Traveling While American in Trump's America

Jul 25, 2017

184 days. It’s been 184 days since Donald Trump became the President of the United States and what has happened during that period has been simultaneously absurd, shocking and completely expected. There are the unbelievable appointments (how a multi-billionaire who has never been a teacher in a public schools will be good for public schools is beyond anyone’s understanding), the trips abroad, the ridiculous tweeting at odd hours of the night and now what will likely be the decimation of The Affordable Care Act and the creation of some monstrosity that will leave those who voted for him wondering how it all went so wrong.
As an American living abroad, conversations with others (regardless of their nationality) always come back to Trump. In China, that conversation is a delicate tightrope act because Trump has somehow gone from calling China the biggest 1st world crook on the planet to a valuable partner in global trade. These conversations have tended to go in one of two directions, at least here in China: he’s an unparalleled knave or he is a refreshingly honest non-politician.
While traveling in Russia, the conversation becomes even more dicey because of the plotlines that have become part Jack Reacher novel and part World Wrestling Entertainment soap opera. Riding in an Uber in Moscow, the conversation with my driver, Alexander, inevitably comes back to Trump. And while we agree on some things and disagree on many others, by the middle of the ride we both agreed that though Russia might feel a certain way about Trump or the American government, it’s feelings towards Americans are quite separate. And just the same, I reiterated that though many Americans are critical of the Russian government (as well as their own government), our feelings towards the Russian people are not and should not be colored by this.
Part of traveling while American is that you will inevitably field these questions from others. And though it can at times be irritating to seemingly answer on behalf of all of America, the reality is that I think the intention behind this curiosity is that there is no substitute for what someone tells you in person about their thoughts and beliefs. For better or worse, Trump happens to be the biggest rock making the largest splash in the pond. And because of that, American expats are thrust into the role of political pundits perhaps more now than we have ever seen with any presidency.
Does that mean we are obligated to give our opinions and get into long discussions with others just because they’re curious about American politics? Certainly not. Especially if these conversations are likely going into an area of disagreement or conflict, there is always an assessment that takes place (at least for me): “Is this person truly interested in hearing my opinion? Is this the right time and place for this discussion?” For many expats it can be a struggle to find a like-minded support system of friends while abroad. This is even more the case if you live in an isolated area without many other expats. And when one is just traveling, the stakes are even higher. If I’m in a new country for the first time, I’m not so interested in having a political debate. I want the trip to go smoothly and I want to seek out commonality more than differences. So even though Alexander and I might’ve disagreed on a few things, we both knew that we were in this long car ride together and that we needed to make the best of it. At the end, I shook his hand and gave him five stars. I think he gave me the same.

About the Column

Luke Lee

Luke is a mental health counselor from Seattle, Washington in the United States. He moved to Suzhou in 2016 and currently works as the Psychological Counselor for international students at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Though his current position consists of counseling students, Luke also enjoys working with couples, parents and families. Previously Luke worked in the Kurdish region of Iraq and in private practice in Seattle. In his spare time Luke enjoys cooking, meeting new people, playing board games and traveling to different countries.

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