An Ex-Pat’s View of American Politics

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 blasé 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 entrée of my news consumption, and American politics are thrown in as the side dish. It makes a more delicious meal anyway.

By Stephens

Florida girl, would-be world traveler and semi-permanent expat. Her main strategy of life is to throw out the nets and hope something useful comes back, but many times it's just an old shoe. She also really, really hates winter and people who are consistently late.

6 replies on “An Ex-Pat’s View of American Politics”

I’m right with you. I’ve been living between Korea, Australia and the road for 4+ years now and I find that distance from the American political scene has certainly changed me. For starters, I’m far more liberal than I ever was back at home but I’m also better informed. I didn’t realize it until I put some distance between us but most Americans get their news from watching TV. As an expat, I can only get it from online sources which means I get more statistics and fully reasoned reporting. I also think living overseas allows me to better filter the trivial news from the big stuff because honestly, I don’t really care about the latest murder mystery craze but I do care about State of the Union addresses and sanction policies. And you are so right about learning more about other countries or how American politics affects world politics. American news media is so America-focused that it’s sometimes really hard to know the world pulse. Separation from that environment has really helped me expand my knowledge of pressing issues worldwide.

As for America’s reputation abroad… I was backpacking through Turkey and the Caucuses (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) when the election took place and the whole dancing in the street thing we saw in America? That was taking place in the streets of Baku as well and even three months later vendors were still selling Obama shirts on the streets of Khao San Road in Thailand. I think people were overjoyed to see Bush leave office and Obama’s message of hope really did inspire the world, but unpopular policies, failed promises, America’s culpability in the GFC, and unpopular responses to international conflicts has certainly lost Obama a lot of the respect he entered office with. My boyfriend and I joked when he took office that he was the new Jesus because of how over-the-top optimistic people were and I currently find myself a little shocked by how oddly apt that comparison eventually became. Like Jesus, Obama was immensely popular in his early days, lauded over for the good he had done and his work for the poor, and then increasingly blamed by people threatened by his power for crimes he did not commit. I think the conservatives are winning; people are believing that Obama created the GFC and Congress’ inaction is earning America as a whole blame for the world’s economic problems. That over-the-top optimism Obama inspired when he took office? It’s not there anymore. I don’t think people worldwide hate him or question him like they did Bush but they don’t seem to approve of him either. And then again, it seems in vogue to hate Americans and blame all problems on America. I guess that’s what we get for claiming that we are the “one true superpower,” “leader of the free world,” and “greatest country on earth.” But that’s another topic all together…

Very interesting perspective. Traveling abroad in 2007 helped to reorient my political consciousness from the southern fiscal conservative values of my family to one more understanding and accepting of difference. It was crucial to my current political perspective. I lived with a French family for 3 weeks, and my French mom schooled me as well. She was a biology teacher, so the Kyoto treaty was a frequent topic of conversation as well as the wastefulness of plastic grocery bags. I learned so much. After France I went to Amsterdam for a few days, and I got so many interesting perspectives of America from various people. Two Scottish men were my fave. They found out I was American, and said, “Oh, George Buuuuuush.” Ha. They wanted to just rant about their views on American politics.

Did you watch the State of the Union the other night? Obama made a statement along the lines of Anyone who thinks the opinion of America abroad has gone down since I’ve been president doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Do you find this to be true?

I was able to watch and listen to most of the speech. As far as opinions of America and Americans go, I get the sense most were relieved that Obama was elected and everyone I’ve talked to is hoping he gets re-elected.

As far as opinions of America and Americans, they are varied, but any poor opinions about America and Americans come not from politics, but from stereotype that Americans are loud, rude and obnoxious. Most of my Irish or British friends readily admit they wouldn’t hang out with many Americans.* I think the attitude comes from having to put up with American tourists and/or college students.It colors their attitude.

*This comes from an admittedly small pool of Irish and Brits living in my particular city.

Having several ex-pat and international friends myself, a lot of this article rang very true to me, especially the parts regarding finding out just where America lay on the political spectrum in comparison to other countries in the world. I had always considered myself very liberal, and then I met a French woman who thoroughly schooled me. Turns out that at that point, I was a right-center moderate.

The point about life going on during the anniversary of Sept. 11th was another good one. I remember a picture going around tumblr at one point that people were getting offended by, of a Korean building concept that looked very reminiscent of the WTC exploding.

Now, admittedly, as an American, I can’t look at that photo and not think ‘World Trade Center on 9/11/2001’. But the key words there are ‘As an American‘. It’s a big world, and we can’t expect an architect in SK to always be taking our precious fee-fees into account when designing his building. And I think getting over that entitled mindset is a huge roadtblock in our political machine, nd is hindering a lot of social progress we really need.

But I guess that’s what happens when you live in a country founded by Puritans.

I remember that photo too and yeah, it did remind me of the WTC. but I’m with you on this. Does an architect have to limit their design because it might remind someone of SOMETHING?

And I am inordinately grateful to my British friend Joe who totally schools me in politics and is a wealth of information wrapped in a snarky package.

I’m so happy to have all my European friends as well, because I’ve learned SO MUCH from them.

There was one who came to the USA and said that the biggest culture shock was the constant pressure of ideology radiating from everywhere you could see. on TV shows, the news, the newspapers and magazines and commercials, everywhere. I guess I’m just numb to it since I live here and all, but it was a really interesting thing to hear from someone who’d never been here before.

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