Being an American Abroad

I’ve been living with the emotional push and pull that is being a U.S. Citizen abroad while the U.S. makes international headlines daily. It has been exhausting. I go to work and have students, coworkers, and friends looking to me for explanation as if I had some sort of control or special insight. They forget that the only extra knowledge I have is a native fluency in English and a cultural awareness of why we have certain laws/celebrations. But, I’m still expected to be all-knowledgable and sometimes my responses aren’t what they want to hear.

Yesterday, my heart broke. It broke into tiny pieces that scattered in a million directions.

I sat in my apartment trying my best to procrastinate my professorial duties. The day was spent washing the floor, cleaning out the excess ice from the freezer, and refreshing Twitter as updates rolled in.

There are no words for the empty feeling that evaded my stomach, the wave of relief that everyone I knew woke up on Monday morning, and the disbelief at the reality that I personally have driven across the country and internationally to attend indoor/outdoor country music festivals and it could have so easily been me, somewhere else.

I tell you the thoughts that ran through my head only to put you in my place. I was not looking to discuss or explain the gun laws that I hardly understand. I was not hoping to be criticized and I was not at all prepared for the way people would bombard me with questions and opinions. I, for one, growing up around guns and hunting, was still trying figure out the mixed emotions raging through me. I was not interested in someone else’s opinion.

But yet, I sat on the cold floor waiting for my French class to start, enjoying the functioning wifi, as the man next to me looks over and starts up a conversation in Portguese.

“You’re the American, right?”

“I am.”

“So what do you think about what happened.”

My mind was groggy with sleep, heavy with allergies, and I will always be one of those people that wakes up no longer feeling the emotions of the previous day…until I am reminded.


…blank stares at each others… and then it clicked.

“Oh, Vegas. It was terrible.”

“Why does the U.S. even have guns?”

Here I fall into the trap of knowing people that use guns wisely, of knowing people that use these guns to obtain food that feeds their families over the winter. I don’t see them as inherently bad objects or inherently bad people. My mouth began to word vomit things about different types of guns and cultural things, having felt offended by the question. It wasn’t meant that way, I’m sure…(and it wasn’t like I disagreed with his sentiment) but when you’re the face of all U.S. Citizens it kind of feels like an attack when disbelief rolls off their tongues sounding like disgust, when misunderstanding comes out sounding like hatred.

Our conversation ended abruptly as the professor opened the classroom door and it was one we didn’t resume. However, it left me feeling exposed, under-explained, and as if my response had offended him. I had no words in English to express myself and summarize all of my thoughts and conflicting feelings, how was I supposed to be eloquent in Portuguese…especially when I was supposed to spend the next two hours in French? I left the conversation feeling like I had done the Vegas attack a disservice, like I hadn’t adequately expressed my deeply rooted sadness, disbelief, and frustration at what took place. I felt like I had upset him, appearing to have brushed him off and complied with the arrogant American stereotype.

That is what happens when you are the only American people have access to abroad. You must always be on. You must always be above the stereotypes. You must always be the best representative because you might be the only person from the U.S. they ever meet.

The U.S, as a large and vocal world power, as an exporter of technology and media, will continue to be of interest to global citizens and faced with both criticism and praise. Facing these emotions back to back is a lot to handle. Trying to explain to some people that the U.S. is not perfect, that not everyone is rich (while recognizing that the dollar goes a lot farther in other locations), and validating the greatness of the country where you are, can be frustrating. It can be equally as frustrating to then have to turn to the next person and explain that the U.S. is not the worst place, that although it has flaws, the citizens are wonderful (while recognizing that not all people are treated fairly and not all people are kind and thoughtful), and that Americans aren’t the arrogant, obese, idiots that the rest of the world expects.