 people basked in the sun, awaiting the evening festivities. As the sweet strains of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra serenaded the crowd, the Australians explained the differences between their Australia Day and our Independence Day.

Celebrated on Jan. 26, Australia Day commemorates the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove, which marked the beginning of European colonization in New South Wales.

While America's Independence Day is memorialized by a patriotic salute to our nation, Australia Day is spent at the beach or a backyard barbeque with family and friends. Liz admires Americans for honoring their nation's anniversary with deep devotion, and admits to wishing that Australia fostered the same passion for patriotism.

As dusk fell, our eyes turned toward the sky, where fireworks lit up the night in the familiar display of sound and color.

Suns Game

Upon arriving at Municipal Stadium, the Australian students exuded what seemed to be to their host students, an inordinate amount of excitement. We would later learn that baseball struggles for popularity in Australia, a country where sports such as cricket, netball, and rugby receive the nation's acclaim - and attention.

Kimberly O'Kane, North High's long-serving student government advisor, arranged for VIP seating at Municipal Stadium. The Australians, decked out in Hagerstown Suns baseball caps and holding Statue of Liberty bobbleheads, cheered on the home team with unparalleled enthusiasm.

Whether we were outdoors, indoors, walking or driving, the Australians echoed one thought repeatedly throughout their stay: Their first trip to America, a treasured intercultural exchange, would not be their last.

This was the most rewarding part of the hosting experience, for I realized that it is when individuals talk face-to-face about their differences, they also discover similarities. World peace is no longer a vague illusion - it is achievable two people at a time.

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