What It’s Like Being an American Abroad During this Whole 2016 Election Fiasco

Land of the free, home of the brave.

You don’t really appreciate those words until you’ve traveled abroad a bit.  When I first REALLY traveled internationally, it was Fall 2014 during a semester abroad in Florence, Italy.  Something that surprised me the most about being abroad was how much people in other countries knew about the United States, especially politics.

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Miss you Florence!

And when I say they knew things, they REALLY knew.  Whenever I was chatting with someone from Europe and I mentioned that I was from Chicago, it wasn’t uncommon for them to blurt out “Obama!”  Awkward that they knew what city my president was FROM, and yet I still can’t even tell you who the Italian prime minister was while I was living in his country.

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Miss you Chicago.

Not only do a large portion of foreigners I meet abroad know random facts about American politics, but a lot of them have opinions on American politics, and Americans in general.  In Europe I generally found that a lot of Europeans do not like Americans, so much to the point that I would sometimes lie and say I was Canadian to avoid any kind of a political discussion or unfair judgment.

With Regards to Thailand

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Thailand has been quite refreshing; for the most part people seem to like Americans.  Although people kind of put westerners on a pedestal sometimes, I’ve experienced a stereotype that all of us white people are wealthy and extremely educated.  It’s trendy to be friends with a foreigner, and in some Asian countries it’s even a status symbol.  Being from an extremely diverse country where I don’t bat an eye at a neighbor from the Philippines or friend from Poland, I have found this to be one of the most shocking things about Thailand.  People always want to take pictures with us, and I’ve had multiple students(whose only contact with foreigners is with us foreign teachers) tell me that they want an American boyfriend.  Whenever I’m out with my girlfriends, Thai girls want to hang out with us and take pictures.  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I really love making Thai friends and wish I had more in Dan Chang(the language barrier makes things difficult), I’ve just never felt so singled out due to my race and nationality before.  Since Europe, I’ve never felt the need to lie about my nationality.  Well, with people from Asia, at least.

Fellow foreign backpackers are a completely different story, but I’ll get into that in a few paragraphs.

Thai people and people in Asia in generally also know a lot about what’s going on in America.  In fact, the day after Trump won, both my Philippino and Chinese co-workers told me that Trump winning was all over the news in their countries.

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The first time I heard Trump mentioned in Asia was from my boss/coordinator/Thai mom, P’nga.  She brought it up at my welcome dinner at our house, “So what do you think about Donald Trump?”  That was about a week into my time in Thailand, and since I’ve had Thai people and other non-Americans ask me about Trump about 645297439x.

Even my 14 year-old Thai students have asked me about him.  This has been going on since I arrived in June, and since his election has of course, increased.  Thai people I have spoken with generally do not like him.  I forget the exact reason why, but a student explained to me (in broken English) that it has something to do with something he said about foreigners.  Figures.  Interestingly enough, most people don’t seem to know much about Hillary Clinton, aside from the fact that she’s a woman.

In the US it’s rude to ask someone who they’re voting for, although keeping your political opinions to yourself seems to have gone completely out the window during this election. But of course, like I’ve been saying, foreigners don’t know that, so they ask without blinking an eye.  It threw me a little when I first arrived, but I’ve since realized that they’re just genuinely curious, and they mean it in an innocent regard.  Being my American self, I still keep that opinion under wraps, and instead respond by turning the question around on whoever is asking me.  I find the outside opinion of foreigners more interesting than airing my own opinion anyways, at least in a mild, non-aggressive, safe setting.

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So here are some of the verbal responses I have gotten:

  • “Trump is a bad man.”
  • “How old is Trump’s wife? She seems way too young for him.”
  • “I hear China and Russia are very excited, they’re really hoping that Trump will win.”
  • Personal favorite (from a 15-year-old student): “Trump is savage.”

All of those responses were from my co-workers and students in Dan Chang.  Dan Chang, a tiny little farming town in the quiet Suphanburi Province, that doesn’t even have a grocery store.  Dan Chang, where I’m one of 3 Americans in the entire town.  Even in little Dan Chang they’re talking about the election.  I wish I could share more responses about the election, but the language barrier makes it difficult for many people to share more other than the fact that they think he’s crazy.

The opinions of Thai people seem to be focused on what he’s said about foreign relations, which makes sense of course.  They mostly seem concerned that he’s going to cut ties with Southeast Asia.  They also seem to think that he’s just crazy, and they know he says some pretty outlandish things.

Those responses are extremely mild in comparison to what I’ve heard from fellow backpackers and travelers.  I don’t mind political discussion, as long as whoever I’m speaking with is actually trying to discuss, meaning they are willing to listen to my opinion in response.  However, the majority of people who have brought this up seem to have a more aggressive agenda.

