Living in a Trumped-Up World: Tips for American Travelers
I was sitting in my favorite café in a rural city of southern Taiwan on a smoggy afternoon. As a long-term traveler and English teacher, I had come to know this particular café because they always remember my “foreign taste” does not like MSG on my dishes. The restaurant, usually filled with chatter and shouting children, spoke in hushed tones. We watched transfixed as the electorate college bumped Trump’s electoral votes from 169 to 204, and then on to 216. We watched in dead silence as his numbers jumped to 244, making his win all but inevitable.
I wanted Hillary to win this Presidency more than anything else. As a woman, I had never felt more personally invested in an election. I cried bitter tears watching Clinton apologize to her supporters for the loss. For me, Tuesday’s results marked an unexpected, painful, and breathtaking blast to a past I thought we’d never have to see. I am still dealing with the unabated shame that comes from one’s country confirming its deep racial bias and foreign hatred, and I suspect I will be long after the new President-Elect takes office in January 2017.
As I sat in what seemed like a Twilight Zone, I was even more shocked to realize that multiple Taiwanese eyes met mine. It was as if the entire restaurant had turned to stare at my shock; as if to confirm the hatred they had just seen on the news would personify before them. This begs the question: how do we American travelers represent our country in a time of global and political upheaval? How do we explain the hatred and the fear mongering in a way that explains, yet does not condone? This is something I’ve been forced to think about as I have traveled around rural and urban Asia lately. The United States is currently at an apex of discord, and this creates a unique situation for its citizens traveling abroad. Travelers are, whether they wish to admit it or not, representatives of their respective countries. As of this week, it is even more crucial for Americans abroad to act with decency, patience, and cultural understanding. With these small steps, we can begin to heal our tarnished image and hearts.
Don’t assume locals want to argue with you, because they probably don’t
If you are an American, you know that this race was likely the most bitter in our country’s history. Friends became enemies, people were fired for their political beliefs, and even families disowned each other. It can be so easy to feel a knee-jerk reaction to correct statements made by the people you meet on the road, but I encourage you to abstain from these. It’s far more likely people are curious to get your perspective. Take a deep breath, and then another, before getting angry. In my experience, America’s divisions are not as profoundly shared in other parts of the world, so high levels of anger are not (nor ever) really necessary.
Make it clear that you know the USA has problems, like any other country
This election was bruising but humbling. The USA is now coming to terms with the fact that our deep societal and racial divide are problems that have festered for too long. If you say you understand this, you will appear more gracious.
Explain and share in terms you are comfortable with
You are by no means obliged to explain the electoral college, or globalization, race relations or the plight of rural America. However, giving some kind of explanation indicates that Americans are still open to dialogue with others. You don’t need to go into specifics, but some explanation is better than none.
Take extra precautions to practice cultural respect
We just elected a leader who wants to ban an entire religion. In addition to explaining that not everyone agrees with this course of action, please use your actions to indicate otherwise. If you visit a mosque, take off your shoes. If you are in at a Chinese wedding, don’t wear red unless you’re the bride. Take care to understand and respect your environment because you are now, more than ever, under a microscope of curiosity.
I returned to the same café later this week. I sat at the same table, and held a conversation with a woman who kept asking me to explain “just how exactly” was Trump able to win the election. I walked away tired, but happy that I remained open to discussion because I knew that even one small conversation can renew relationships.