Monday, November 10, 2008
On Symbols and Elections
One of the less fun things about living overseas is that you often find yourself becoming a symbolic representative of your home country. Suddenly, regardless of what you may think of the political situation back home, people around you hold you personally responsible for the current administration’s shenanigans. Having moved to France in 2000, right at the beginning of the Bush regime, I have experienced more than my share of barely suppressed sneers, wary looks, and borderline hostility when I happen to mention that I am American. It was particularly ugly around the beginning of the war in Iraq; in recent years, with Bush’s popularity sinking to ever new lows, the mood changed and lately I’ve been allowed a second chance despite the color of my passport.
It really did get old after a while. At first you'd get all fired up and work up a good 10-minute speech whenever someone gave you that accusing look, including lots of phrases like “hey, I didn’t vote for him” and “you mustn’t believe that all Americans are behind that idiot.” But then you just got weary. You'd see the entire conversation coming a mile off and all you really wanted to do is go home and eat some Oreos (if you could find them). It all seems so silly. How can any halfway intelligent person really believe that you represent 260 million people? And yet they do. America is so much more than a country to people overseas. It’s a myth. It’s really hard to convince people that it is, in fact, populated by real human beings and not characters in an action film. A friend of mine who has been living here for some 20 years got so sick of this conversation that when people asked her what she thought of Bush, she just gave them a devilish look and responded “I think his ears are really sexy.” I’m not sure what this did for her social life, but it certainly stopped the conversation cold.
Thank God, Buddha, Vishnu and who ever else is up there, Bush is gone and Obama is, miraculously, moving into the White House in January. Aside from being stunned that we managed to elect a inspiring leader who seems to really care about regular folk, Obama’s election comes as a huge relief to me: not only can I finally feel proud to be an American again, but I also no longer feel pressure to apologize or explain every time I mention my nationality. It’s barely been a week since the elections, and already I sense an attitude change over here; now everyone who knows I’m American wants to congratulate and celebrate with me. This is really nice and a welcome change, but it does make you wonder…after all, I’m still the same person I was before November 4. For that matter so are 260 million other Americans. But now that there is a good guy in the White House, suddenly we are all good guys. Does this really make sense? I know this election was all about change, but have we as people really changed? Now there’s a question that I can’t even begin to answer, and that is best reserved for more qualified political observers, like Frank Rich, who wrote a great column on the subject (and the election in general)in the New York Times, "It Still Felt Good the Morning After."