Monday, November 28, 2016

Citizen


I have recently been granted French citizenship. After 15 years of full-time residency, I am, at last, “French.” My relationship with France is a long and winding road, and one that I will most definitely muse at length about in a future post. However, in the wake of recent political events, I find myself not nearly so preoccupied with becoming French as I am with being American at this gray dawn of the Trump era.

Living abroad is in many ways an existential balancing act; it forces us expatriates to reflect long and hard on who we are in relation to where we were born. We must each wrestle with what the notion of citizenship truly means; we must each try to understand the extent to which the national identity of our home country is interwoven with our own identity as an individual.

What makes me a representative of my native land? What traits and beliefs do I have that reflect my nationality? Am I proud of them or am I embarrassed by them? Do I want to own them, or do I want to purposely shed them in order to more seamlessly blend into the social fabric of my adopted country? If I shed them, what will remain?

These are but a few of the questions that I have faced since first setting foot in Paris as a student nearly two decades ago. And while I imagined that obtaining French citizenship would incite me to re-examine them, the US presidential election is what truly has me mulling over questions of national versus personal identity and realizing that, even after having spent most of my adult life in France, I am more attached to my identity as an American than I thought.

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a patriot, for what kind of patriot becomes so smitten by a foreign country that she chooses to move there forever? But I do love a great many things about America, and have never consciously tried to distance myself from my roots. I believe that one can fully immerse oneself in a foreign society without losing one’s unique sense of self. I have tried to the best of my abilities to reconcile French and American culture, to be proud of my origins while embracing the customs and traditions of my adopted home.

I moved to France shortly after the election of George W. Bush, which was my first major political disappointment—and may have subconsciously confirmed my decision that it was time to go abroad. Ever since, I have in some small way considered myself an ambassador; it is my duty to counter the ugly stereotypes so often held about Americans, particularly by Europeans. Barack Obama’s presidency made that task infinitely easier, and I was very much looking forward to proudly proclaiming that the United States had elected its first female president—and a damn fine one at that. Alas, fate decided otherwise; now, rather than celebrating America’s progress, millions of us are shocked and sickened, wondering what can possibly have happened to the country we thought we knew. I am beyond disillusioned; I am in mourning. I mourn what might have been; I mourn what surely will be. I mourn Obama’s legacy and I mourn Hillary’s. I feel as though there has been a death in the family.

We as a people—my people—looked at this foolish man, this coward, this liar, this con artist extraordinaire, this vulgar celebrity, this cruel bully who mocks the disabled, this spiteful demagogue who feeds on racism, this male chauvinist who thinks of women as subservient playthings—and after acknowledging all that, we still chose him. Every evil thing that he represents, every heinous word and deed that he has said and done—none of that made him ineligible for the White House. We let it all pass; we condoned everything we owed it to ourselves to reject. We gave a voice to our worst instincts: hatred, jealousy, paranoia, violence. We betrayed the spirit of our own Constitution, we failed our fellow man, and we spat in the face of all that we as a nation should—nay, must—embody if we are to go about claiming any sort of moral authority. By choosing to elect this singularly inept, unworthy figure to our highest office, or at the very least doing nothing to stop him, we have deliberately blown our own national myth to pieces. For if we can allow this foul man to become our leader, despite the fact that he incarnates all of the things we pride ourselves on not being, then what does that say about our values and ideals?

People ask me why I’m so upset over “just an election,” especially as an expatriate. And I must admit that the visceral nature of my own reaction has come as a surprise even to myself. But the answer is actually quite simple: this election goes far beyond a country choosing its new chief executive; this election is a statement to the world about who we are as Americans—and the person of Donald Trump is at odds with everything I most cherish about America and everything I believe about myself as an American.

Despite appearances, I don’t ruminate non-stop about this; there are wide swaths of time in which I’m focused on other things: work, errands, my family and in particular my two small children. But gazing into their big, bright eyes, the significance of this electoral outcome hits me again like a sucker punch to the heart. How could we? For the love of everything that is good and decent and just, how could we do this to our own country, to each other? To Barack Obama, who has gone gray striving for positive change? To Hillary Clinton, who has spent her entire public life working to make a difference, who was born to shatter that cursed glass ceiling?

I suppose what it all boils down to is this: living abroad has taught me to see America in a new light, and that light is often an unflattering one. Nevertheless, the aura of America, all that we as a nation have historically done right, all that we continue to do so well: these things matter. They matter to me. But by electing Donald Trump as President, right on the heels of our first African American, we have confirmed the sad truth of what the European community has been saying all along, but which I was always loathe to hear: America is indeed capable of the best, but it is every bit as capable of the worst. We tamed the West, but we also committed genocide against the Native Americans; we liberated Paris, but we also bombed northern France to smithereens; we spend billions of dollars on foreign aid every year, but we spend far, far more on war.

We Americans are often criticized for trumpeting our virtues while glossing over our sins, and while I like to think that living abroad has made me more lucid about this dichotomy, less apt to blindly accept our own propaganda, less naively patriotic, in my heart I still believe that America is special. I still believe that we are a uniquely optimistic people, a creative people, a decent, hardworking people. I believe in the American Dream. But America has just reminded the world, yet again, that that dream only exists to the extent that we believe in it—and believing in it just got a whole lot harder.