Random Thoughts of an Expat in the Trump Era
Like most expats in Japan, I make a living by teaching English. For the company that I represent, the students are children — from around a year to up to 14 years old. The lessons for the babies are strictly regimented, but with the older students you can improvise a little. For example, a common exercise I liked to do when I first started was to simply try some small talk. I ask the kids simple questions: “When’s your birthday?”, “What grade are you in?”, “Do you have any pets?”, “What’s your favorite food?”, etc. When I’ve finally run out of ideas for questions, I would ask them if they had any questions for me. “In English, please!”, I remind them.
Most of the time I would just get silence and blank stares. But on one specific occasion I got quite a few bites. “Where are you from?”
“The United States of America!” I said with a smile.
The next hand shoots up quickly, its owner trading grins with his friend seated next to him.
“Do you like Donald Trump?” he asks, letting out a snicker.
Honestly, the question stunned me. I was quite literally lost for words. I spent a lot more time thinking it over than I should have. I rolled it over in my head as I signed out for work that day, as I rode the train home and as I made the long slow hike back to my apartment. It wasn’t because I didn’t know my answer — I loudly and and vehemently replied “NO” after I recovered. It was because I was so suddenly gripped with an idea of what the name “Trump” meant to him, and the ways and degrees to which that idea differed from mine.
I was surprised by how bizarre it was for me to hear the name “Donald Trump” in Japan when I felt so far removed from anything remotely American. In the instant my student had uttered his name, part of my brain was already asking, “Why is this 11-year-old Japanese kid even asking me about that dude?”. As I digested the moment further, I tried to examine and understand the world in which my student (probably) resides. I may not have mentioned Trump since I had landed here, but reports on Trump by the Japanese media had been everywhere, especially during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States not too long ago (and the scandal that followed). So was I being duped? Was this kid that deep into the political zeitgeist?
Then I thought about how he had asked the question: nonchalantly, with a laugh and a smile to his friend. It took longer than I care to admit for me to realize that this kid didn’t know anything at all about Trump. At most, Trump was just a name that the boy’s father scowled and sighed to when he heard it, or a group of katakana attached to an orange face with a bad haircut. Maybe the kid saw a funny Trump parody on a late night comedy show. That, combined with the ocean of distance, can easily make someone like Trump seem like just a clown to be laughed at.
That was when my perspective changed. I stopped being frustrated, stunned and confused. I was actually happy for my students. The matter finally settled in my head, I climbed into my futon and drifted to sleep. At a time when political tensions between Japan, South Korea, North Korea and China were more intense than ever, and the leader of one of Japan’s primary means of defense was actually encouraging the country to begin developing its own nuclear arsenal, this kid can still look at Trump, hear his name, see his face and laugh. When I finally came to this realization, I felt a weird sense of relief, like I had just solved a puzzle I had spent far too much time trying to solve.
“Lucky kid,” I thought. For me, Trump stopped being anything close to laughable the minute he got elected. I can’t laugh when I watch the news and hear about his actions to curb the fight against climate change, his budget plans or his desire to bolster the US’ nuclear arsenal. I can’t make a joke about him after I hear about his support of Filipino President Duerte’s bloody “War on Drugs” or his more-than-probable collusion with Russia. I wish I could — but the looming sense of dread that embodies him, to me, is too strong to ignore.