I used to be a political junkie. Well, I should amend that previous statement. I used to be an American political junkie. I’ve always loved debating politics. I was the person who would gladly debate politics during Thanksgiving dinner with my more conservative relatives despite my mother’s injunction that political discussions were banned in the household. I worked as a quality control editor for a particularly heinous company and NPR became my refuge, even as the various shows reported various shit storms, both natural and human produced. My best friend had a very similar obsession and we would e-mail each other as we were listening in real time. Mostly the e-mails would consist of some variations of, “Oh my God, can you believe this bullshit?” or “President Obama really is such a bad ass.” My commute home in rush hour traffic was soothed by the calm voices of Robert Siegel, Michele Norris, and Melissa Block. I was aware of the politics of other nations (how can you listen to NPR and not be aware), but the American political circus just held too much entertainment for me.
Then I moved to South Korea to teach English and that all changed, mostly by necessity. Adjusting to living in an entirely different culture took up much of my time and energy. Given the time difference, I was not able to listen to NPR live, as I once did, and trying to keep up with podcasts was difficult given that I was in front of a class and not chained to a desk. My only consistent source of American political news and discourse came from The Daily Show, a quick perusal of Reddit and Tumblr, and the occasional op-ed piece. Watching the Republican debates was impossible due to my class schedule and that yelling and throwing things at my work computer would not be appreciated in the teacher’s room. Besides, alcohol is a necessity for such endeavors and drinking in school is generally frowned upon.
I’ve slowly gained back some of my former political awareness, but it is seen through a variety of different lenses, none of them rose-colored. My view of American politics has become equal parts detachment, frustration and helplessness. Well, the frustration and sense of helplessness has always been there. The detachment is a new thing entirely. I’ve come to realize that the American media and news machine adds a sense of urgency to everything and it all feels like “A BIG FUCKING DEAL”; hence, the frustration. Given the time difference between the US and South Korea, I often find out about events a few hours after they happen. It leads to that sense of detachment I mentioned earlier. I read about news later as opposed to watching events in real time. As I’m typing this, I’m listening to a live stream of President Obama’s State of the Union Address. I’m lucky enough today that I have a teacher planning day and I can watch and listen, uninterrupted, but this rarely happens. Usually, I am forced to read a transcript of the speech and commentary afterwards. The emotions I would normally feel are tempered. The best example of this distance came on the 10th anniversary of September 11th, which passed with little emotional impact. Without the inundation of images, videos, commentary, and stories from that day in a 24-hour news cycle filling my consciousness, it was a normal day. Contemplative reflection and remembrance on one of the worst days in American history gets trumped by a classroom full of unruly high school girls every single time. Life goes on in the rest of the world.
However, there are times when that nirvana of detachment gives way to frustration and helplessness. As blasÃ© as I felt about the anniversary of 9-11, I remember the hours leading up to the execution of Troy Davis and how obsessively I read my Tumblr dashboard for news, wondering if I wanted to return to a country that would execute a man despite the overwhelming evidence that he was innocent. A few months later, I wanted nothing more than to return home as I watched video of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The revolution was taking place on my computer screen and it was happening in my country while I was on the other side of the world. Since the mainstream media refused to cover the protests, my computer screen was all I had. Then I watched as all mention of the movement disappeared after city councils and politicians evicted the protesters, and I still felt helpless. In such cases, detachment is preferred to ripping your hair out and gnashing your teeth. I paid attention to American politics, but only the things I really cared about and what Jon Stewart ranted about on his show.
Along with the not caring, then the caring, and then the anger, I started to learn how the ex-pats from different countries viewed American politics and I in turn got schooled in how things are run elsewhere (mostly in the UK). I spent an entire afternoon trying to explain to a British friend why “socialism” is a dirty word for many Americans (I had to try and fit in McCarthyism, rugged individualism, and the bootstrap mentality over Facebook chat). That conversation led to several discussions on how the vitriol in American politics pales in comparison to everyday dealings in the House of Parliament. I learned that even our most liberal politicians would still be considered very conservative in the UK and much of Europe and that every Brit with whom I have discussed politics does not understand why the US does not have a nationalized healthcare system. I’ve been forced to explain why Americans would even consider voting for any of the Republican nominees and that, “Yes. Some people in America really don’t believe in evolution” and “No, we are not all like that I swear. The far right simply has the biggest megaphone.” My view and perspective of how American policies affect the rest of the world began to change through these conversations.
As it stands today, my political awareness has expanded. Whereas before I moved overseas, I focused more on American politics and how certain policies affected America, I now take the wider view to see how America’s policies affect the wider world. Given that I live in Asia, my concentration is now on this region. I am more likely to pay greater attention to news of American/Chinese relations than I am to the minutiae of domestic policy. When Kim Jong Il died a few weeks ago, I scoured online news sources for commentary about what might happen with the transfer of power in North Korea and what that might mean for South Korea. As an ex-pat, I still care about American politics and what is happening in my country. I fully intend to vote via absentee ballot in the 2012 presidential election. However, I’ve realized that the politics and policies of where I currently reside make up the main entrÃ©e of my news consumption, and American politics are thrown in as the side dish. It makes a more delicious meal anyway.