“Wherever we go, Coca-Cola’s already been. Americans abroad! Americans abroad!”
Against Me sang that in the 2000s, but I’m living it now. I was hiking around Saba the other day, most of which is a National Park, and kept running into Coke cans everywhere. Litter always bothers me, but litter on this tiny rock in the middle of nowhere just seems wrong. American things are ubiquitous here, living here and calling it “living abroad” feels a little bit like cheating. Everyone speaks English (among other languages), all the food is basically American food, and we use good ole Benjamins as currency. However, there are not many other Americans here. The majority of locals are Saban, from the Caribbean in general (I’ve met Haitians, Dominicans, people from Curacao and many others), or Dutch. There are a few Americans in my class, and a few in other semesters, but the majority of students are Canadian (90- 95%). Even the tourists aren’t from the States; they tend to be dive enthusiasts from all around the globe (just not the USA).
This often puts me in a novel and particularly awkward position. As soon as people find out that I’m American (and from the South) they make a series of unflattering assumptions about me. I must be racist, uneducated and ignorant, Conservative, a Christian fundamentalist, poorly traveled and exceedingly nationalistic.
When they realize that I’m not those things they ask me a lot of beseeching questions:
How did you guys manage to elect George W. Bush twice? And what’s up with “nu-clear”? What is it with all the guns? Why do you HAVE to bear arms? How well is that going for you? What in the hell happened to Trayvon Martin? Is Michelle Bachman a real politician? What are you people doing in Syria? Why do the tea partiers exist? Why don’t you let the gays marry? What’s the deal with the crazy drug laws? Florida? Can you make sense of all the weird shit that happens in Florida? Can you explain your healthcare system? How is that a reasonable system? Why are you guys so xenophobic? Wait, wait, when a school is doing BAD the government gives them LESS money to work with?
These questions continue on and on in an unrelenting onslaught until I want to cry and hide in the corner. The questioners are incredulous. They don’t understand why we (as Americans) allow systems that clearly don’t work to continue. They demand logic and reason and answers I don’t have. I try, as best I can, to explain the things I do know, but that always ends up with me digging an even deeper hole for myself. Once I manage to explain something the questioner then wants to know how we justify them. That’s the part I have no answers for.
Being American and living in the United States of America is great, there’s no doubt about it. Being an American abroad is complicated and confusing. Sometimes it’s embarrassing and sometimes it’s disheartening, but mostly it makes me want to go home and affect change.