During our recent travels abroad, I noticed myself embarrassed to be an American. There are reasons I have felt this way earlier in my life, when I spent time abroad in the early 2000’s, but this past year, with the US under the Trump administration, the feeling was way more pronounced.
When walking in the streets in cities in Spain, France, Morocco, and Georgia, I had to ask my daughter June to keep her chattering down so people wouldn’t hear us talking in American-accented English. I thought that if they knew we were American, they would judge us harshly, making our way less pleasant and possibly even unsafe. When I was mistaken several times for a European traveler because of my appearance and language abilities, I was flattered and relieved.
I had a few conversations with people on our trip about President Trump that were characterized mostly by disbelief on both sides, mixed with disappointment on their side and shame on mine. The disbelief was: how could a great nation like the United States have elected a leader who goes against so many of its most cherished values?
When I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan, Togo, and Benin, a big part of our work, explicit or not, was to be good representatives of America. The other volunteers and I grew indignant when faced with the ingrained systems of corruption in some of these places, indignant at the promotion of people based on money and bribes rather than merit. We explained to host country locals that in the US, things really were different. We didn’t bribe our way into getting good grades or a good job, we earned them. Elections were fair and based on principles, rather than blind support for who had the most money. Americans lived in a land of free speech, and functioning democracy. Of tolerance, diversity, and open-mindedness.
Returning to Azerbaijan a decade later, with Donald Trump as president, I felt a bit like I was coming back with my tail between my legs. I have contacts from this Muslim country who, before, would have been excited at the chance to come to the US to work or study, but now, don’t even want to try to apply for a visa—the welcoming promised land that was America now seems a scary, irrational, even dangerous land.
Looking back at L. Robert Kohls’s “The Values Americans Live By,” which was helpful to me adjusting to other cultures as a Peace Corps volunteer, it seems that the Trump era has further elevated the American values of materialism, individualism, and informality, at the expense of honesty and equality. I feel like the “squash the weaker, ridicule the smarter” mentality that seems to be coming from his administration is having deleterious effects on the efforts of people in other countries to make the kind of positive changes for which the US was formerly a role model.
With the elections coming up, I can only hope that Americans will reconnect with their hearts and brains to elect a leader who is not an embarrassment to the best qualities of our nation.