During my first week of work in Al Ain, one of my co-workers, an Egyptian named Abuzeid, offered to give me a ride back to the hotel I was staying in. Lovely, I thought, and little did I know what he had in store for me.
The diatribe that followed must have been really pent up. I imagine this was one of the first times Abuzeid had had a chance to let an American know what a bullshit country the U.S. was. This was 2009; thankfully, we’d had some nine months of relatively harmless Obama rule and a lot of the sins being committed in America’s name could still be attributed to Bush. As a vocal anti-Bush voter, I was happy to nod along and say that Bush sure was shit and that not every American agreed with what he did.
That was hardly the first time. Whenever I left the U.S., I found it really important to open with an apology. That made a lot of following conversations easier.
Because most of my backpacking travels in Europe were in the Bush years, it was always easy to say, “Yeah, fuck Bush.” That won me friends; people just wanted to have their viewpoint validated by an American. It made them feel better about how angry or spiteful they were towards the U.S. It helped that I had plenty to complain about too, from the Republican party to suburbs to fast food to the gun culture.
As an Obama voter, it got more complicated as the years went on. I generally liked his domestic and foreign policy choices, so the bashing didn’t come as naturally. Over time, the line between Bush Bad Obama Good got blurred; people trained their guns on him and forgot about the Bush years. That was harder to go along with.
The first time I didn’t bitch about a major U.S. decision was when they killed bin Laden. Upon reflection, some things could have been done better; putting him on trial would have been more satisfying in a lot of ways. But at the time, I didn’t feel any shame over the killing. I was rather proud of it, in fact; this is what that fucker gets, was the thinking. My co-worker in Al Ain had whispered it to me in between classes; himself a fellow American (and nervous wreck), he must have thought the Emiratis were going to get whipped up into a frenzy and tear us apart. It ended up being a hotter topic among staff than students.
During a staff breakfast, one of the English advisors was eating with me when he remarked that he never understood why people of the same culture segregated themselves when they moved to a new country. But he got it now. We were doing just that; him and me, the only two native English-speakers in the room, excluding ourselves in that room full of Arabic.
The point was, no matter how much we tried, we would always be outsiders. All the work I’d done building bridges by hating whatever was trendy to be angry about the U.S. was really just trimmings; at the end of the day, as I learned over time, I was not from the emirates, nor Muslim, nor Arab. I’d never be on an equal playing field in those schools no matter how hard I worked to be so. People would treat me differently; I could die in the UAE at the age of 80 and I’d still be referred to as “the American.”
It was out there I learned how trapped we are by our birthplace. A lot of us struggle against that, but we swim against a mighty tide. Being outside your country creates an automatic label; you are your passport. Assumptions are made; you are rich or poor, kind or cruel, honest or a liar, based upon that. Soldiers either open the door for you or stand in your way; tour guides double the price when they hear your accent; local people like you or dislike you based on what they’ve heard in rumors and media about your home country.
We all do it because it’s an easy way to immediately understand a person, and it feels less racist or shallow than judging by appearance. It’s the same thing, of course; I no more chose to be born in the U.S. than a person might choose to be a race.
Still, it’s come to be nice not to have the “where are you from” conversation with people.