Life as an American expat in the year 2020. Photo Credit: Canva/Corduroy Graphics
I recently just passed my one year anniversary of moving abroad from the US. It’s only been 365 days, yet it’s felt like a lifetime and a half. I never imagined that my first year abroad would be so dramatic. Of course, going into it, I knew it was an election year and things back home would get interesting. Little did I know that the election would be the mere tip of the iceberg for this crazy, crazy year.
In September 2019, I packed my bags and headed off for a year living and working in New Zealand. I did it to get away from a job that I felt stuck at, in a city that I had grown to resent. I knew I wanted to travel and discover a new path, and New Zealand offered an easy option to do just that.
The past year, personally, has been wonderful. I reignited my love for nature, met an amazing guy, and settled into a new routine. Life would be all but idyllic if it weren’t for the ugly, brewing storm hanging above my head.
That storm is the burning dumpster fire that is the US.
As I watch the US burn, both metaphorically and literally, I can’t help but feel a growing sense of dread. I’m constantly anxious about the news I see unfold in front of me. From the protests to the pandemic, nothing is all right and there is little I can do to change it.
Last month, I watched two important political debates. One was the first US presidential debate, and the other was the New Zealand Leaders debate. Both got heated and had plenty of mudslinging, but their approaches differed vastly. The New Zealand debate, held between two women, was argumentative at times, but ultimately respectful. The candidates were poised, collected, and knew their policy issues well. The US debate between two old men, on the other hand was, well, a shitshow. It was filled with vile insults, talking over one another, and very little truth.
Here in New Zealand, we have leaders that are strong in the face of adversity, that truly and genuinely want what’s best for everyone, and even when they disagree they never stoop to the lowest of lows. There, the leaders cower under political pressure, do anything to line their pockets with more money, and forget that they serve us, the people. No place or political system is perfect. Moving abroad has solidified that idea in my mind. But from where I’m standing, the US is not only far from perfect, it’s barely passing.
When I moved here last year, Trump was already president and had been for nearly three years at that point. To New Zealand, and much of the rest of the world, he’s a joke. To Americans, he’s a threat.
I think most Americans living abroad feel thrust in this weird PR position where we simultaneously have to defend ourselves, and disregard our country. I’m sure this has been the case for the last thirty (or more) years, but it feels especially awful right now.
“Not everyone wants this,” I find myself saying when people point out our terrible healthcare, education system, or gun laws.
“It’s more complicated than that,” I argue when friends bring up that “we” voted for him. Trying to explain the broken electoral college system, the low voter turnout, and the general apathy among young voters is hard.
“There are some great things there too,” I comment when people say they never want to visit the US. I understand wholeheartedly where that sentiment comes from, but it still makes me sad.
Because at the end of day, I truly do think there are some amazing things to experience in the US. The rolling hills and sandy beaches. The delicious, messy BBQ of the south. The hustle and drive of cities like Chicago and NYC. The nightlife and music scenes in places like New Orleans or Memphis. The long stretches of the West where you can go for hundreds of miles without seeing a soul. And the people that are there for their neighbors and complete strangers, no matter their differences.
I still am connected in so many ways to the US. I love so much of it. From the national parks and the vast landscapes to my friends and family who still call it home, it will always be who I am. And there is still plenty I can do from afar. I can donate to organizations I believe will bring about change. I can write articles that share my opinions. I can vote. But I can’t be there for anyone. Not physically. I can’t show up at rallies, or donate my time to help anyone affected by racial injustices or COVID or wildfires spurred by climate change. And that makes it hard.
Tomorrow is Election Day. Even though we probably won’t know the true results for a while, I’ll be watching from a pub with other American expats. I imagine the mood will be somber, with us drowning our sorrows in ridiculously overpriced beer (a true problem in New Zealand) at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon. But we’ll be together–thinking, hoping, and (maybe) praying for a good outcome and a peaceful November back in our home land.
I chose a strange time to move abroad.