When we’re abroad, Rich and I strive to adapt gracefully to whatever bizarre stuff the world throws at us. One of my most cherished photos shows him in India, squatting in front of cobras, madly playing a grimy flute. The snake charmer, evidently feeling the scene requires more drama, is draping a large yellow serpent around Rich’s shoulders.
“What yellow serpent?” Rich said afterwards. “I never even saw it. Believe me, when you’re staring into the eyes of a cobra, all you can think of is — play.”
“You were probably in more danger from the germs on that guy's flute. How could you put that thing in your mouth?"
“What was I supposed to do? He motioned me over and shoved the flute into my hands. I didn’t want to offend him. Or the cobras.”
As travelers and expats, Rich and I have spent an extraordinary amount of time trying (with varying degrees of success) not to offend local sensibilities. This summer we’ll be putting our fitting-in and going-along skills to the test as we return to a changed America. Like hundreds of thousands of other expats making annual summer pilgrimages to the homeland, we’re a bit worried we’ll find a country we hardly recognize.
The headlines are frankly terrifying. The president’s “supporters call for ‘liberal genocide and deportation of Jews’ at Arizona rally.” “Historian Timothy Snyder: ‘It’s pretty much inevitable’ that [the president] will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy.” “Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes Are Spiking in the U.S.” “Prospects for black America about to get worse.” “Latino immigrants living in fear, preparing for deportation.” “Cheeky Protesters Moon [the president’s tower in] Chicago To Ass-ert Their Outrage.” OK, that last one isn’t so scary, but still, conditions do seem worryingly volatile.
Absorbing these stories from afar is like watching a dystopian, near-future disaster movie. Clearly civilization as we know it is doomed. Yet emails from family and friends sound surprisingly normal, chatting about kids’ soccer scores and home repairs. Occasionally they’ll throw in a casual reference to living in Mordor, the region occupied by the forces of evil in Lord of the Rings, or call the president “the Dark Lord,” a euphemism for Harry Potter’s archenemy, the villain-who-shall-not-be-named. In fact, many Americans deliberately avoid using the president’s name, like actors who won’t say the title of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” because of all the bad karma associated with it.
America2.0 is clearly going to be a challenge for all expats, and I’ve come up with a few strategies that may help.
1. Wait and see what’s going on. Before pre-ordering body armor or a backyard bunker kit, let’s find out whether the “armed camps” mentioned in the media are metaphorical or real. This will depend, of course, on the neighborhoods we’re frequenting and whether events take a nasty turn during our stay.
2. Show empathy and respect; above all, listen. “Political animosities have reached a really dangerous level,” says Stanford sociology professor Robb Willer. In his TEDD Talk, “How to have better political conversations,” he suggests reframing our rhetoric so we can begin finding common ground. Shortly after the election, Rich and I drove through a conservative agricultural area and found our fellow Americans were delighted to share their stories over bottomless cups of coffee in roadside diners; we learned a lot and began to feel the divide wasn’t entirely unbridgeable.
3. Find fellow Resisters in the USA. Learn what’s been happening and exchange ideas, resources, and mutual support. Reach out to a local Indivisible group, partners of the Women’s March on Washington, or such organizations as the grassroots #KnockEveryDoor, Run for Something, which recruits and supports progressive young candidates, or the PussyHat Project for knitters with attitude.
4. Connect with Resisters in other countries you’re visiting. While planning our recent trip to France, I wrote to a friend at Democrats Abroad who put me in touch with Resisters in French cities; you can also find groups through Facebook. Meeting Resisters in congenial cafés to discuss the fate of the world over a glass of vin was inspiring and tremendous fun.
5. Get ready to vote. I’m astonished how many of my expat friends didn't register to vote in the last election. Reasons included “Does it really matter?” and “Too much hassle.” I think events have proved elections do matter. And registration is easy online. You can register and request an absentee ballot via Vote from Abroad or download a form directly from your state’s website. Some states let you complete the whole process online; others require you to mail in the form. Find out if your state has a special election coming up. And while you’re at it, remind friends that if they want to complain about the government (and who doesn’t?) voting speaks louder than words.
Visiting the Divided States of America seems a bit daunting to me, but Rich is maintaining his usual insouciance.
“Hey, I’ve stared down a rampant cobra,” he says. “You think I’m scared of politicians?”
I guess we’ll find out this summer.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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