This is What it's Like to Be an American Abroad During the Elections

Lauren Salisbury
Lauren Salisbury

A California native, Lauren has worked, taught, and lived in four countries, including the United States, Australia, Spain, and Costa Rica.

This is What it's Like to Be an American Abroad During the Elections

Night falls quickly in Costa Rica. Year round, the sun will be down by 6 pm, pitching your world into a deep blackness that lingers until morning. And in rainy season, which occurs for six months of the year, each night, without fail, comes with a steady dose of drizzling rain.

On one such night while living abroad in Costa Rica, I found myself at the grocery store in the rural town near San Jose that I called my home. The journey from the store to my house involved waiting at a bus stop in the open air, taking the bus ride up a windy mountain road, and then walking for 15 minutes up hill from the final stop to the gate of the complex where I lived.

To save money, I usually didn't take a taxi from the grocery store home, but on this particular night, as the rain poured down hard and my bags of food weighed heavy in my arms, I decided the splurge was worth the easier journey.

I flagged down a taxi and gave him my address. Like most in the town, he spoke no English. We fell into a conversation, and when he heard my accent, he asked me where I was from.

“California,” I replied. “Los Estados Unidos.”

“The United States,” he exclaimed in Spanish, his face lighting up at the name.

“Trump. Trump. Trump.” The name flew from his tongue in rapid-fire succession, as if the repetition was needed to give the name the full weight it deserved.

“Trump is going to be your next President,” he said with the confidence of stating a fact. “He doesn’t like Latinos. He is going to build a wall between Mexico.”

This story from a rural town in Costa Rica happened to me during the primary elections and I knew it would be a long year for many Americans living abroad with a presidential election back home.

The Rest of the World Is More In-tune with American Politics than We Are of Theirs

This is What it's Like to Be an American Abroad During the Elections

Living abroad during an election is an interesting time, to say the least. Anyone who does so is bound to come back with unique stories like mine.

The first thing to know about being overseas during an election is that many people around the world, even in rural, off-the-beat places like the mountains of Costa Rica, the dusty desert of Morocco, or the idyllic beaches of Thailand, know and follow politics in the United States.

Can you name the leader of Sweden, Zimbabwe, or Cambodia? Don’t worry -- I can’t either. But the average Swede knows enough about politics in the United States for the following slogan to work for as an effective marketing campaign for a Swedish restaurant chain called Los Tacos: “Mexican food so authentic Donald Trump would build a wall around it.”

Be prepared that many people you may encounter while living abroad will have a strong opinion about American politics and will want to share them.

Perhaps it's because the United States is the world’s leading economy or because our entertainment industry dominates the global scene. Or perhaps it’s because this election, in particular, feels like a blend of entertainment and politics. Whatever the reason, the fact is that many countries do follow our political system closely, and if you are living overseas during an election, be prepared for this.

Many People Will Want to Share Their Opinion of American Politics With You

This is What it's Like to Be an American Abroad During the Elections

You should also be prepared that many people you may encounter while living abroad will have a strong opinion about American politics, and that, because you are American, many people will want to share their strong opinions with you. If you are sensitive like me, this can be a rough experience.

I studied abroad in Australia during the Iraq War. One of my biggest struggles during the experience was learning to deal with strangers voicing their anger at US policies to me. Time after time, whether in a classroom, city street, or bar, when people heard my accent and learned where I was from, they would voice their upset at me.

Their anger drove my young self to tears a few times, and I often wanted to say, “I’m just a 21-year-old student. Please quit blaming me. It’s not my fault the United States is in a war right now.”

If you encounter such strong opinions while you live abroad during this election season, I hope you will try not to take it personally. Remember that, although our country is a democracy, no one person can cause things to go haywire -- especially, in all likelihood, not you. Often times, people are just upset at what they hear in the news, and they want to voice their opinions. Don’t take it personally.

If you do encounter interactions like this, a good coping strategy is to share your feelings with local friends you trust, other Americans living abroad, or your support network back home. Sharing your feelings with others can help you put things into perspective and feel more connected.

... And You May Not Agree

Unfortunately, along with strong opinions come viewpoints that may conflict with your own. This is something that came up too often for my liking during my life as an expat.

I distinctly remember a trip I took to Portugal while teaching abroad in Spain. I visited Porto right after Congress failed to pass new measures on gun control. I met a group of cool people in my hostel, and we went out to a bar on Rue Galeria de Paris, enjoying the warm night air and a beer. A guy in the crowd started talking to our group, and when he learned I was from the United States, he got in my face and started screaming at me.

What people from other countries read or see in the news may not be your experience of living in the United States.

“What is wrong with you and your country?” he shouted. “Why do you all have to have guns? Why do you have a gun? Why do you value guns more than human life?”

I tried to explain that I was also upset about the vote and that I, in fact, didn't own a gun, but he wouldn’t hear any of it. He only wanted to express his anger to someone who fit the description of the problem.

There Are Many Truths to What Living in the U.S. is Like

Living abroad during the presidential elections

What people from other countries read or see in the news may not be your experience of living in the United States. Because the fact is, there are many truths to what living in the United States is like -- something you're likely learning about your host country as well. We are a large country, after all, with 318 million people. That’s 318 million different perspectives of what it is to be American right now. Yet, in a world of simplifications and generalizations, what you experience to be your truth may not be reflected in what people hear.

If you encounter people who don’t want to listen to your opinion, but just want to shout at you like the man I met in Porto, know that you are not obliged to engage in the conversation. You can stay and present your thoughts, or you can leave. The choice is yours. Don’t ever feel bullied into having to listen to someone else’s thoughts about US politics.

You are not expected to engage in any conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable.

American voters are about to head to the polls in November, and things getting heated. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it's a fact that both political candidates are polarizing figures. Indeed, there’s more political division in our country than there has been for quite some time, and much of the news is extremely negative. Things feel very bleak right now.

I’d like to end with one final story that illustrates that, in the bleakness, the United States is not alone.

I recently traveled to Chile and took a day trip to a lake in the Andes mountain range. I shared lunch and a bottle of wine with a group of fellow travelers around the world. Though we were from different places, we all shared the sentiment that things in our perspective countries were not so good at the moment.

"Drug cartels are getting more and more powerful in Mexico," said a Mexican man in the group.

"Our president is about to be impeached for corruption," the Brazilian said.

"In Chile, we send our corrupt politicians to a hotel that is supposed to be a jail. There is not much justice here," said our Chilean tour guide.

"Well, Trump is our Republican nominee," I said.

At this, we all laughed and took another sip of wine. It was obvious that everyone in the group felt the problems of their own country outweighed those of the others. In uncertainty, fear, and controversy, the United States certainly is not alone. As you live abroad this election year, keep that in mind.

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