Traveling as an American Under a Trump Presidency

This post is mildly political (as in one chili pepper on the salsa jar mild), but if you don’t want to think about politics or the election, this is your warning to stop reading now.

Since the election, I have found myself thinking about what it will be like to be an American traveling abroad with a President Trump. For all of my international travel experiences, except one, it has been under President Obama. (And even for that trip in 2007 it was the transition of power in Britain, not our own government, that caused us problems. With several thwarted terrorist attacks across the UK during the days we were in London, it was quite a time to be there.) Whatever your personal opinion of President Obama, he was loved abroad which made it so much easier to be an American abroad.

I think back to some of the experiences I had in Africa. President Obama had just visited a month or two before I arrived and left a legacy of goodwill towards Americans. Let me share one of my favorite stories (I always thought this is the story I would share with President Obama if I had the pleasure of meeting him).

My friend and I decided to take a trip to Benin for a few days. On our way back crossing the border from Benin to Togo, we had to fill out some paperwork. As we were filling out our paperwork, one of the immigration officers grabbed my friend’s left hand, ripped it away from her paper and held it up. Unsure about what was happening, we gave each other this terrified look. We knew one thing. Using your left hand is not done in polite society because it is associated with “unclean” things. In some circles and social situations it is highly insulting. For example, you would never wave hello to someone with your left hand – that would be an insult. (Even seven years later, when I do raise my left hand to wave, I experience a bewildering moment of panic until I realize that I still unconsciously carry this association.) Remembering that my friend is left-handed and was using her left hand to fill out her papers, my mind started racing. In Benin, the language spoken is French. Based on our experiences the past few days and during a previous trip to Togo, I knew my French was at a level sufficient only to keep us from starving and from living on the streets. It was not sufficient for calmly, rationally, and diplomatically explaining that this was merely a cultural misunderstanding and that my friend did not mean to insult this officer or anyone else. Struggling to translate the words in my head in preparation, we braced ourselves for the worst. Sternly and in English, he said, “You are left-handed…”. We stood there cringing. Then his expression changed. A smile crept across his face and exclaimed excitedly, “…like Obama!”. I think the whole room heard us sigh and laugh with anxious relief. We spent the next few minutes chatting with this officer and his colleague who were, after all, very friendly.

In a place where people excitedly greeted you with the word, “Obama”, comic books portrayed a young Barack in the likeness of a young Clark Kent and you could buy any piece of merchandise with Obama’s likeness (watches, flip flops, you name it), the goodwill towards Americans because of Obama was palatable. This was one instance of many where the simple fact that Obama was president made our travels easier.

A sign in Cape Coast, Ghana for Obama's visit in 2009.

A sign in Cape Coast, Ghana for President Obama’s visit in 2009.

In all of my travels, people have asked me about politics – where I stand on international politics and my personal opinion of the president. That’s not going to change. What may change is that underlying feeling of goodwill and the epithets used to describe our president or my fellow Americans, which, depending on how it goes could be the same profane epithets I encountered abroad used to describe President Bush.

In the days since the election, I have been surprised by the responses I have received from non-Americans who have discussed it with me. Knowing that I am American, many would cautiously ask, “How do you feel about the election?” After I disclosed that I was unhappy with the outcome, they apologized to me. (And I thought I was going to be doing the apologizing!) While most people think the outcome is absurd, they aren’t shocked. We are just in another global cycle of nationalism, like before World War II, they say, suggesting that while concerning, this was inevitable (thanks, that’s really comforting). Others say, it is just like Brexit – people want change and they thought this was the only way to make that change happen. Most have said that while the president of the United States has monumental impacts across the globe (to the point where it was suggested to me that the role was too important and too impactful on a global scale for the decision to be left to Americans alone…to which I was surprised that for how open and international and “enlightened” I think I am, my inner Uncle Sam was like, “Now wait just a minute…”), they believe in our system of checks and balances and don’t think that he can really do that much damage. Others still, especially from countries much older than our own, said that every country takes their turn with bad leaders and if he turns out to be one, it will be okay. (Completely unrelated, but equally interesting was one comment about the US/Russian relations. Having grown up in the Cold War, they just couldn’t fathom this new close relationship between Trump and Putin. After all this time and everything that happened, this would be the next chapter in that story.)

The most comforting words have come from my classmates who don’t blame me personally for whatever may come next (and have kindly offered to welcome me to their countries…). Because of this, I don’t think I’ll need to fear for my safety while traveling in the near future. However, I will need to be ready to articulately discuss this election and Trump’s subsequent policies. As much as I am ready for it to be over (and not just because of the outcome, but because as an Iowan for whom the election started in what, like 2013 (?), I have been ill with “election fatigue” for some time and I’d like to have permission to think about something else for awhile), but as an American abroad I am a spokesperson for our country and I think that will be truer now than ever before.