In Hua Hin, a man from France verbally attacked my friend with the cliché “a vote for no one is a vote for Trump” when she told him that she wasn’t planning on voting because she was unsure.  A man who doesn’t have any say in our election, because he is not a U.S. citizen.

While in Koh Phagnan for not Full-Moon, a friend mentioned to a Canadian guy we had been hanging out with that they tend to lean Republican politically, and received “Oh, so Daddy has a trust fund, you hate gay people, and you love guns?”  I actually physically walked away from the conversation because I couldn’t handle his ignorance.  In his defense, this was while we were out drinking, so I’m sure he wasn’t on his best behavior.  He apologized the next day, but personally I believe that drunken words are sober thoughts, so the damage had been done.

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The main problem is, everyone who “knows” about American politics seems to believe that all Americans are one and the same.  They think we’re all super-sized, gun-slinging loud-mouths that hate minorities and love Trump.  They don’t understand that there are two different main parties with very different beliefs, and a plethora of every kind of political faction in between.  They usually don’t understand that there are 3 different branches of our government, giving the president much less power than in a different kind of political set up.

There are some people who are willing to discuss politics in a civilized manner, and don’t aggressively fire offensive remarks about the U.S..  Although mostly these have been guys that were hitting on me, so lord knows if they were actually listening to what I had to say, or if ruining their chances was worth the argument.

Whenever I’m chatting with a fellow backpacker whose not from the U.S., it’s never a question of if they’re going to bring up the election, it’s a question of when.

So What’s Up with All this Fuss About Good Ole Uncle Sam?

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My own theory as to why so many foreigners know so much about and have such strong opinions on American politics is pop culture.  By pop culture I mean music and movies, as American music and American movies are extremely popular in every corner of the world I have visited.  I think the glimpses into American life by music/movies make people curious about American culture, and gives foreigners a picture of American culture that they think is rude.  I think that’s part of the reason why internationally American girls are thought to be very easy, because in pop culture they are depicted in that way.

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My other theory as to why so many people give a damn about the US is freedom of the press.   Freedom of the press is by far NOT a concept that is accepted worldwide.  I think that’s part of the reason that people know so much about America. Every American has freedom to air ALL of our issues out in public, and say whatever they want about it.

The First Amendment

What other country could have multiple rap songs saying “fuck Donald Trump” and hold signs saying “not my president” about their recently elected commander in chief?

My thought is that some other countries do not have freedom of the press, or just don’t have the infrastructure to support journalism and media outlets that spread news worldwide.  Do you know about the recent genocide that happened in Armenia?  How about Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, that just happened in the 1980s?  Where 4 million people died?  I just typed “how many people died in K-“ into a Google search and “khmer rouge” didn’t even pop up.  But “Katrina,” a hurricane that happened over 4000 miles away, not the next country over, did.  Not saying Katrina is not tragic, it definitely is, but in Katrina 1,800 people died, far less than 4 million.  I’m on Google Thailand, by the way, so it doesn’t have to do with my search settings.

On the Up Side

To close on a positive note, here are some good things I have heard in response to American politics:

  • A student mentioned told me that he’s fascinated with American politics. He thinks it’s amazing that we get to choose the path of our country.  I think that’s something that a lot of Americans take for granted.  I know I did, until I arrived in Thailand.
  • Another student asked me who my favorite American president is. This made me realize that I don’t in fact have one, and should probably brush up on my own country’s history a little more.  I then asked him which president was his favorite, and he replied Abraham Lincoln, because he freed the slaves.
  • In general, my students LOVE Obama. The fact that they even know who he is is impressive.  They don’t necessarily know what political system we have, but they know he’s at the helm.  They usually know that he’s groundbreaking in that he’s the first non-white president of America, and they just think that he’s cool.  A co-teacher told me her daughter thought that Obama was the king, and was confused as to how Donald Trump could be the next heir to the throne.

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  • A Thai coworker (after posting pictures of Donald Trump’s penthouse in the foreign language department group chat) made a comparison of Trump to food.

“See!  If you compare politics to food you should try strange food.  Sometimes it doesn’t look good but it has the great flavour and very healthy!”

At least I think that last one was a good thing?  Sometimes things get lost in translation.

To summarize: what’s it like being an American abroad during this 2016 Election debacle, that everyone seems to want to share their opinion on?  I have to defend my country on a daily basis, especially since the close of the election.  I’ve learned that even though I love my country, in situations where people get aggressive about their political opinions it’s usually better to bite my tongue to keep the peace.  I also have to remember to behave myself, as people seem to be eager to form generalizations about America as a whole.  Overall, it’s exhausting.

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What is the point of this rant?  Traveling helps expand your perspective on what’s going on in the world, and you should give it a try.  Also, for anyone in the US who hasn’t really looked at the election from a global perspective, we’re under a huge microscope right now.

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