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Standing up for America without a leg to stand on

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MARCH 05, 2017

Some mornings, I am simply too tired for French. For the first hour upon waking, I cannot bear to process anything not spoon-fed to me, cannot muster the neural connections to break down the nasal string of vowels I tricked myself into believing two shaky semesters of French at UC Berkeley would prepare me for. By now, two full months in, my host family is used to these occasional mindless mornings — when I schlep into the bustling kitchen, they greet me with a brief “Bonjour!” and return to their routines, Radio France Internationale the soundtrack to their preparation. On these mornings the words that swirl around the kitchen could be Tralfamadorian or Elvish, yet I still cannot help but sit at the red-checked table with antennae raised until what I recognize pierces the fugue. I am waiting for the name I cannot escape even here, halfway across the world, often the only word I can distinguish in my barely conscious haze. “Trump” is unmissable and unnatural — rounded out with the harsh “p” that hurls itself off the French tongue. For me, news from America is almost never good news.

The morning of Jan. 21, the day after the women’s marches that swept the world, that were represented so beautifully in the Bay Area, my home, was hard. I did silly things to feel better — liked legions of Instagram posts, read Buzzfeed listicles about all the signs and demonstrations. To have been across the world from what has been deemed the largest protest in American history was a poking pain and a missed opportunity to channel my disbelief and frustration with our new president. Although I tried my best to harness the bright energy that the walks inspired, there was still shame and frustration in not participating. I couldn’t connect fully to the event — although I listened intently to the coverage on the radio when I woke up, I understood barely half of the French. That morning was hard.

The morning of Feb. 2, the day after the protests against Milo Yiannopoulos’ speaking engagement, was harder. A significant event, one I knew I would’ve taken part in had I been there, had transpired while I was sleeping. Looking at blurry images of Sproul Plaza full of students and community members (a strange and uncomfortable reminder of the traumatising November evening when we witnessed the election results roll in), I didn’t know what to think. I had to trust that the students knew what they were doing — trust my peers without question, despite the nausea I felt seeing the flames in front of the student union. The evening’s events covered my Facebook feed in boldfaced chaos, but in my new French kitchen, even with the radio blasting, I didn’t hear anything about it. To be able to evade the reality by simply stepping away from the computer was surreal and jarring. Yet it also brought a kind of guilty relief. I couldn’t deny the small and ugly part of me that was glad I wasn’t there, glad I was separated from the raw politics that had crept into each discussion with friends and professors, that which had been so hard to deal with the semester before. Sitting so far away, I could pretend I had nothing to do with America and so I had no stake in what happened that night in Berkeley.

Classes are different: people, ever possessed by schadenfreude, are fascinated by the United States’ many misadventures. In my international program, students are often defined by their countries — oftentimes the Spaniards hang out with the Spaniards, the Swedes with the Swedes, the Americans with other Americans. When we meld groups, we are asked compare perceptions and stereotypes to find depth in discussion. On Wednesdays, during my European Union class, we participate like politicians in an auditorium, country labels missing but implied.

“To be able to evade the reality by simply stepping away from the computer was surreal and jarring.”

When my professor asks, “America is now considered an enemy of the European Union — why?” he looks at me. I cannot answer for current leadership, but the question is still phrased as an opportunity for me to explain myself. I’m not a great representative of an American, probably not the person many would choose to stand in their place: a first-generation citizen with the added punch of California residency. But if you define an American by their passport, or by their time spent in the United States, or even by an innate allegiance to individualism and the American dream, then there is no skirting my nationality.

On days when I can look past bloody history and the plethora of current problems, I recognize all the opportunities I’ve personally been given and the beauty of all those purple mountains and amber waves of grain. But I often ask — how at this moment in time, when I am most clearly a representative of the United States, can I still be proud of that identity when it is thrown so blatantly against the current symbol of the nation — a person who to me, represents the Mr. Hyde to Obama’s beloved Dr. Jekyll, the living caricature of the loud, abrasive, inconsiderate American? I have to keep in mind that when I say I am American, here, I am a proxy representative of Trump’s policies, but also an extension of the marchers for women’s rights and those protesting hate speech at Berkeley.

“But if you define an American by their passport, or by their time spent in the United States, or even by an innate allegiance to individualism and the American dream, then there is no skirting my nationality.”

In my kitchen, we keep the radio on. The French are listening — as Ann Friedman from the LA Times writes, supporters of liberal democracies are afraid: “The worry among Europeans is … that an outcome like Trump’s election could very well happen in their own countries.” Friedman outlines the current political climate in Europe, where after Brexit and Trump’s election, ideas of populism, closing borders and intense nationalism are gaining legitimacy and momentum, and with them, leaders like France’s own extremist right, Marine Le Pen. As difficult as it is, as much as it raises the hairs on the back of my neck, we listen for messages about my home, messages about France’s upcoming election and for messages of resistance from people, like those in Washington, Berkeley and worldwide who are fighting for everyone’s rights.

Contact Kate Wolffe at [email protected].

MARCH 06, 2017