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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5/5/2017 07:33:17 pm
Agree with Rich!! As that crotchety old WW2 General Joe Stilwell used to say, "Illigitimati non carborundum" or Don't let the bastards wear you down. We can handle whatever gets dished out. Hope to see you guys soon!
5/6/2017 08:36:07 am
Thanks, Dave! Why do these things always sound so much more profound in Latin? I appreciate the sentiment in any language and look forward to seeing you when we're back in the land of e pluribus unum!
Milton E Strauss
5/5/2017 08:26:19 pm
Listening is useful; trying to get other views across much less so. Are you sure that it will be canned turkey that will be served? Not Spam in its many "flavors" (all untasted)?
5/6/2017 09:06:58 am
Milt, if living in America means we have to eat Spam — in any flavor — I'm staying in Spain! As for listening and getting views across, I think the only way any of that works is with people on the fringes of the opposition, who already feel squeamish about having voted for you-know-who. I believe Robb Willer is right that respectful, empathetic conversation could help them find a way to reframe the story they're telling themselves about what's happening. At this point, it's all about symbolic thinking, not logic.
5/5/2017 09:24:37 pm
You speak my mind. We fly to the homeland at the end of June for nearly 3 months. My goal is to survive and to somehow manage visits with several family members who support "45." Thanks for your post.
5/6/2017 09:11:33 am
We too will visit family members who are staunch supporters of 45. Mostly we agree not to talk about it; thank God for topic like sports and the weather. Good luck with your visit, Laura. Stay strong and remember, you are not alone! There's a vast expat community struggling with the same things, and a widespread Resistance community you can tap into for sanity and support wherever you go.
5/5/2017 10:14:54 pm
Going to local dive bars definitely helps one acclimate quite nicely (and we'll join you).
5/6/2017 09:12:28 am
It's a date, Karen! Dive bars here we come!
5/5/2017 11:08:10 pm
I wouldn't worry too terribly about visiting the Bay Area in California. It's probably the last place in the USA anything nasty could happen. The California state government is on the verge of making single payer health care a reality, as it already is in the city of San Francisco.
5/6/2017 09:16:51 am
You're so right, Alicia, that the Bay Area is true blue, and that's a great comfort. We'll be roaming other parts of the country visiting relatives and friends, so we're bracing ourselves for just about anything at this point. I'll keep you posted on our adventures.
5/6/2017 05:08:11 am
We - the collective 'we' - had better be concentrating on developing some sense of civic responsibility and political/governance literacy in the next generation (or our generation as well) or we aren't going to have any candidates worthy of anyone wanting to vote 'for' (verses against) as we had happen and get us into this situation in the first place.
5/6/2017 09:28:06 am
So true, Jackie! Complacency and apathy are luxuries from another era; we can't afford them now. I'm heartened by the many organizations springing into action to encourage and support progressive candidates. In addition to Run for Something, there are big grassroots groups such as Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Progressive Democrats of America, and many more. (I found a long list here: http://www.startguide.org/orgs/orgs01.html) I am cautiously optimistic they'll help us field better candidates in the future.
5/6/2017 01:25:35 pm
New Yorkers, for the most part, remain anti-45 and are disgusted by how he turned our government into a family business. The only armed camp surrounds the Trump Tower on 5th Ave. We see heavily armed anti-terrorist police at various subway stations. This is not a bad thing. We also see so many more women wearing hijabs. Perhaps a show of nationalism but that's not a bad thing either. We hope we get to see you in New York next month.
5/7/2017 06:48:39 pm
Yes, I hear NYC isn't too wild about the president — or about the $149,000 a day it's costing us taxpayers for security so Melania can avoid living in the White House with her husband. I'll be careful to avoid that block of real estate next time I'm in town.
5/7/2017 05:26:40 pm
It's much more of an us-vs-them mindset here right now. Politics permeates all aspects of life, even mundane things like what publications you read/watch, where you shop, or what you drive. If you're going to California, you'll be fine. But once you cross srate lines, watch out. Lay low, don't engage in political discourse, and never mention the President's name ... even to like-minded folk.
5/7/2017 06:50:32 pm
Yikes, Christopher, that sounds like advice for those being dropped behind enemy lines! Sounds like wise counsel though. Thanks!
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