Even though I live just a few miles away from DC in northern Virginia, I watched the inauguration today from the comfort and warmth of my living room. I think many people grow complacent when they live someplace that attracts a lot of tourists. I know that I only head to the National Mall when someone comes to visit, and watching the ceremonies today, I realized I haven’t been out there since the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial was unveiled. And any major holiday or big event like the inauguration, I avoid DC like the plague. Thousands of people crammed into a small space, hours to make it home via the metro? No thanks.
But even watching the swearing-in from home got me thinking. Thinking about the future possibilities of American politics, about my experiences as an American abroad, and what exactly all of those things mean.
Events like the inauguration are meant to pull at your patriotic heartstrings, make your heart swell up with pride to be an American. And watching these sorts of things, as the same songs that are always sung are belted out one more time, does make me feel proud. As I listened to Obama’s speech, checking off his goals for this term (thinking, good, he clearly mentioned gay rights as a necessary step, yes, we need to work to lower health care costs and figure out immigration reform and gun control), I certainly felt that pride, that hope. But then the tickle of reality works itself into the back of my mind. This is all great, but how will it ever get done? It’s one thing to say we will all work together, but can it really happen? And even if it does, that doesn’t even begin to solve all of the issues we have at home and abroad.
Of course, every country has its own issues that it must grapple with (and really, in certain ways, America’s are very minor). But America’s issues are at the center (more or less) of the world stage, because what happens here often reverberates around the globe. And that has always made me a little uncomfortable, especially when traveling abroad.
I’m certainly no expert on world politics (I need to do better on this), but I’m not a novice either. But it has always amazed me how much people abroad know about U.S. politics and history compared to how little I know about theirs. Of course, what they think isn’t always complimentary – I’ve spoken with Brits, Germans, and Italians who laugh at how little our country provides for its people, and at some of the very conservative positions that are given voice in our politics. But, good and bad, there is always a certain fascination about what’s going on here.
The first time I went abroad was during the Bush administration. I was warned by various people to be prepared to experience negativity against me as an American, and not to take it personally. Now, I realize that where I have traveled certainly isn’t representative of the entire world (I’ve only covered Europe and some of South America so far), but I was surprised at how little negativity there really was, or at least at how it was expressed. Sure, people joked about Bush or railed against his policies (as some people now do about Obama), but I think especially as I wasn’t particularly inclined to defend those policies, it never seemed negative against America generally to me. That fascination was always still there.
People always had questions about American culture, and knew things that, if you think about it, there’s really no reason for them to know. I met a Scot once who wanted to spend the evening being quizzed about state capitals. During the 2008 election, our student union in Edinburgh held an all-night party to watch the results come in, and everyone attended, not just Americans missing home. And watching a movie with a friend from Taiwan once, I asked him if he knew was in the portrait on a classroom wall. He looked at me like I was an idiot. “It’s Abraham Lincoln,” he said. I guess at that point I still hadn’t grasped quite how far we’ve (perhaps forced, or at least spread) our culture around the world. Because really, why does someone from Taiwan need to recognize the picture of a president from the 1860s, albeit a very famous one? I couldn’t pick out a picture of any Taiwanese politician, ever. Aside from a vague knowledge of Chiang Kai-Shek, I’m pretty much lost on Taiwanese history.
All of that is to say, I’ve often felt a little odd as an American abroad. As an object of fascination, perhaps occasionally ire, sometimes feeling a little out of touch with what the rest of the world knows, I’m not always sure how to act. Plus, I’m not always sure how I feel as an American – on days like today I feel extremely proud, but some days reading the news I feel truly ashamed. Yet I think traveling gives me much more perspective than anything else ever will.
Hopefully as I travel more I will figure more things out. But for today, here’s to four more years of President Obama, and to the hope that things will be accomplished that will better the lives of Americans and the lives of those that our policies affect around the world. Happy inauguration day!
How do you feel when you travel abroad? I’m interested to hear how both Americans and others deal with their competing identities as citizens of their particular country. What sort of encounters have you had with Americans and others abroad? And what did you think of the inauguration ceremony today?