“When overseas, you learn more about your own country than you do the place you’re visiting.”
Hi, my name is Hilary, I’m from America, and…I promise I’m not voting for Donald Trump.”
As our tour guide pulled the van onto the freeway heading out of Auckland, he got on the microphone and informed us that yes, we would all have to come up to the front and introduce ourselves. Twinkles—so named in a still-secret company ritual by which they all acquire nicknames and who reminded me instantly of a skinny Yukon Cornelius—went first, naturally. He told us about growing up in New Zealand, the kind of outdoor stuff he was into, a little bit about his experience working with the tour company, and how for the upcoming Winter season he would be driving a bus at a popular ski mountain.
“Ok, who’s next?” he asked when he was done. “Just name, where you’re from and what you do, and…” He paused to consider a third piece of trivia. “What kind of girl or guy you’re into.” This got an immediate groan from the crowd because it is too personal a topic to bring up in the first five minutes of being crammed together in a moving vehicle with strangers.
“How about celebrity crush instead?” I suggested from my spot in the back to murmurs of agreement. “It’s basically the same thing. But less weird.”
One by one, my fellow travelers carefully scooted up to the front of the van in order to talk into the microphone. Three Germans, three Brits, two French, an Austrian, a Norwegian, a South African, a Scot, and a Mexican told the rest of us about their gap years, former/current jobs, and obsessions with Scarlett Johansson and Benedict Cumberbatch. Somehow, partially due to where I was sitting, I guess, I went last.
“Hi, my name is Hilary, I’m from America, and…I promise I’m not voting for Donald Trump.” The van erupted in applause.
Trump-like snowman found on a mountain in New Zealand, photo by HB
The first time I traveled overseas as a true tourist and not a study-abroad student was the summer of 2001. I had been saving my babysitting and waitressing money since I was a teenager in order to fund the admittedly cliché post-graduation backpacking trip through Europe. I wanted to go alone, like my mom had when she first went in 1968, but I could do that “over her dead body.” Instead, I went with Claire, a friend I’d known since kindergarten, and we hit some Western European hotspots—London, (where she had a cousin), Amsterdam, Paris, Rome/Florence/Venice, Geneva (where I had a college friend), and Interlaken, before returning to Heathrow to fly home back to our hometown in upstate New York. We were never big partiers, especially her, so we really did “behave ourselves” and actually saw all the big museums and tourist must-sees. We mostly stayed in double rooms in hostels, save Venice where we couldn’t find anything cheap and her parents treated us to a real hotel room as a co-graduation present. The concierge thought we were lesbians.
Before departing, we were told, only half-kiddingly, to lie to Europeans about our nationality (“They hate Americans! Say you’re from Canada, eh?”), but the politicized air outside America felt breathable. In the news cycle that summer, President Bush was refusing to support the popular Kyoto Protocol and was scheduled to attend the 27th G8 Summit in Genoa in late July, which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters and anti-protest violence, but we were long gone by then. Perhaps because of our age or non-offensive behavior, the fact that we had traveled from the land of said President didn’t come up much, except in conversations with the cute Boston College grads we met when we were stuck on a train near The Hague. I don’t recall any non-American griping to us about Bush as part of a conversation tactic, even as I butchered conversational French in Paris or ate cheese fondue in Switzerland on the Fourth of July. As someone who voted for Gore, I was angry about the result of the election, but it didn’t feel like I was a target for the rest of the world’s derision.
Of course, this was before 9/11 and the subsequent American-led shitshow in the Middle East.
