An expat’s perspective
Remember when you were a kid and your parents would go to parties that you weren’t invited to?
When I was growing up, the couple who lived next door used to throw a yearly party which they called “A Goddess Party”. The tall windows in the room I shared with my sister looked out onto our neighbors’ beautifully designed backyard (they made their living as landscape architects and could transform even a city yard into a small, skinny paradise). Through the thin glass, we usually saw and heard everything that went on there, even with the window shut. So once a year in the summertime, my sister and I would lie awake in our bunkbeds late into the night, listening to the raucous screams and laughter of what seemed like hundreds of women next door, while watching their outlines lit up by lanterns and candles wavering against the closed window screen. Then I’d hear the click of the front door and know that our mother had ducked out to join them.
I’d always wonder indignantly to the ceiling, why couldn’t we come with? We always travelled as a unit in those days, a mother and her two daughters, sharing every adventure. And while the party raged late into the night, I couldn’t help imagining what was happening there and dreaming myself into the backyard, a small child dancing with the tall, lovely ladies.
The feelings I have about my country right now are surprisingly similar to what I felt about the Goddess Party. Just like I had been for the party, I’ve been separated from the group yet I am still trying to get a gist of what’s happening through a closed window. I can hear what’s taking place inside, but I am not a part of it. This is how I feel about the United States, my old – and currently enraged – native soil. I chose to move to another country, and whilst I am still an American this choice, in this political climate, has left me feeling estranged, disoriented, and helpless.
Right now, the American society is reeling, fueled by anger, fear, and defiance. And while those are the feelings which stir my fingers to write, my current surroundings are much different.
For the last six months, I have been teaching English in Poland. While living in the small city of Gliwice in the south, I’ve come to know the country relatively well. Through learning the bus routes to the companies where I teach, celebrating the customs and holidays (especially Tłusty Czwartek, or Fat Thursday, on which we got to eat doughnuts all day), and attempting to learn the language, the country has become a part of me. But it’s a two-way street and I, too, am becoming a part of Poland, from all the money I spend at Żabka -the Polish equivalent of 7/11, to my friends, students, and boyfriend.
So which country am I a part of? I am of my old society but I am not in that society. Can I still call myself an American if I am barely taking part in the heated movement now sweeping the country? Or I am just a lonely individual who has been left out? The same as anyone who has been refused admission into a closed party, I can’t help looking back as I walk away, wondering what I am missing.
Last year, I flew out of O’Hare airport in Chicago, headed west as I had done so many times before. But in previous years, I had always left my country in a relatively stable position—as much as any country can be—and returned to find it the same as when I had left. But after my upcoming return in May 2017, I don’t know what I will find. When I think about going back to Chicago, I no longer feel the quiet sense of comfort that used to flood over me. Now I feel afraid.
After a brief stint in Ireland, I flew to Poland to begin my new job as an English teacher in the small Silesian town of Gliwice. I immersed myself in the country, in its long, divided history, old-fashioned religious customs and with its current state of affairs. I grew more accustomed to hearing complaints about the Polish government from my students than I was about my own.
But the U.S. election season was growing so heated that even my Polish friends were discussing it. When asked, I would give my opinion along with assurances of my absentee vote and then move onto easier, more appealing conversation topics that did not turn my blood blue in fear.
The talk would then turn to a discussion of the current Polish government which is run by a party that many of my friends and students have compared to the American conservatives and a prime minister who they have compared to Trump. But though they complain about their government to no end, it still seems to me that I am living in a functional country with resources, relatively satisfied people, and a rising economy.
Of course, Protests did rise up in early October over a contentious abortion bill, proposed by the Polish government, which would have made almost all abortions illegal. Thousands of women reacted by taking to the streets in protest, causing the bill to be shut down. News of the protests reached American newspapers from the New York Times to the Huffington Post and I began to get texts from friends reading about it. For a brief moment, I found myself in the country everyone else was watching. And in the strong, unified action of Polish women, I found hope for my own country and began thinking that we would be all right even if the unthinkable happened and we elected the candidate that I was so opposed to.
Perhaps it was all the episodes I watched of SNL’s cold open or all the sarcastic political commentary that I listened to through NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, but the U.S. election season didn’t seem real. I listened to the news and I watched most of the debates on YouTube. The week before the election, I drew the lines on my ballot and mailed it. Of course I took the situation seriously, but I was living so far away that it still didn’t affect me that much.
My flat mate Angel is another American living abroad. He commented to me that because of our separation from the majority of Americans, we couldn’t see the opposition. We only heard the viewpoints of Europeans and our friends, most of which were similar to our own liberal leanings. He told me that when he went home for Christmas, his Dad had pointed out a neighborhood nearby his home on the East coast and said,
“In this area, everyone loves Trump. There are signs everywhere, make America great again, you know—”. But seeing the evidence of real-life Trump supporters came as a surprise to Angel, who has been living in Poland for almost a year now. “Being here,” Angel continued, “you only know the opinions of a few people. You can’t talk to other people. That’s why we thought everything was okay.” The newspapers we read and the radio stations we listened to, indicated that Trump wouldn’t be elected. However, these were the newspapers and radio stations that spoke to me and people who held similar ideologies.
For all of us, it still wasn’t real. These were only YouTube videos and Buzzfeed fantasies. The whole situation seemed like an elaborate media gag with no real influence on my life. Voting at the poles even in high school gymnasiums and church basements had felt secret, secure, and official. But voting on my living room table a world away only added to this political joke’s surrealism. If I could fill in the document which reflected one of my primary rights as an American citizen in the same place as I drank wine, had parties and watched Netflix over dinner, than I too was lumping my ballot in with the comedy. The site of my vote was almost comical and seemed fitting with everything else that had happened so far in the campaign season: a joke ballot sent in against a joke candidate tailed by a stream of media jokes that stretched for miles.
