In the Peace Corps, we are not supposed to discuss politics. Not local ones, not ones back home.
In the most neutral of times at my site in Barranquilla, Colombia, this can be difficult: what to do when a local insists that the United States caused the Holocaust? Or that 9/11 was God’s punishment for US sins? Or when a certain Secret Service scandal that happened just hours away from my site incites rants regarding US morality and hypocrisy, etc?
My usual reaction is to remain silent, and hope that my presence counteracts a few stereotypes.
Of course, it’s a whole new ballgame during election season.
Colombia, like many parts of the world, followed the US race avidly for months. On November 6th, Election Day, the South American version of CNN followed the election as closely as North American CNN. National newspapers used the US election as their cover spread, and of course everyone wanted to know—who did I vote for?
A little personal background—a creative writing major, I am your typical oblivious bookworm. I have a tendency to ignore politics as easily as college science classes or current modes of fashion. In the Peace Corps, lacking my long-established NPR routine (morning alarm radio station, daily commute companion), I have not kept up much of a global news context.
However, as a member of the Peace Corps, I’ve found myself in the position of being not just a representative of US culture, but of the US government as well. Which means that here, in the eyes of my community, I answer for every aspect of the US government.
As an American overseas, it’s easy to be whatever sort of American I wish to be. I can laud the general “American way of life” while pretending the problematic doesn’t exist; I can claim any element of culture and reject whatever. There’s a good chance whichever policy or custom I don’t like doesn’t currently affect me, and as far as my views on culture and custom—who is any non-American to tell me I’m wrong?
There is a danger in this, however, for both personal and perhaps moral reasons as well. In this past year abroad, I’ve gained an intense appreciation of American privilege; despite America’s flaws, the freedom and autonomy US citizens have inside and beyond US borders is incredible. Never underestimate the privilege it is to be able to obtain a visa for just about any country as easy as signing your name. I knew that whatever president was elected, this would still the America I would be able to claim. As may any US citizen. There must be, then, some responsibility attached.
Following the US elections from a global perspective was an eye-opening experience. Consider the enormity of the United States. So it’s obviously huge, the landmass is visible on any map–but until someone versed only in Hollywood-derived knowledge starts asking questions on American culture, and until a Californian, Wisconsinite, Texan, Floridian and New Yorker are all in the same room trying to answer and explain–the cultural implications of America’s vastness don’t completely hit home.
How would one even begin, in this context, an informed discussion of politics and their implications? And yet America—despite being big enough to hold ten countries, and encompassing innumerable separate cultures, mindsets, beliefs, habits, customs—remains one country. A country that, despite deeply ingrained regional, geographic, and demographic differences must come together under one, unified government. A country that, whether individual citizens like it or not, and whatever its global influence now or in the future, truly is watched by the world.
I may not have the most educated answers for those who ask me about American politics, but I’ve learned it’s not something I can ignore, or pretend doesn’t affect me. Ultimately, many issues that were discussed for elections weren’t simply ones over which to choose an American leader. They are issues that affect communities all over the world, and issues in which we as global individuals have a voice beyond a single, US-presidential vote. I can only hope that we, myself included, keep a little awareness with us as we continue on; that we remember that it’s not just the US that must stay united or fall, but the entire world.