Meditations on the ups and downs of studying abroad during the Trump presidency
Studying abroad in the midst of Donald Trump’s presidency feels like sitting in a lifeboat floating away from a sinking ship: it’s incredibly relieving and painfully exasperating at the same time. Don’t get me wrong—I’m relieved to be removed from the ship. But, the fact that I can still see the rest of the passengers (that’s you guys) thrashing around in a frenzied effort to save both the ship and themselves has impaired my relief quite a bit. Before I go any further with this metaphor I would like to extend a disclaimer: now that I have studied abroad I am positively worldly and own a variety of aged Spanish leather boots and have dined lavishly with the Queen of England. That being said, I am allowed to draw very gruesome and only slightly accurate metaphors, and no one can question me. I’m abroad for lord’s sake.
In any case, being abroad in 2018 is a uniquely contradictory experience—I (and many other students I’ve spoken with at my study abroad foundation in Toledo, Spain) feel both completely removed from and entirely suffocated by America’s maelstrom of political issues. We are lucky enough to have evacuated the sinking ship—if temporarily. But, certain factors (social media, for example) keep our eyes fixed on the condemned vessel and its ill-fated passengers as we float away from the chaos.
The internet, needless to say, makes it almost impossible to fully divorce oneself from Trump’s America. As much as I’d love to pretend that I, a study abroad intellectual, am totally immersed in my host culture and wholly amputated from my homeland—the rude and constant CNN push notifications sent to my phone never fail to suture me right back onto America and its troubles. Even if I turn the notifications off, memes about the government shutdown or Trump’s love affair with Vladimir Putin wind up on my Twitter or Instagram feed, delivering me harsh reminders of what I left behind in America. To completely forget about the U.S., one would need to go completely off the grid.
As convenient as it would be to pretend America doesn’t exist right now, I just can’t.
Luckily (or incredibly unluckily) for me, I actually did spend about a month of my study abroad trip off the grid. You see, although I assure you I am very sophisticated and urbane as a result of my time spent in Europe, I am nonetheless far too stubborn to purchase a screen protector for my iPhone. Thus, after using said phone to break my fall when I tripped in a rocky area (inadvisable), I absconded from the grid indefinitely.
However, even unplugged from the matrix, I simply could not avoid the shipwreck of American politics. It isn’t just the internet that prevents total separation from America—Europeans bring up our situation rather habitually. Upon telling people we’re from the United States, my study abroad colleagues and I are routinely pelted with the question: “So what do you think of Trump?” My colleague Angel was asked this question in the Parisian underground, Sheridan was asked in a restaurant in Porto, Hannah in a nightclub in Madrid, and Trevor in a hostel in Switzerland. The question is unavoidable. We, being refined and clever study abroad students, of course, answer in fluent French and quote Chomsky several times, making intricate and well-thought-out arguments in defense of our beautiful homeland: the land of the free.
Kidding, of course…
I myself normally respond with a nervous laugh and an “I’m sorry, I didn’t vote for him.” Hannah responds with an exaggerated pout and a thumbs down. Trevor is tired of responding.
When we aren’t being blatantly confronted about Trump, we are assaulted by his image. At a Carnaval parade in Nice, France in mid-February, two colleagues and I were accosted by a giant parade float depicting the The Donald as a monstrous combination of Godzilla and Dracula—his hulking gorilla body and vampire teeth rolling towards us at a menacing 5 miles an hour. As the float approached, it was met by raucous cheers and cries along the lines of “screw Trump!” (I’m inferring from context here—don’t speak a word of French). Europeans, it seems, can’t help but comment on the shipwreck across the pond.
Even in my home away from home in Toledo (is nothing sacred?), I am confronted with American political issues. They come up when I’m with my Spanish language interchange partner, Cristina, with whom I meet up once a week to practice my Spanish and she her English (I recently taught her the wonderful English vocabulary word “mansplaining”—she loves it). Cristina describes Donald Trump with almost exasperated confusion, remarking that she thinks of him more as a “cartoon character” or TV personality than a politician. And she’s not alone—while eavesdropping on a conversation between a Dutch man and an Indian man in a coffee shop in Amsterdam I managed to pick out the phrases “you’re fired,” “The Apprentice,” and “angry orange man.”
Cristina, a Madrid native but current Toledo resident, is also a bit confused when it comes to American gun control laws. Spain, you see, has far more restrictive firearm regulations than us patriots. Guns are considered to be more of a privilege than a right here in Spain, and Cristina was utterly shook by the fact that Americans couldn’t manage to reach an agreement regarding the augmentation of gun control laws, especially in the wake of the Parkland shooting. In a similar vein, my colleague Angela (a U of M student like myself) was once asked the chilling question: “You’re from America, don’t you have a gun?”
So, you see, it really is nigh impossible to turn away from the sinking ship, even if you are clumsy and too stubborn to own a screen protector. However, though we enlightened study abroad-ers can indeed see the ship all too well, we remain just far enough away from it that we can’t quite see everything going on over there.
For example, one industrious study abroad scholar, Sheridan Macy, was away from her mother campus, Nebraska-Lincoln, during an uproar caused by an unapologetic and exceptionally outspoken neo-Nazi on campus who posted several white supremacist and anti-gay videos online. Sheridan was exasperated by this issue as well by her own powerlessness in the matter. She found it remarkably difficult to get news about what was going on.
“A lot of the information I would get here [in Spain] was delayed by days or incomplete, so I honestly still am not entirely sure what happened,” she said.
“You’re from America, don’t you have a gun?”
Sheridan also found it very challenging to engage in activism surrounding the issue.
“I would’ve liked to be able to attend the rallies on campus and try to show support to the people he was attacking,” she said.
Here, then, lies another frustration of being abroad right now. We get to hear snippets of what’s going on at home—many of which prove no less than upsetting—but we can’t do anything about them.
Study abroad students are not allowed to engage in political protest while abroad. We get regular emails reminding us. The U.S. Embassy advised me last week to “avoid the areas of the demonstrations” in Barcelona. The week before, we were advised to “use caution” in Madrid, where protests against U.S., Russian, and Turkish policy in Afrin, Syria were underway. Of course, we are advised not to engage in the protests for our own safety, but even so it’s hard not to feel a bit stifled. As you all make valiant efforts to prevent our ship from sinking, I am fated to sit and watch.
People tend to think studying abroad would be a relief. Europe: the magical and faraway oasis where one can forget about their troubles back home. And, in a way, it is. Europe is removed from the US by a literal ocean of space, and it’s certainly relieving to have that distance. It’s also pretty nice to walk outside and not see “Make America Great Again” hats on the heads of my peers, but now I’m being nitpicky.
In any case, distance from America definitely has its ups and downs. Seeing as I’m such a liberated and self-sufficient study abroad student, you might not guess that I actually have several connections to the United States. My family and many of my friends still reside on the sinking ship and, however independent I may be, I can’t just turn the other cheek and ignore issues that affect people who I care about. As convenient as it would be to pretend America doesn’t exist right now, I just can’t. Our culture is almost scarily pervasive in Europe, and American politics permeate the soil on both sides of the Atlantic whether I like it or not.
In sum, the last thing I want is to leave you all thinking that we study abroad kids are over here drinking tinto de verano on posh yachts while America sinks, because that’s just not how it is. I mean, I won’t lie, we are drinking the tinto—but we haven’t turned our backs on America. We see the news stories, we get the updates, and we recognize the struggle. We may be gone, but we certainly have not forgotten.