The next time I traveled extensively was July 2015, when I visited some of the Eastern European major cities with my mom before heading to the capitals of Scandinavia alone. And this time was different. Everywhere I went, from Krakow to Copenhagen, involved a barrage of questions and commentary from baristas, tour guides, hotel receptionists, and other tourists, about how I felt about Hillary Clinton and/or Donald Trump’s absurd declarations about his desire for the candidacy. Most of this was brief chats had in a rush or while waiting in line, but some turned into longer discussions. My mom and I stopped for a late afternoon snack-and-wine break in Prague, and a British couple was seated next to us. After the man chastised the server for bringing lemon with his gin and tonic, and I shared my bit of trivia about how exactly lime came to be the default garnish, we immediately struck up a conversation, perhaps happy to be talking at length with people other than our traveling companions. It quickly got political, and while we did not agree on much, we did agree that Trump was an idiot for thinking he could be President. We collectively laughed it off, sure it would be a passing phrase, a blip on the radar.
A week or so later, the minute an older man on the Oslo tram heard my accent when I politely bothered him for directions, he asked me to expound on “how cool it was” that Hillary Clinton was going to be President. I patiently explained to him about our primary system, and how she would likely be the candidate, but was not certainly the candidate because a Senator named Bernie Sanders was talking about challenging her. He was intrigued and wanted to talk more off the tram—“I’m gay! I’m not hitting on you!” he assured me—but I had a pre-booked bicycle tour to get to. He was disappointed, but we continued our animated chat until my stop, during which I explained that I was also sure that the same primary system would disabuse Trump of his ridiculous notions. The high point, for me, was when our conversation turned to international politics and he proclaimed loudly that he wanted to fuck Putin right in the ass.
On that bike tour, our guide took us to an electric car parking lot and charging station and explained Norway’s policies that benefit electric and hybrid car ownership. Seeing the shock on my face, he pointed to me. “That hasn’t worked in The States.” I agreed. Later, on that same tour, we learned about the terrorist attacks in Norway in July, 2011, and how the response by the Prime Minister was to call for “more democracy,” not less. We had the same exchange: a shocked face, a pointed comment, agreement. “I mean, Donald Trump might be your next President!” he added for effect. I informed him that no way would that actually happen.
When I politely bothered him for directions, he asked me to expound on ‘how cool it was’ that Hillary Clinton was going to be President.”
To appreciate other cultures is to acknowledge that other countries might do something better than yours.”
As an overseas tourist, I feel simultaneously like an ambassador and a sponge. Surely, the point of traveling internationally is to be immersed in other cultures. There are sights to take in—art, important architecture, museums dedicated to national history or to a treasured musical group—and presumably once-in-a-lifetime experiences to be had that can’t be accomplished in your home country, like petting a koala, or, far more somberly, walking around a concentration camp in Poland. Not one really to care about nightlife, I do care about food, and make sure to eat local and national dishes as possible. Mainly, though, I want to know how “it works” in other places. Public transportation, supermarkets, movies, you name it: if the locals have to do it regularly, I want to know how it goes.
But the most fascinating part of traveling is talking to other people, which is why I prefer to stay in people’s homes or in hostels rather than hotels. At my Airbnb in Stockholm, another guest from Greece and I had a long talk in the kitchen about the seeming collapse of the Greek economy happening that summer, whether the EU would bail out the drachma, and how he works two weeks on-one week off in Sweden flying home in between because he makes more money than he would staying put. Over tea in the small kitchen of my Copenhagen Airbnb, the host, another guest from Iceland, and I chatted about education, since the woman from Iceland and I were both former secondary teachers and our host had a six year old daughter. Both looked at me aghast when I said that public school begins at five years old in America.
“But…but…but what do they do from zero to five?” one asked.
“Well…we have daycare, but you have to pay for it. Or maybe a parent stays home.”
“You mean…the government doesn’t help you out with free preschool?”
I literally laughed out loud.
“What if you are a single parent? What if you can’t afford not to work? What are you supposed to do then?”
“Well, there are programs for the most needy kids, in some places, but generally…I don’t know. You’re just on your own to figure it out, I guess.”
“Is it expensive?”
“Oh, absolutely. And the workers often don’t get paid very well, either.”
“That would never, ever be ok here,” said my host. The woman from Iceland agreed.
It would also never, ever be ok to leave your bicycle unlocked everywhere you go, as is custom in Copenhagen, but I didn’t say that.
