In every experience I’ve had abroad, whether it was in Seoul, Thailand, Sarajevo, or here in Azerbaijan, telling people that I’m American has always been a bit tricky. Some of that comes from the rhetoric Americans are taught as they come up through the school system. Kids in school are taught that water freezes at 32 degrees and America is the greatest country in the world. Growing up and realizing that this might not be the case can be tough to understand. Going abroad and realizing that some people can hold quite negative views of the U.S. can be equally as shocking. A lot of this has come down to George W. Bush.
I remember a conversation I was having with a German woman in Thailand where I told her that I don’t like being an American abroad because people always want to talk about politics with you. As if on cue, another German dude came over (in a Yankees cap) and asked where I was from. I said, “America” and he instantly pointed his finger at my chest and said “Tell your president to follow the law.” Since then, I respond to the “where are you from” question first with a deep exhale, and then with an admittance of being American.
Being put in this position has made me oddly defensive. I have found myself defending Bush abroad, when I never would do so back in America, simply because I think that people hate on America because it’s the cool thing to do, without any understanding of politics, or specifically, American politics.
In Croatia this past summer, while sitting on a sidewalk in Dubrovnik, a guy walked past and sat next to me. We exchanged greetings, to reveal that I was indeed American and he was Dutch. Without hesitating, he said “I think America is fake.” What kind of a jerk would say this upon meeting someone? I walked away from him, told him something that wasn’t particularly witty, and was really offended. Am I fake? My friends and family? Someone could come up to me, be incredibly rude like that, and yet I was the one to be scolded because I’m from America (I mentioned these stories to a girl I met, and she told me, “Try being Israeli.” Good point).
All this changed yesterday when Barack Obama was sworn is as the President of the United States. I listened to the inauguration on the radio, and I would have loved to been in America yesterday. Being abroad in Azerbaijan made me feel disconnected from a great national moment that holds a once-in-a-generation ability to unify the country. But even though it would be great to be in America right now, the beginning of Obama’s presidency has just made my life overseas much easier.
Rather than worrying about being bombarded with questions about George Bush, I’ll be more than willing to discuss how great it is that Obama is now our president. I have a feeling that the conversation is about to steer from the harm that America causes the world, to a discussion about the positive role that America will again play in the global community.
Being a part of Obama’s Peace Corps is already way better than Bush’s Peace Corps.