Traveling abroad as an American and what to say about President Trump
NOTE: This is from a monthly column about life in Trump’s America for the Japanese publication Courrier Japon.
It was inevitable. I just hadn’t expected it to happen as soon as I landed in Edinburgh. Ten minutes into my cab ride on the way to my hotel, the driver brought up Donald Trump. “I don’t understand why Hillary Clinton didn’t get elected. She’s such a smart lady,” he said, shaking his head. “She was the brains behind Bill, you know. She would have done such a great job.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I didn’t agree that she was responsible for the former president’s accomplishments. But I shared the loss he was feeling about what might have been. I thought about apologizing for Trump, but that didn’t seem right either. No one appointed me to represent the U.S., and I didn’t vote for him. On the other hand, I was embarrassed. I thought about how Trump had congratulated Scotland for Brexit last fall even though the Scots had voted against it.
In the end, I murmured something in agreement and changed the topic.
Although I had spent over half of my life in the U.S., this was a new experience for me. The last time the U.S. had a globally disliked president was during the George W. Bush era, and I had been living in Japan. At that time, few of my friends or acquaintances had taken an interest in U.S. politics, so the only conversations about him were with other Americans. When we traveled abroad, people assumed I was from Japan. Most of the time, I didn’t bother to explain that I had spent over half my life in the U.S.
Now that I was a citizen, however, it was different this time around. We also had a president that was wreaking global havoc in an unprecedented scale. As we arrived in Scotland, new questions were emerging every day about the Trump Administration’s contacts with Russia.
I thought back to a Facebook post from last January by my friend’s mom, Lynn. As she began her trip to Ecuador, she had written, “Wearing my safety pin and ‘I’m sorry’ button.” The last part was a joke, but the safety pin was a symbol that people wore after Trump’s election to show their solidarity with marginalized groups like immigrants and women. Lynn told me that she had left behind all of her shirts with the name of her favorite football team, the Seattle Seahawks, because she didn’t want it to be obvious that she was an American.
“The point of it was that I was so embarrassed to travel abroad as an American and have this man represent us,” Lynn told me later. She said that she and the others on her tour tried to adopt a Canadian accent, so people would think they were from Canada.
Before I read her post, it hadn’t occurred to me to think about how perceptions about the country might change overseas. Selfishly, I was glad that I wasn’t going to a country that was directly impacted by some of Trump’s hostile immigration policies. But Lynn made me more aware. As I planned my trip to Scotland and France, I wondered how U.S. politics might be seen and interpreted in Europe.
We had chosen a particularly interesting time to travel. After a short stay in Scotland, we landed in Paris, just as the country was about to vote on its next president: Marine Le Pen or Emmanuel Macron. The entire world was watching to see if far-right candidate Le Pen got elected. After the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, the possibility of Le Pen’s win was frightening.
Perhaps because of that, the Parisians we spoke to were sympathetic with America’s plight. When I was shopping for gifts at a children’s clothing boutique, the store clerk told us how she had prayed for us Americans. “All my friends in New York said no, he wouldn’t win, but I was worried,” she said.
She added, however, that she was impressed with our Constitution. She pointed out that it was strong enough to stop Trump so far from implementing some of his scariest policies like the ban on immigration. We supposed that was true. A silver lining.
Later that evening, we had dinner with Alessandra and Frederica, Italian friends who are living in Paris. An hour before the election results were to be announced, we greeted each other with kisses. They joked that their bags were packed in case Le Pen got elected. Alessandra and Frederica were a couple, who had moved from Italy to escape harassment for being gay. In France, where gay marriage is legal, they had finally gotten engaged, but if Le Pen got elected, life could get difficult for them again.
As we anxiously waited for the election results, talk turned to politics. Neither of them had been surprised by Trump’s win because they saw the winds shift with Brexit. But they thought our electoral system was crazy. In the U.S., voters choose their state’s “electors” who actually vote for the president. Because each state is only given a fixed number of electors, a candidate could win the popular vote, but lose the election, as Clinton just did. “It’s so illogical!” said Alessandra as she obsessively checked the Internet for France’s results.
A few minutes later, she looked up and reported that Macron had won. We cheered, clinked our glasses and sighed in relief. When we sobered down a little, Frederica noted that if France had a similar system to ours, Le Pen would have won. “A 3 million vote difference (in the popular election), and Hillary still lost!” she said. We shuddered at the thought. When we returned to our rooms that night, I read Facebook posts by friends back home, expressing their thanks to the French for making the right decision.
The next morning, we watched a part of Macron’s victory parade. A gigantic French flag billowed underneath the Arc de Triomphe. I shared in the joy around me, but I was envious too. I wondered if this might have been how we would have felt had Hillary won.
A few days later, a new meme erupted on Facebook, showing a beaming Trump and a stern-looking Pope Francis standing awkwardly next to each other during the president’s visit to Vatican City. People around the world made jokes about how Pope Francis looked the way they felt about Trump.
At the time of the election, many of my friends joked about leaving the United States, but I was curious about how expats actually felt about living overseas at a time like this.
When I had lunch with my friend Nathaniel, an American philosophy professor who teaches at a university in England, he happened to mention that he was dreading having to go back and answer questions about Trump. He was back in California this past year for a fellowship at Stanford University, but he was scheduled to head back in September to resume his teaching duties.
Like many academics, my friend moves where his studies or his job takes him. In his case, he had spent significant time in Europe over the years in Germany, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom. He had been overseas during the last three presidencies.
“It was fun when Clinton was president because he was very popular. Everyone also loved Obama,” He said. “But it kind of sucked when George Bush was president.”
He said people “freaked out” during the Bush years, and he was often put in the position of having to explain American policies or distance himself from them. He never experienced any hostilities, but it concerned him that a friend of his had been confronted at a wine bar in Paris once.
During the presidential campaign last year, Nathaniel said he sometimes tried to diffuse the situation by trying to be witty. He would say something like, “The British are being self-destructive too but they’re doing it in a boring way. One thing you could say in Trump’s favor is that it’s pretty spectacular. The U.S. continues its dominance in political stories that’s impossible to ignore.”
He said that he hadn’t started thinking about how he would respond to the questions and comments about Trump that he would surely encounter when he got back. He predicted that he would mostly feel self-conscious, of being “in some sense a little outpost of the United States.”
On the other hand, a part of him thought he might feel relieved to be physically removed from the unpleasantness of today’s political situation.
About a week after we came back to San Francisco, new headlines broke. At the NATO summit, Trump was videotaped shoving the prime minister of Montenegro aside. Much was also made out of the fact that Macron appeared to swerve away from Trump in a meet-and-greet among world leaders. After a confrontational meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went back to Germany and told a crowd that Europe could no longer rely on others. By others, she meant mostly the U.S.
That very same day, friends from Germany came to stay with us. At dinner, they brought up Trump. Perhaps his presidency was a wake up call to Americans, who have taken democracy for granted, they said. For them, democracy was a hard-fought and hard-won result. Coming from a pair of former East Germans, their words were profound.