Then I opened my phone on November 8th at 5:30 am in Poland (10:30pm in Chicago) and I read the polls like I was listening to the worst punchline that had even been offered after an already poor joke. Trump had been elected.
I was thunderstruck but still, it didn’t feel real.
Then the text messages from over the Atlantic began to stream in.
“I feel like I’m in shock.”
“America is divided.”
“I am afraid.”
“It is bad right now, it is sooooo baaaad.”
“I’m literally sick.”
I let the impact of the words of my friends and family members wash over me until something clicked. Then I, too, entered a state of shock and depression like everyone else I knew.
I consider myself to be a cheerful person, In fact, my main compliment from students has been their appreciation of my positivity; sitting in my classes helps lift them up from whatever dark mood work left their spirits in and into the sunny world of Lucy. But on that day, my usually bright demeanor dimmed gray and I had only grimaces and foreboding remarks to offer my students.
Time has flown since then to the present moment, only eleven days after the inauguration. I find myself typing away at the same spot in my Polish flat where I filled in my ballot. Though Trump has only been president for about a week and a half, he is already moving fast. To hold true to his campaign promises, he is beginning to work on building that infamous wall on the Mexican border, dismantling Obama’s affordable healthcare act, and has input immigration legislation that has sent much of the country into an uproar of protests and outrage. Of course this is common knowledge for many people around the world as it affects countries outside of the U.S., but with these new actions, the feeling of being an outsider from my old society has strengthened.
If I was in Chicago right now, the city I was born in and which I am proud to call my home, I would be living in a completely different environment. My friends there have been protesting at the airport and in the streets, they are taking action. The atmosphere is tense and excited, charged with high emotion and urgency. My friend Ryan told me about the protest he had taken part in right after the election.
“We shut down Michigan Ave during rush hour, which was pretty crazy,” he said, which seemed incredible, as Michigan Avenue is an enormous street that runs through downtown, bordered by towering skyscrapers on one side and parks and museums on the other. Even in the dead of night, it is a street that is never empty. Throughout the protest he heard chants of, “Not my president”, “Pussy grabs back”, “Black/gay/trans lives matter” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Trump has got to go”.
In recent days, people have taken to the streets again to protest and are probably shouting similar chants as they shut down giant streets in other big cities across the country. From here it seems to me that we are living in a terrifying and historic time. This is an era that will change our lives, one in which even moderate democrats must be driven to join and fight.
But it is still an era that I feel barely a part of - I am scratching at the window of my neighbors’ party again and I am craning my neck to see in over the well-trimmed bushes. I have never felt more frustrated. I am of Chicago, but I am not in Chicago.
My flat mate Angel echoed this feeling back to me. “I can’t go protest. I can’t go take my signs. I feel helpless and I can’t do anything. It’s like somebody is choking me, like I’m suffocating.”
Despite the turmoil at home, Angel and I still plan to move back once our contracts end. Somehow this frustration is pushing me to act more than I might have at home. Every day I have discussions with my international circle of friends, trying to narrow down the problem as we circle around courses of action. I think about what I can do from here and once I’m home. I follow the news more closely than ever and keep up with my friends who are in New York, Chicago, and other centers of heavy action around the country.
This feeling and sense of urgency leading to plans of direct action contradicts how I ordinarily behave. I’ve always been the compromising center point in my family and circle of friends. While the conflict whirls around me, I do my best to resolve it. I keep my mouth shut about my own opinion, only occasionally opening up to expand on one or two points when I know I can back myself up fully. I attended one of the most liberal colleges in the country where students were prone to direct action and resistance, but I always preferred to learn about resistance rather than taking part in it. I attended a march and a protest, but perhaps due to the writer I am at heart, I joined in partially so that I could understand the experience and people involved rather than becoming one of those people myself.
But now my isolation and inability to act while abroad is pushing me past my comfort zone. Now I want to take action. I need to take action, because I, too, am feeling suffocated by my own silence.
A realization I’ve come to as a frequent traveller and current expat is that as an American, you can never truly leave American society behind. It goes back to the idea that no matter how far you run, you can never escape where you come from. But you especially can’t if you are from a country that produces the pop culture that the rest of the world consumes. That’s why I was able to move to another country in the first place, to teach the language of cultural conquerors, a language that most people find themselves needing in order to survive in our modern, globalized world.
While I feel like I’ve been living in a constant state of anxiety and fear for the last few months, the momentum to go back has been growing. The U.S. needs me more than Poland does and I cannot escape the call from my all-pervasive society.
During our conversation, Angel asked me if I was patriotic. I shuddered as the catchy slogan “Make America Great Again” flashed through my mind.
“No, definitely not,” I answered firmly. But now that I think about it, maybe I’m more patriotic than I’d like to admit.
I have a lot of negative associations tied up with the word. When I hear it, I think of nationalists who want to force their views of America’s superiority onto everyone else. It makes me think of racism and the fear of others. Yet I’m also reminded about the ideals of life, love and the pursuit of happiness, and I remember that these are still American ideals that I want to support and uphold. Standing by these ideals is what makes me patriotic.
Unfortunately, the conflicting meanings of the word “patriotic” reflect the current state of my country. Rather than upholding an ideal of being united by our differences, we are being torn apart by them. And now Trump is capitalizing on our fear of those differences. If we stand divided, then together we will fall and the pillars of our society will tumble before we can realize what is happening.
Yet it is my hope that this is only the beginning of our resistance. If President Trump has accomplishing anything, it’s to ensure that Americans are going to fight back against intolerance and exclusion, even those who were politically inactive before or those who live on distant shores. Together we will stand, together we must stand, as a society, or divided we will fall.