Happy Tuesday, friends! Or as I like to think of it, Happy Ask Pajiba Day! Or even more accurately: Happy “oh shit, the advice column is due today, isn’t it?” Frantic Typing Day! Though I confess, this week was easier than most. Because this week’s question was tackled entirely by another Overlord!
(Reminder: you can send your questions to us at [email protected] and we might answer you some Tuesday in the future! Well, I say “we” but it might only be some of us. Or one of us. Or honestly — maybe none of us. Depends on your question, our expertise, and our general level of interest in your problems.)
This week’s question comes from a long-time commenter who is having trouble being an American abroad in this political climate:
Dear Pajiba Elves, I’m sure I’m not the only American living abroad (or expat in general, I suppose) and as such am used to being held personally responsible for anything and everything my native government does (or tweets). The Bush years were rough, the Obama years were a delight, and now… Well, I’m running out of expletives, explanations, platitudes and facepalms. HEEEEEEEEELP!
This is a great question, and very relatable! And yet, the best advice most of the Overlords could come up with involved: 1) alcohol consumption, 2) denial, 3) pretending to be Canadian, or 4) faking an accent from any non-American country, or 5) buying political buttons, wearing them, then pointing to your flair when asked questions.
So instead we turned it over to our very own “American Abroad” expert, Steven Lloyd Wilson. And this is his thoughtful response, based on his own experience:
Being an expat in the Age of Trump, oh boy. So I walked into work on November ninth last year and it was a ghost town. I don’t mean that no one was here, I mean everyone was walking around sheet white and in the walking shock of the undead. The Americans mostly, but the Europeans too. The latter were worried about us, asking if we were okay, and then tentatively asking what in the world had happened. We had been so sure. And their tentative follow-ups were about what this meant for the world. For their world.
And keep in mind that we’re six hours ahead of EST over here, so this wasn’t the morning after the election even, we were going into work within an hour of the election being called. We were in slow motion real time disintegration without even a night’s sleep to temper the shock of it all.
Since then, it happens like this. I’m on the bus to work and a woman asks me something in Swedish, I apologize for not understanding, she switches to English automatically. I answer her question about what stop is next or whatever mundane commute question it happened to be. Likely my answer was a variation on “dunno”. And then the obligatory two-step question prompted by conversation having started with a foreigner. A polite “where are you from?” followed by “what are you doing in Sweden?” Swedes tend towards a very polite directness. And when the answer to the first question is “America” and the answer to the second question and its follow-ups is “oh I work here … as a professor … of political science”, well, now you’re having the conversation since last November. Until I get to my bus stop, I’m going to be fielding questions about Trump.
From what I’ve heard, this is more or less constant for American expats abroad in the last year. We all have had the conversation dozens of times. You’re an American, you are responsible for explaining what the fuck is wrong with your country. And if you’re a professor of politics? Doesn’t matter if your specialty is Latin American protests, terrorism in the former Soviet world, or the Japanese Supreme Court’s lunch preferences. In the Trump era your specialty is Trump as far as the world is concerned. You aren’t just an American, you are a Professor of Trump Studies and are expected to be ready to lecture no matter the time or place.
So how do you deal with it? One day at a time. Pretend you’re Canadian, eh. Whatever gets you through the day, I suppose. But the conversation is still going to happen, over and over again, even if you are persistently avoidant.
One easy recommendation: don’t assume whoever you are talking to is anti-Trump. There are ignorant fascists the world over, and they look like perfectly normal people because evil is banal far more often than it is snarling. Especially when you’re overseas and all of the social intuitions you have for people are deficient. When someone asks open ended questions like “what do you think about Trump?”, play it as vague as you can until they reveal their own preferences. Otherwise you might discover firsthand the exhilaration of realizing that you’re alone on the tram with a half dozen drunk fascists who would like to raise a point of order with your previous statement.
Also, don’t try to brush the whole thing off with a joke about the shitty politicians in the country you’re living in. “Hey, Trump might be bad, but every place has got them, like [insert local party of nationalist assholes].” Because you do not know their country’s politics, not the way a native does. It’s easier to become fluent in a language than it is to become fluent in all the nuances of a nation’s political culture. You are blind to things you do not even know are there. You do not know what is okay to joke about and what is not. Not based on your half-assed skimmed Wikipedia page knowledge of this foreign country’s politics. And more: doing so, cracking that joke, it’s crossing a very specific line. Because it’s okay to mock your own family, but it’s not okay for someone else to do it.
And I see you thinking, but why is it okay for them to do that to you then? Why can they push you on Trump, knowing nothing about American politics but his name and a couple of soundbites, but you can’t push back? Well, it’s not fair, because the world ain’t fair. You are on their territory, in their land, and the beneficiary of the entire invisible infrastructure of privilege that is the American empire. We’ve got troops in half the countries on the planet, and have bombed most of the other ones. The world may not get a vote in American elections, but it sure as hell has earned an interest in them.
This is our responsibility, the burden that comes with all the privilege being American gets us. Why should we have to be responsible for the idiots back home? Why should we have to patiently and lopsidedly answer to others about Trump? Because we have our fingers everywhere. Because our empire is a world one, and its actions affect every person on this planet. A random passerby in Stockholm has a right to challenge you about American politics in a way that a random passerby in Des Moines doesn’t have a right to challenge a visiting Swede about Swedish politics.
And so we have to keep having the conversation. It’s the least we can do.
The only thing I’d like to add is that, while Steven is speaking to our responsibility as an American traveling in the wider world, I think his answer has relevance even on our home turf. It’s easy to lose sight of the impact that our current political landscape can have on others when we’re so concerned with what it’s doing to our own country. What happens here can and likely will impact the world — and they’re watching us.