(Part of the Africa series)
When your nation has the world’s largest economy, the most powerful military force ever assembled, and amazing companies like Disney, Apple, and the World Wrestling Federation, people around the world pay attention to what you do. And when you elect a man like Donald Trump president, the reactions around the world are all over the board. So it was with some trepidation that I set out on this trip, suspecting that by spending eleven weeks outside the United States I might encounter one or two non-Americans, and that they might have questions about the Donald.
And they might blame me for him.
Whenever we take students overseas, we have ‘the talk’ before we leave. No, not that talk. We have the talk where we try to help them understand the “Ugly American” stereotype. We tell them that Americans have a reputation around the world for being bossy, loud, and self-centered, and so as travelers we need to go out of our way not to reinforce that stereotype. Not surprisingly, now that we have a president who is slightly bossy, loud, and self-centered, and who has already said rude things about all of our enemies and most of our allies, non-Americans are eager to talk to talk about it.
Two of our African adventures consisted of groups that looked a bit like the United Nations, and included fellow travelers from exotic locales like Germany, New Zealand, and Northern California. Not surprisingly, they all had an opinion (or several) on this topic. The gentleman from Holland that Laura wrote about a couple of weeks back was still very much up in the air about Trump, giving him the benefit of the doubt for now. One South African man went out of his way to make clear what an amazing, incredible, etc. country America is, before asking why such an amazing, incredible, etc. country could not have found better candidates than the two we chose between last November. We told him most Americans have the same question.
Several people broached the topic very politely, along the lines of, “So…..what about Trump?” and it kind of went from there. One described meeting an American who said she was glad to be out of the US just so she could avoid hearing about it for a few days. Some seemed to have a nagging unease about having someone so mercurial with his hand on “the button,” others expressed confusion about the electoral college, and a couple asked whether impeachment is actually possible, since that was in the news for a little while (I told them it’s pretty unlikely).
So, given all this interest (and my own personal discomfort with the whole debacle) I decided to be proactive, and try to help make peace with the rest of the world, though I suspect some parts of the world will never achieve peace, despite my best efforts at amateur diplomacy.
With that in mind, whenever the time seemed right, I would gently broach the subject, sort of make a joke about it, and apologize for our nation inflicting DT on the world at large. I realize I did not have your permission to apologize for you, but I did anyway, because if you’re not a little embarrassed by this, you should be. Besides, some of you might be those ugly Americans I mentioned, and if so you should be apologizing already.
By far the funniest reaction I got was from an Irish woman. I had just launched into my prepared remarks: “I would like to apologize, on behalf of the United States of America…,” when she cut in and asked, “For which thing?” This response was so quick and so honest that I had to laugh. Being the world’s last real super power is a tough job, and nobody is going to be happy with how we do it. She also told us later that the stereotype of the Irish as heavy drinkers is not just a stereotype, which was pretty funny.
A few days later, we met another couple. After exchanging names and learning that they are from Switzerland, I said, “We’re from the U.S.,” to which the man replied, “It happens.” Wow, for a neutral country, the Swiss are pretty quick on the attack, which explains all those Swiss Army knives. Over the course of several days I got to know him and thoroughly enjoyed traveling with him. He did confirm that such products as Swiss Cheese, Swiss Miss cocoa mix, and Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls (yumm) are not in the least Swiss. I’m not sure Little Debbies are actually even food. Also we decided to start telling people we are Canadian….
Perhaps the most reassuring response we got was from people who told us we shouldn’t feel bad about Trump, because their countries have terrible leaders too. There are some genuine losers in world government, and some horrendous tyrants in Africa. Tour guides are notorious for sharing “interesting anecdotes” which are just a little too good to be true, so we often found ourselves fact-checking what we had heard. Naturally, when our guide told us that Zimbabwe has a 95% unemployment rate, we were skeptical, since that would suggest a basically non-existent economy. So we checked, and it turns out that Zimbabwe has a 95% unemployment rate, and the most common way to spend your life is trying to grow enough vegetables to survive. This is also the country where street vendors try to get $1.00 (US) from you for a set of bank notes the government issued when it was in the process of destroying the economy. These notes are for varying numbers of trillions of dollars. Yes, those are trillions, with a “tr.” The citizens are mostly hoping their president will die, but at age 93 he appears to be immortal, and I suspect his cronies will just carry on after his departure anyway. Great leaders are rare, and leadership is a hard job in the best of circumstances, so our republic will probably survive this latest turn of events. Also if you want to see one, here’s the link, since uploading pictures here is taking several minutes apiece.
One of the more balanced perspectives we heard was from a UK citizen who works in Rwanda in international development. While acknowledging the US’s failures, he believes the world needs a powerful, semi-decent nation to keep things relatively stable and to avoid total anarchy. I don’t know if he’s right, but I like the sound of that, and it makes some sense to me.
As I finish up this post, I am sitting inside a small tent, watching the sun set over the Zambezi river (photo at the top of this post) and listening to hippos bellow and call to each other. Yesterday evening after we made camp, we looked up into the sky and watched a jet airliner cruise by miles above us, and we both had the same reaction: we are currently living in a very different world than the people in that airplane just above our heads. We have no cell service here in our tiny camp, meaning we are effectively isolated from whatever political cataclysm might have occurred, and yet the world spins on despite our lack of availability. It’s a good reminder of our own smallness.
If you didn’t read my post on how much I love America (here) I made the point that traveling abroad always makes me appreciate the US even more, despite its flaws. It hit me after we had been here a few weeks that next month when we make our way back home, America will still be there. Policies may have changed, and new issues will have arisen, but there will not be soldiers patrolling the streets, the dollar will still be valuable, and we will be able to drink water from any tap we encounter without concern. Despite all the political carping from both sides, the fundamental rights we enjoy will remain the same. An American passport is still the gold standard when it comes to world citizenship. I wonder where I put mine…
Epilogue: as I post this from Rwanda, we are back on the grid (a very slow corner of it, as in “AOL dial up slow”), and Trump has fired some more staffers. Our host here, who lived in the US for several years, just laughed when I asked him what people in Rwanda think of the whole thing. “They think he’s crazy,” he said, with a huge grin and a chuckle.
Read more about the madness at MarkAndLauraPhillips.com