I think most of us know what the typical stereotypes of the American abroad are, so I won’t explain. Truth is, my passport has been a point of anxiety for me when I travel. Would I be the target of scrutiny because of where I’m from? I’m glad to answer no. Not only have the local people in my host countries of Indonesia and Thailand been overwhelmingly welcoming during my stay in each, but so have the Western and Asian-Pacific expats — those whom I’d thought would be the quickest to criticize.
They don’t ask me about politics.
2016 was a whirlwind in America’s political history. It was a bumpy ride for all of us, whatever your political beliefs. When the results came in I prepared myself for what I imagined to be an onslaught of jokes and judgment. It never came, though. No one bugged me about the election results.
It’s not that people didn’t care — given America’s role in the international community, Trump’s election and the subsequent Republican sweep of Congress affects everyone out here in some way or another — Thai nationals, European expats, Asian-Pacific expats, or otherwise. But there’s a common respect regardless of opinion.
The expats acknowledge pitfalls in American politics with sarcasm and humor, while the Thai locals address what they read in the way in which they approach everything — by giving me their curt, non-sugar-coated opinion once, then laughing, and moving on. People are equally quick to acknowledge when something good happens as well.
I was on a mini holiday in Koh Phayam when the election results posted. I hitched a ride to the pier on the back of this Thai woman’s bike. She didn’t speak much English, but she asked me where I was from. When I responded, she laughed and said, “so…Mr. Trump,” before giggling and rattling off her favorite Beyoncé songs.
So, Mr. Trump indeed.
But they do ask me intelligent questions.
When I am engaged in some sort of America-centric discussion, it’s never in an aggressive way. In the US, when people begin to debate opposing views it seems that both sides of the conversation are on the defensive. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — that passion is one thing I miss greatly about living in the States, especially somewhere like New York City.
I do encounter the rambling half-drunk idiot with too many ill-informed arguments out here, just as is possible anywhere. But more often, people who have something to say do so because they’ve read up on the issues and want to know what others think. There’s less of the “America-bashing” that’s strewn across international social media, but just intelligent discussions among curious people.
It interests them how I am affected and they want to know the details. How will this affect my health insurance options? How will that impact my friends in the military? My opinions don’t define myself or Americans as a whole, they’re processed in the conversation like anyone else’s. It was a similar situation faced by my British friends following the Brexit decision, the Italians with Berlusconi’s sex scandals, or the Russians with whatever Putin’s been up to. America’s certainly not the only nation facing scrutiny from the international community, and it was a bit narcissistic of me to assume so.
I’m not chastised for my country’s decisions.
Within the US it seems that labeling is all the rage. However you self-identify, with each brand come a series of assumptions that may or may not actually apply to you. You’re a Republican so you must be a capitalistic pig and follow Twitter updates about the next oil pipeline project. You’re a Christian so you must defend creationism and picket abortion clinics on the weekend. You’re from the South so you must wield a machete and hang the Confederate flag.
As the US makes headlines internationally, it would be easy to hold me personally accountable for the impact my country has globally. We’re a democracy, after all. More often, however, I’m treated as an individual. My nationality does not define me. There are certainly some days where “American” or even “foreigner” may be a dirty word, but I’m not ever singled out for bearing either of those signatures.
They invite me to learn about their culture.
Above all, throughout my four years in Asia, nearly all of the people I’ve interacted with have shown me unconditional respect and consideration. It’s incredible to be treated to coffee by people who don’t speak my language, invited to play in local kid’s soccer matches, sheltered or fed when I needed it most, and sometimes when I didn’t at all.
But that hasn’t even been my main takeaway.
Many will admit that they’ve come to believe the media and pop-culture-perpetuated model of an American as a self-centered, egotistical narcissist. But even burdened with this caricature, it doesn’t impact my invitation to participate in their culture. They trust me implicitly to have the open mind and heart to appreciate their lifestyle and beliefs, and this in spite of the turbulent and often violent impact America has left on many Southeast Asian countries’ respective histories.
I’ve been asked to be in weddings and attended birthday parties of complete strangers; to cook in their kitchens and join children’s performances. Every time I’m treated as a guest of honor, because the group is proud of their celebration, proud of their culture, and want to present its best version to the visitor. It’s a wholeheartedly fulfilling experience and one that we can only hope no amount of politics or global issues will change.
They really don’t care in the first place.
When budget backpacking and hopping hostel-to-hostel around the world, there’s hardly a conversation that doesn’t begin with the question “where are you from?” Once living as an expat, immobile for years and counting, there’s just less emphasis put on one’s country of origin. In many cases, people I’ve known casually for months will laugh and casually remark that they thought I was Canadian or Australian or even Swedish when they discover that I’m American.
And then we all move on.