I firmly believe that the only way to truly be a cultural sponge is to admit, even to yourself, but preferably aloud, that your own country isn’t perfect. To appreciate other cultures is to acknowledge that other countries might do something better than yours. This can be a rather complicated way to be an American, especially as someone who came somewhat of age in the post 9-11 zeitgeist “you’re either with us or against us.” The very cute waiter who brought my Swedish meatballs in Stockholm told me how he had lived with his dad in Washington, D.C during middle and high school, but moved back with his mom in Ireland to go to college because it was free. I thought of this conversation several times over the course of the past year, since Bernie hitched part of his delegate wagon to the very European idea of free tuition, which made its way (mostly) to the official Democratic Platform. While traveling through Australia this summer, more than one native happily shared with me that their preposterous two month long election season was about to come to an end—finally! The horror!—on July 2, and I felt a severe pang of jealousy. Yet Australia also has compulsory voting, which is decidedly anti-American, despite frequent moans on the blue side of the aisle about the low voter turnout during midterms.
Of course, I did encounter criticism about America from non-citizens, and I got understandably incensed. (As an only child, I imagine this is how siblings feel.) A Finnish guy staying long term at the little hippie hostel I found in Helsinki went on a mini tirade about all the things wrong with America, especially with our voting and politics and obsession with guns, and while I did agree with a few points, my gut instinct was to defend my homeland, swiftly and sternly, against this intellectual attack. Possibly because he had been rude to me earlier, I delighted in correcting his misunderstanding about Citizens United and The Supreme Court in general. And this, to me, is what patriotism is about: it’s not blind nationalism and the unwavering Annie Oakley inspired belief that America does everything you can do better; it is defending my mother country against ill-informed criticism, even when a dreadlocked mansplainer gets some of it right.
Twinkles continued to drive us to our first destination, a surf town about two hours southwest of Auckland. He occasionally got on the microphone to share bits and pieces of New Zealand trivia with us, like the fact that you can never be more than 128 kilometers from the coast. “Also, you need to wear a lot of sun cream, even though it’s almost winter. The ozone layer down here is pretty depleted, from years of pollution drifting from North America.”
“You’re welcome!” I snarked.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I think I apologized on behalf of America for everything ranging from McDonalds to the Kardashians to ISIS. (I took credit for democracy. And Beyonce.) At one point early on I pulled aside Laura, the young Mexican woman who had won her trip in a radio contest.
“Hey,” I started awkwardly, “I just want to say…I want you to know that, um…that most of the people in my country, especially me and people like my friends, don’t, um, we don’t think about you and your country the way that Trump and his supporters do.” I blinked back tears.
“Trump is an idiot,” she quickly replied.
“I mean, I know that,” I laughed, “but…it must be very hurtful to hear that this potentially very powerful person thinks that way about you.”
“People in Mexico hate him. We’re not building that wall!”
“You should hate him. But still. I’m sorry, and I just want you to know that he doesn’t represent most people.” We hugged. Maybe it was weird that I said that to her, but I felt I had to.
Once our multi-national tour group got closer and more comfortable with one another—which happened quickly with near-constant exposure—we moved from surface topics, like celebrity crushes and our previous travel shenanigans, to deeper ones, like history and the current fate of the world. Just as I was able to make jokes about North American pollution and capitalism, the Germans were pretty quick with a self-deprecating Holocaust reference; the Brits did the same with colonization. Accompanied by wine in our various hostels over the next few weeks, we talked about Merkel’s handling of the Syrian refugee crisis or the response to the Paris nightclub terrorist attack or the upcoming Brexit vote. I sincerely asked the woman from South Africa how she felt about Trevor Noah taking over The Daily Show; she teased me about America’s “super size me” culture when I noticed that the largest to-go coffee cup was “only” 16 ounces. We all fell into this easy rhythm of acknowledging and dispelling stereotypes about our respective countries as we learned about each other as individuals. Your nationality might be one of the first identity markers people want to know about you, but it is decidedly one of the least important when you have to live together. I actually listened to three Brits debate the proper way to make a cup of tea, but also knew which of them shirked communal kitchen duties and whom I could count on to pay me back for a shared meal. The German girl could drink us all under the table and was the friendliest. I was probably the most outspoken, but also often the first to go to bed. By the end of our time together, we were in tune with each other’s daily rhythms, could order for each other at a bar, and went out of our way to look after one another, like making sure the vegetarians had dinner options or the smokers didn’t have to stand outside alone. Put simply, our shared humanity mattered more than which country issued our passport.
