I remember so vividly waking up to the red bar which presented as a bloody smear across the top of my iPad. Donald Trump had, somehow, won the election. I was living in Prague at that point. I hadn’t lived in The U.S. for years by then because I really didn’t want to. And that was the Obama era. An era during which we felt loved as citizens, whether or not you agreed with Obama’s policies I cannot fathom how you could argue that he didn’t like, or at least care about, you as a human being. But even then, with a leader who I felt confident would do his best within the confines of government to fight for me, I didn’t want to be in the country. I felt this tension beneath the surface which I couldn’t identify with and I didn’t want my home to be my home any longer. By 2016 I’d been an expat for almost five years. At that point I could only identify the North Face fleeces and rolled over Ugg boots as the things which I rejected.
The days following the election I sat in class after class after class with adult Czech students discussing what had happened. I didn’t plan a single lesson. They listened as I talked, mostly. And sometimes they told me how their president was the same. It was a disease spreading across the world – the hatred, and The U.S. had caught it.
January 2017 I flew from Prague to Indonesia to celebrate a friends 30th birthday. We stayed on the quiet side of Bali. There were no other guests at the resort. It was me and her and a friend of hers from England who I’d never met before. We paced back and forth across the pool, slathered in sunscreen, sunglasses pulled down, hair up in messy buns. They’d just watched Brexit happen and I’d just watched my (not so beloved) country elect a narcissistic, racist, misogynistic, asshole president. These were facts we knew even then.
One morning we woke up early to walk down the road and watch the Balinese fisherman pull in their fresh catches. It was a quiet road and the three of us walked along in the middle of it, we were headed down a small incline and the sea was on our left. There were a group of men scattered around a little shack on our right. Some were sitting on benches, some were milling about. There were empty coke bottles on the ground and they were wearing old t-shirts that looked like they’d been shipped over from second hand stores in The U.S. as so much of our discarded items and trash are.
They yelled across the space between us.
We yelled back with a smile and a wave. Mostly in British accents as I kept my American accent protected by theirs as much as I could, even then.
All they heard was our English. They did not hear an accent.
Laughing. This was a positive word they yelled at us – they were smiling, thumbs up, all happiness. A man who represented us foreign English speakers and represented us well.
I’d landed in Bali on January 20 – the same day Donald J. Trump was sworn into office.
In my previous years living life as an expat I happily endured the teasing my British friends and colleagues laid on me – why are your cars and hamburgers so big? Why do you love guns so much? It was o.k. because while there was truth to it, our guns and our obesity didn’t define us as Americans. We had a kind-hearted black man as our leader and we were making progress. Maybe slow, maybe not enough, but to the non-political, non-American, greater world, we were o.k. But in the summer of 2017 after I left Prague and the Spanish boyfriend I’d been living with there – who, the morning after the 2016 elections had texted me a simple “I’m sorry” and never spoke of it again, I spent several months traipsing around Europe. Since said boyfriend had done a really good job of draining my bank account and never said sorry for that (or paid me back a dime) I did a lot of house sitting to save money.
Maybe I should thank him for that really, since house sitting was actually a wonderful way to spend the summer and fall. I met so many people who I never would have otherwise crossed paths with. Lots of Brits who had emigrated to France or Spain and had brought their horses and dogs with them. They’d be kind to me, show me how to feed the horses and then they’d jet off to wherever they were going leaving me in sole charge of their home and animals. Clearly, they weren’t worried about my guns or any hatred I might have contracted from my country folk. But they never left me before enquiring.
It’d start slowly, them not wanting to startle me, perhaps for fear I might pull a pistol on them.
‘Oh – you’re from The U.S.’
It was always very evident where the conversation was headed – it was 2017 and there were few other conversations to be had about The U.S.
They’d stutter along slowly. A question was clearly coming.
‘Did you vote for him?’
‘Do you think I voted for him?’
I’d counter to anyone who I’d met more than 5 minutes prior. I’d hope that my lack of hatred would have been evident by then. And while there was a relief that they’d not let a Trumpian into their home there was more questioning still to come.
‘So, what happened?’
Every non-American I met that summer designated me the spokesperson for my country. And I didn’t know, I had no explanation. I was more confused myself than they could possibly imagine. I’d always rejected the same-sameness of Ugg boots and North Faces – but at one point I’d had both in my closet and simply donated them and moved on from the consumeristic grind that the look perpetuated. I didn’t know – as much as I claim now to know – I didn’t truly know – that there was so much hate in my country. I didn’t know men & women alike could gather, cult-like around a man who had no political experience and, more than that, hated me. Hated my black friends and my immigrant friends and my Muslim friends and my Jewish friends and my gay friends and me, as a woman, and anyone less than 100% able-bodied and anyone who served in the military and anyone with intellect or ability anyone who supported Hilary or was named Hilary or questioned why he’d lost the popular vote. I did not know that someone so resembling other fascist leaders we’ve seen throughout history could be elected by my countrymen.
I had no answers, not even then, when all he was was a buffoon with no political experience who had a record of sexual assault and failed steaks. Even then, four years ago, I couldn’t explain it.
