Awkward Politics – An American Abroad

The first time I encountered disdain for Americans overseas was in France. I was a twenty-year-old student in Nancy, a city in France’s eastern Lorraine region. The war in Iraq had been underway for two years and was deeply unpopular, both in the US and abroad. The supposed weapons of mass destruction that gave the Bush administration a reason to invade had not materialized. It seemed as if the US’s perception of itself as a global leader and proponent of democratic ideals was at an all-time high – and that attitude was supremely annoying to most of the rest of the world.

In Nancy, I had befriended a group of international students studying under the European Erasmus study abroad program. One evening, a popular Greek student, a boy with shaggy black hair tied in a ponytail and a cigarette perpetually hanging from his lips, rejected my request to sit at his café table.

“You Americans think that you can just do whatever you want, anywhere in the world,” he spat.

“No, I actually don’t,” I said, taken aback and ashamed to be individually singled out for the perceived wrongs of all Americans.

“You know, my father works for Doctors Without Borders,” he continued. “During the Balkan Wars, they sent him into Serbia to help people who were injured. But your government didn’t want anyone helping the Serbs. He went in anyway and got bombed by NATO forces. It’s your country’s fault. And now look what you are doing in Iraq.

I knew very little about the conflict in the Balkans, and I wasn’t sure what to say.

“I’m sorry that happened to your father,” I said. “But just because I’m American doesn’t mean that I agree with everything my government does.

“Still, I don’t want to spend time with Americans,” he said, shaking his head at me.

I left to sit at another table, my face flushed in embarrassment and anger.

Despite my misgivings about the foreign policy of the Bush administration, I went on to work for the US government for seven years, first for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon. I was in Cameroon in 2008 when Obama was elected. Most of the volunteers made up excuses to travel to the capital city to watch the election results, and our managers didn’t stop us. There was an implicit understanding that something big was about to happen that would improve the global reputation of Americans everywhere.

We stayed up all night watching the results, gathering around the TV as the sun rose and crying as the networks projected Obama as the winner. For the next four years, anytime I was overseas in Africa, Europe, or Asia and met someone new, upon hearing that I was American, they would inevitably say, “Obama!” and give me a thumbs-up.  

Despite Obama’s challenges scaling down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unpopular counterterrorism methods such as drone strikes, increase in mass data collection and surveillance, inability to shut Guantanamo Bay, the catastrophe of Benghazi, and inaction after the chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians, non-Americans seemed to love him and what he stood for: hope, change, collaboration, and inclusion – and I was right there with them. For eight years, four of which I spent living overseas, I felt comfortable and safe telling people that I was American. I felt proud to have Obama as my president. America finally didn’t feel like the country that everyone loved to hate.

In my second US government job, I held a program management role with a small international development agency that carries out big infrastructure projects in developing countries. The agency only works with countries that are deemed to have good governance and low levels of corruption by third-party organizations such as Freedom House and Transparency International.

I worked overseas for that agency during the first half of the Trump administration, and several times found myself in embarrassing situations where foreign government officials called out my agency for strictly upholding democracy and anti-corruption principles in other countries while we had a commander-in-chief who flouted many of those ideals himself.

Again, I found myself in a position where many people asked me about politics in my country. Why would so many Americans vote for a clearly xenophobic former reality TV star? Why did he pull out of the Paris climate accords? Does he really love Putin? What does it mean when an American president is impeached? Every morning, when I arrived at my office, I had to pass by his smiling, orange-tinted picture – and I made it a habit to look at the floor to avoid seeing it. I never felt like he represented the America that I know and love – the America that Obama seemed to represent so eloquently.

In a way, it was a relief to leave my job with the government so I could just be a normal American citizen abroad – not someone who was associated with Trump.

Now, I watch from afar on a tiny island in Indonesia as the president of my country does everything in his power to undermine the reputation and faith in our democratic ideals as his administration comes to an end. He continues to put forward baseless claims and conspiracy theories about election fraud that run the gamut from malfunctioning voting machines (no evidence) to fraudulent Democrat votes being “dumped” (yes, large batches of votes for Biden were released after they were counted. It’s part of the process). Courts have thrown out nearly all of Trump’s lawsuits, with those pending not expected to change the outcome of the election. One of the more controversial cases, which aims to invalidate all of Pennsylvania’s votes, has had two teams of lawyers representing the Trump campaign resign – leaving Giuliani in charge. Instead of focusing on the quarter of a million Americans who have succumbed to Covid-19, Trump appears to spend his days tweeting about the election. Common sense and human decency appear to have left the building.

During this election cycle, I’ve found myself engaged in more political discussions with non-Americans than ever before – describing how the electoral college works and why we have it (thanks, Google), the difference between the Senate and the House, and whether or not Trump may actually succeed in his apparent coup attempt… and why many Republicans appear to be supporting it.

And yet, even with the ridiculous events taking place, I haven’t felt the same foreign ire towards Americans that I felt during the Bush administration. Perhaps the rest of the world, instead of resenting us, feels sorry for us. After all, many of these other countries have also suffered corrupt, inept demagogues. If Trump has done anything positive for Americans abroad, it has given them a way to commiserate. And hopefully, someday soon, when I meet people in foreign countries, and they learn that I’m American, they will say to me, “Biden!” and give a thumbs-up.

Published by Emilie Greenhalgh

World traveler, writer, permanent gypsy, intrepid explorer, girly girl, yogini, reader, singer, animal lover - based on a tiny island in Indonesia for now.

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