Yet despite the carefree nature of our collective adventure, politics were never far from our minds. Lara, a free-spirit 20-something from Austria, woke us all from a road-weary nap when her election results came in. She learned via Facebook that the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer, had been defeated by Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent Green candidate.
“My country didn’t elect a racist nutjob!” she shrieked in joy. We all cheered.
“There’s hope for you yet!” Charlie said in my direction.
Put simply, our shared humanity mattered more than which country issued our passport.”
I felt my face getting hot, and it had nothing to do with being in a desert.”
Of course, I encountered a few Americans while traveling this summer as well, though I think I went three weeks without speaking to another at length. Unsurprisingly, those moments were peppered with political discourse, too. In the last place I stayed in New Zealand before heading to Australia, an American was assigned the bunk next to me. We figured out that we were on the same flight the following afternoon and made plans to share a shuttle to the airport. During our initial conversation, I learned he currently lives in Washington, D.C. Before my brain caught up to my mouth, I said, “Oh god…do you work for a conservative think tank? Because if you do, we can’t be friends!” I laughed to prove I was kidding.
“No, my organization is non-partisan. The McCain Institute. Have you heard of it?”
I hadn’t, but internally doubted the non-partisan-ness of anything associated with someone who had run as the Republican presidential candidate. He explained the basics of what he does.
“Have you met him?”
“John McCain? Yeah, he’s great.”
“I bet. I mean, to be honest, I didn’t vote for him, but his story of being a POW is remarkable. Can you believe Trump said that whole ‘I like people who don’t get captured’ thing?”
The next day we found ourselves together at the airport for a few hours. We talked about our respective New Zealand travel experiences, other countries we had been to, and our families and backgrounds. And, of course, the election.
“I’m a Republican”—aha! I knew it!—“but I’m voting for Hillary,” he said.
“Really!?” I may have squealed.
“Yeah, I mean, I can’t vote for Trump, and I won’t not vote. She’s qualified and smart. Also, I’ve met her, and my old boss worked with her and had nothing but amazing things to say.”
We chatted more about the Bernie Bros, Fox News and anti-intellectual movement in our country, as well as the Obama administration and other hot button issues. It got animated, but there was no actual arguing. We also mostly agreed, except on some economic issues.
“So this is what a reasonable political conversation is like!” I joked as we walked down the jet bridge.
Not all of my American interactions went as smoothly. In the Australian outback, my tour bus driver asked me about Trump while we had a sunrise breakfast at Kata Tjuta National Park. I gave him my opinion that he is a racist, xenophobic, sexist, fear-mongering, authoritarian narcissist who incites violence and is unfit for office. He laughed and agreed.
“But Hillary is just as bad,” I heard a nearby woman say. I whipped my head around.
“In no way shape or form is Hillary just as bad as Donald Trump.” I felt my face getting hot, and it had nothing to do with being in a desert.
“Sure she is. I don’t trust her. The emails. Benghazi.”
Oh god, I thought. She’s one of those. I launched into a reply that likely comes standard with most Democrats by now: she’s been cleared by the FBI. Republican-led witchhunt. Previous Secretaries of State having personal email servers. Etc.
“I’m not saying she’s perfect, and I would have been fine with Bernie, too, but to say she’s just as bad as Trump is insane,” I added.
“Well, I’m just not going to vote for President. I’m going to leave that one blank.”
