The great Australian journalist, who died last September, recalls his first trip to the US as an honorary Asianby Robert Haupt / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
William Fulbright began the visiting programme that bears his name in 1946, by tacking it on to an aid bill before the US Congress. Part of the lore surrounding the upstart from Little Rock, Arkansas, says that he put his idea forward on the spur of the moment, not so much the Fulbright Amendment as the Fulbright afterthought.
Having changed the lives of thousands of people with his bright plan for study trips he changed mine, too, 27 years later, in 1974, when I became a kind of Fulbright afterthought squared. A hirsute thing in his 20s, I had been chosen as Australia’s representative on this trip because a vacancy had been created, late in the day, by someone in the US state department who had decided that Australia and New Zealand were part of Asia.
Already chosen were journalists from Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, and Laos. The Vietnam war was over for Australia, but it was still on for the US (and, of course, Vietnam)-something that had a lot to do with the absence of a representative from Cambodia, and the presence of one from Laos, a state Nixon still hoped to save from communism.
We gathered in Honolulu. Our party of five Asians and two Antipodeans (the New Zealander was even taller than I) resembled a kind of geopolitical freak show, a display of Asian Pacific journalism such as might have been mounted by ethnographers at the Smithsonian Institution. As a group we looked like a human tableau of the lower end of Manhattan, representing the skyline between Wall Street and the World Trade Centre. My being in my beard phase did nothing to diminish our impact on all who encountered us. To say that no one we met knew what to make of us does not quite capture it.
Five Asians were explicable, especially in Honolulu where in their neat business suits they would be taken as another delegation come to buy a golf resort. Two straggly Australiomorphs might, just, have been accommodated into an American frame of reference, probably bearing the label, “kinda weird.”
Together, we were a jolt to the quality Americans value above all others: urbanity. We jolted American urbanity in Honolulu, we jolted it in San Francisco, we lost money jolting it in Las Vegas and by the time we reached Chicago we had so accustomed ourselves to our extraordinariness that we…