I returned back to the U.S. just about a year after the 2016 elections and huddled in a corner atop a heater for Christmas in Vermont – the liberal bastion from which my leftist, socialist ideals blossomed and grew at the direction of a white haired Jewish man who did not throw candy like all the other floats in The Fouth of July parade. (That’s Bernie Sanders in case I’ve lost you)
At the beginning of 2018 I moved to NYC and within weeks started working remotely for a Congressional candidate in upstate NY. She was a woman, she was gay, and she was working to unseat a very Trumpian republican. She wanted healthcare and clinics to help addicts and support for struggling farmers. When eventually, in September of that year, I moved up to Ithaca to work in person for the campaign, I – as the events coordinator – would go listen to stump speech after stump speech after stump speech. And while I mostly used the quiet amongst the attendees as an opportunity to pile my plate with cheese and fill my glass with wine, I always listened. And each and every time I wondered how anyone could say no to what she proposed – to think it was a bad thing to say – that she was a bad person. And I’ll be honest, by the 2018 elections I was less than enthralled with my candidate, but I still thought her ideas of cyber security against foreign adversaries and health care that would keep me and anyone else in the country form going bankrupt were we to get sick, were not bad ideas. And I could not understand the position from which one might think they were.
We lost that election. And, before our own results were finalized, many results from Senate seats across the country came in first. As they rolled in and the map filled with red – again – a young intern who I’d given too much wine that night, collapsed into my shoulder sobbing.
What is wrong with them.
Why is this happening.
She couldn’t understand that hate. None of us could.
But, after a rough day of hangovers that Wednesday we packed our bags and carried on. A republican senate, a republican president, but at least we’d won back the house.
And with that I got on a plane. I spent that autumn in The Caribbean and I was back in South East Asia when the U.S. practice of caging babies and children became global news.
Once again, I was asked to answer for my country.
‘What is going on in your country?’
‘What are you all doing?’
‘How is this happening?’
Steadily, the hamburger jokes disappeared, what equal footing Brexit had provided was swept out from beneath us. We’d sunk further and faster than anyone else in the Western world. We were putting children in cages.
I didn’t have answers. Again. As the president I hadn’t elected turned from evil to evil I could say nothing to the foreigners who wanted me to explain my country to them. Ugg boots and North Face jackets has become pop sockets and iPhones and none of it I could explain.
I was standing in the teacher’s room of The English Experience in Norwich, England when I first read about COVID-19. I forwarded the article to a WhatsApp group of three – two colleagues from the summer previous, both Americans, one of whom used to live in China. It was funny, really, another bit of chaos coming from China. And that was all I thought of it for a few days. Occasionally, it would come up in conversation over the coming weeks. And then our students from Northern Italy cancelled their trip to England and we were out a week of work. But, even in early March when I went out for a night of clubbing and swapped straws with four friends, COVID-19 was only a hypothetical threat.
Then, two weeks later, Boris Johnson ordered The UK into an unprecedented peacetime lockdown.
I was living in England because I was enrolled in an M.A. program. Our classes were put online a week prior to the government shutting down schools. Cases rose. No one left their homes. We couldn’t get groceries delivered and were terrified to walk out the door. Two of my three housemates got picked up by their parents from other parts of the country and transported home. The world descended into a loudly quiet chaos. People huddled behind closed doors and sirens blared in the streets.
In late April, in response to my M.A. program being put entirely online with no thought to postponement – this was April, mind you – I made the decision to drop out. Dropping out meant losing my visa and being required to leave the country.
On June 15, as a truly wonderful friend picked me up to drive me to Heathrow, shops opened in England for the first time in three months. I could not know then – or in May when I had booked my flight – or in April when I had made the decision – what a huge mistake it would be to return to The U.S. What a plague state it would become.
Earlier this week – the first week of October 2020, Donald J. trump flew in his helicopter to hospital. He was there for less than three after a positive COVID-19 test. After months and months of minimizing the threat of the virus, after refusing to wear a mask, after ignoring local health officials and holding massive public gatherings, after doing absolutely nothing at all to support our medical workers or our local government officials, Donald J. Trump received not one, but two experimental treatments at the dime of the tax payer – of which he is not one and has not been for a decade. After a summer during which so much of the world returned to a snail’s pace of normalcy and China opened water parks, The U.S. has not even for a second flattened its curve, we have seen more than 200,000 American lose their lives.
And then, on day three, Donald J. Trump, jacked up on steroids, left the hospital, stepped out onto a White House balcony, and took of his mask.
California is burning. Black men and women are being killed on the streets and in their homes by the very people purportedly tasked with protecting them. Children are still in cages – but we don’t talk about that anymore because we have a president who sexually assaults women, doesn’t pay taxes, is a climate denier, calls veterans suckers, and says that when over 200,000 American lives are lost it, is what it is. A president who is aiming to take away my right to make decision for my own body and the teensy-weensy bit of health care I do have. A president who is nothing short of a monster and who has taken the world away from us. Us away from the world.
This won’t be the first time a world power has fallen.
I wonder what the questions will look like then. Perhaps, they’ll be more sympathetic.
‘God, I really miss a good American hamburger, don’t you?’