“THAT’S JUST AS BAD AS…” I yelped, before the bus driver interjected.
“Ladies, maybe we should just drop the subject.” I didn’t want this innocent Australian man to get in trouble with his company or anything, so I walked away, muttering about how uninformed opinions are frustrating. Later, he apologized to me for bringing it up.
“No, it’s not your fault,” I told him. “I’m sick of people comparing Hillary to Trump because it’s not at all reasonable or accurate. I get so mad.”
Later, on a hike through the rock formations, I overheard the woman say she was from Iowa. Figures, I thought to myself, and only six electoral votes anyway.
I was in the Sydney airport when I learned about the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub. Two days earlier I had gone on a day trip to the Blue Mountains, and among the group was an older couple from Orlando. I thought about them. Did they have any children or family who had been there? Were they ok? I kept scrolling through social media, reading article after article to get the details, tears silently streaming down my face. I wanted to commiserate with someone who would get it. I felt so alone in my national grief. The story was, of course, being reported on the local news, and I overheard some Aussies talking about it near me, but it didn’t help. My only connection was to keep clicking “sad” on my friends’ posts.
When I finally got on the plane, I was seated in the exit row next to a blonde guy with a distinctly Southern accent. I hoped this was my chance to talk it out.
“Where in The States are you from?” I asked him once the flight attendant finished her spiel about our willingness to assist during an evacuation.
“Alabama,” he replied, and then turned away, toward the window.
No! I thought. Please talk to me. Are you hurting too?
When I next had wifi, I discovered that my New Zealand tour friends had been checking in on me via Facebook. Thoughtful, of course, but not the same.
I am an American, and I needed America.
Although many of our practices seem ridiculous—explaining the electoral college elicits looks of bewilderment—The United States is, of course, a vast, complex, beautiful New World experiment. I, like many people, never bought into the post 9-11 claim of with us or against us. It can be both. It has to be both. It has always been and will always be, both. Despite my many frustrations, I am proud to be an ambassador of my wonderful country when I traipse around other parts of our gorgeous planet, even when some of my co-patriots have chosen a man like Trump to possibly run our nation.
I am an American, and I needed America.”
The morning of November 8th, I woke up early, like a kid at Christmas. I put on my pantsuit like others in the now viral Facebook group planned to do, secured my Hillary pin to my lapel, and tearfully called my mother to thank her for accidentally naming me after the first female President. I only had to teach one class and my students’ excitement was so palpable that for once I let them out a little early, but only after I made them sit with the historic nature of this day for a few moments. “You’re in Women’s Studies on the day that, unless something goes bananas, we’re going to elect the first woman President. That is ‘yuge,’” I mocked in order to swallow the lump in my throat.
Later that night, I met some friends at a bar for a viewing party. Literally the minute the polls closed in our decidedly predictable red state, Trump was declared the winner of those five measly electoral votes, but we dismissed that with a condescending wave of our collective hand, like you might a small child who has threatened to run away from home. As the evening progressed, however, we spent less time talking to one another and more time transfixed to our phones, hoping that CNN was missing something that other media outlets had access to. Around ten, our initial excitement had changed once into nerves and again into terror, and our group disbanded.
The next morning, I awoke to messages from my New Zealand travel friends and replies to the bourbon-fueled message I had posted to our Facebook group sometime around 2 am. Charlie offered me the same combination of outrage and sympathy I had extended to her after Brexit. Kim sent me a link to an article inviting Americans to live on a secluded island in her home country of Scotland. Austria was a few weeks shy of their re-vote, but Lara was hopeful I could move there afterwards, too.
But we all know that I won’t go.
The offers are kind, the temptation surely there, but I, like everyone else, will stay, even though despondent, frantic Americans crashed the Canadian immigration website as Hillary conceded. It’s what we do. We stay. The American Dream is a philosophical shapeshifter at best, a backwards-looking mythical axiom at worst, but as Fitzgerald said, we beat on, boats against the current.
Especially this one.
It’s what we do. We stay.