To Be an Expat in a Time of Upheaval
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because, America, the world is watching.
Six months ago this weekend, I hopped on a one-way flight out of the United States. Since then, Donald Trump stampeded to what is bound to be the Republican presidential nomination, North Carolina went wild over transgender people in bathrooms and an ISIS-inspired man murdered 49 people in an Orlando nightclub. Now comes bloodshed in Minnesota and Louisiana, the nightmare in Dallas.
I live in Luang Prabang, Laos, a lovely tourist town in a fairly remote country, and I’ve watched all these events unfold on video streams and social media. As one of OZY’s Presidential Daily Brief editors, I am closely tied to the rhythms of breaking news — and thus the convulsions of my country. It’s an odd existence.
In discussions with fellow expats or travelers in a place without many Americans, I’m often forced to explain or defend my country. The first question typically is about Trump. People are scared of him and disdainful toward his voters. Having covered the billionaire a bit before I left the U.S., I have some insight here, and it’s usually a long answer about the changing economy, our broken politics and people’s desire to blow up the system. But Hillary Clinton is not necessarily admired either. Over a gin and tonic, a British pal recently listed the wars Clinton has supported as evidence of her danger to the globe. Others decry the dynastic aspect of Clinton’s candidacy or her apparent duplicity.
America is not alone in her problems. Fearmongering was on display in the Brexit vote. Racism and xenophobia are plentiful in Europe. Australia has its own political instability. “I feel like the whole Western world has gone insane,” an Aussie friend told me on Friday. We ran into each other at the market as the Dallas horror was unfolding, and the conversation meandered from yogurt to the world’s woes.
Of course, no advanced democracy has America’s blood-soaked streets. In that way, my country is chillingly unique.
Laos can feel like a placid escape in such moments. There are no stoplights in my town. The Mekong river glides gently by my back deck. The people are uncommonly friendly. But the United States is a remarkable place. A man utterly disdained by his country’s political elite has a shot at the big prize. Masses of Black and white people can march in the street in demonstrations sanctioned by the very law enforcement they are protesting. Such things are unthinkable in much of the world.
Of course, no advanced democracy has America’s blood-soaked streets. In that way, my country is chillingly unique. My wife and I too often awake to news alerts of another mass shooting. Our friends ask, with sadness, “Again?” To many overseas, the U.S. is a land of gun nuts with itchy trigger fingers. They’re aghast at how the American government, unlike so many others, has not at least banned assault rifles. The Second Amendment and NRA explanation takes a while.
I have spent a lot of my time in Southeast Asia reporting about older American sins. Unexploded bombs and defoliation chemicals from a half-century ago inflict ongoing damage on Vietnam and Laos. My country’s warts, in some ways, have grown far larger at a distance. In other ways, I have grown to appreciate home more: its freedoms, its openness to self-critique, its creature comforts.
Things are ugly at home right now. Living abroad teaches humility and adaptability as you grope around, often in a foreign language, trying to build a life and relate to people who do not share your background. Sometimes I don’t know how to defend my country to them, and perhaps that’s for the best. Hubris has long been our greatest flaw. I’m proud but not blind, just another American.