Andrew Goldberg ’04 received an unexpected orientation session when he arrived in London for his internship this summer.
“I was just taking pictures of Big Ben and Parliament before work and all of a sudden these cops came and took me into an alley,” he said. “They started asking me all these questions. Once I told them I was American, they took a whole life history. They told me they had the right to search my bag. They told me they had the right to do a full body search.”
While summer has traditionally been a time when college students head off to see the world, this summer’s travelers were entering a world where the current state of American foreign policy was breeding discontent. We were heading into a world where, for many, America was not the answer to the world’s problems, but the cause.
While we were varied and diverse American college students, our Yale identities vanished as fast as our as our high school French skills when we left the United States. We ceased to be struggling Spanish students brushing up on language skills, ambitious computer science majors working for international firms, or voracious readers who had dreamed of studying Tolstoy in Russia. Instead, we were defined by our “American-ness.” We became emissaries from the world’s leading political and economic power — whether we wanted to be or not.
What we found abroad varied just as much as our reasons for traveling there. The world, we discovered, had the same mixed emotions toward the war in Iraq that Americans did, but the physical display of these emotions was hard to ignore. The destination marked on our plane tickets turned out to matter less than the name of the country engraved on the front of our passports. And while most students said they never felt directly threatened, there was palpable political tension that forced most of us into low profile.
Some tried to avoid locals altogether, thought about wearing Canadian flags or tried to pass themselves off as Dutch. Others pretended that the only significance of July 4 was that it was 10 days before Bastille Day. At my own internship in Brussels, we yelled jokes about President George W. Bush at each other from our cubicles. But while unwinding at a bar after work, surrounded by Belgians and European bureaucrats, we lowered our voices to hushed tones if conversation drifted toward politics. As American travelers — part of a group long maligned by the rest of the world for our loud, obnoxious behavior — we, for once, collectively became the quiet Americans.
They came, they saw–
As students scattered all over the globe, they found that no corner of it was silent about Bush’s controversial war against terrorism.
In Ghana, where street artistry is a popular profession, artists advertise by painting — and then posting — portraits of well-known figures. Most of the posters portray the same two figures, said Peter Hasegawa ’05, who spent part of the summer working there. The chosen personalities? Not actors, sports stars or even anyone African. The artists advertised their skills with their renditions of President Bush and Osama bin Laden, and images of the two men were papered all over the country.
Hasegawa said he did not believe the posters constituted an endorsement of either side. But the portraits are not without significance. They show the two poles of a political axis that is being used to define the world.
But elsewhere, the endorsements were explicit. Bush’s proposal to use Turkish bases during Operation Iraqi Freedom met with fierce resistance in Turkey. Months later, anger over the war was still evident, said Yasemin Schatz ’05, who spent two weeks in Turkey this summer. In response to Bush’s latest efforts to send Turkish troops to Iraq, Turks posted signs in Istanbul asking “Do you want to send your sons to Iraq?” and men stood in the streets to hand out fliers that read, “Do you want to side with the Americans?” Schatz said.
“I was really ashamed to ever say I was American,” said Schatz, who is half Turkish and was in the country to visit family. “They’re still polite to Americans, but they would treat you differently than if you said you were from the Netherlands.”
In the United States, the media focused its attention on evidence of anti-Americanism in Paris, where French President Jacques Chirac took the lead in condemning the U.S. attacks on Iraq. Before leaving for her study abroad program in Paris this summer, Christine Kang ’05 had been warned that the city could be uncomfortable for travelers from the United States, where French opposition to the war inspired anti-French sentiment in return. Kang was pleasantly surprised to find few examples of hostility toward the United States. But when she did notice them, they left her jarred. Two weeks into her visit, Kang was relaxing in that icon of French culture — the Parisian cafe — when she spotted a man wearing a shirt modeled on the popular “I [heart] NY” tees. But on this man’s shirt, the heart had been replaced by an airplane.
“I was just shocked,” she said. “I had to look again — I thought my eyes had tricked me.”
Still, students said they never felt overtly targeted or unsafe because of their citizenship. And while most agreed that members of local communities differentiated between the American government and American citizens, students could not help feeling that their foreign friends were holding something back.
“There was a little reservation,” said Jennifer Gardner ’05, who spent the summer living with and interviewing Russians for a research project. “They don’t want to say something that’s against my country, but they might believe it.”
Even in London, Goldberg said he saw evidence of a more cautious world. It was not until six weeks into his 10-week internship at the Houses of Parliament that Goldberg received his security clearance, without which he had to be escorted throughout the building. The British interns received clearance right away, Goldberg said, but everyone else — mainly the Americans — had to wait weeks for their background checks to be completed, a result of a backlog created by the events of Sept. 11.
Indeed, the growing anti-Americanism abroad predates Operation Iraqi Freedom. Even before the war began — and even in non-Islamic nations — polls showed that international opinion of American foreign policy was plummeting. Some of this anti-American sentiment is symptomatic of a Bush administration that, even before declaring a worldwide war on terror, has always been “America first.” Such isolationist foreign policy can leave expatriates struggling with how to represent a nation some foreigners blame for having the power to change their lives, but not the desire to do so.
Amos Ductan ’06, who spent the summer in Ecuador, saw firsthand the resentment that putting America first can inspire. On July 1, Bush suspended military aid to Ecuador — and about 30 other countries — for its refusal to exempt certain American officials from prosecution in the International Criminal Court. That week, the hostility of Ecuadorians was visible, Ductan said. On July 4, he and some other American students went out to a nightclub in Quito, and found themselves unprepared for the rough treatment they received there.
“The cops were searching all the Americans,” he said “Everyone who didn’t have their passports was carted off to jail.”
In Sergiev Posad, a small town outside of Moscow, Gardner was enjoying the street market when she noticed a middle-aged woman selling beautiful scarves from a market stall. Gardner, who was taking oral histories of Russians for a research project, approached the woman, opening the conversation by asking her what she had thought of the war in Iraq. Natasha, the Russian woman, told Gardner that many Russians were opposed to the invasion of Iraq, because they saw it as analogous to Russia’s brutal military behavior in Chechnya.
“She was shocked that a country like America could be involved in a war like that,” Gardner said. “She understands war and suffering and can’t understand why America would do something to cause that.”
Many Americans did not understand either, Gardner said, but left it at that.
What more was there to say? How to explain a war that divided Americans as much as it divided the world?
“I’m as anti-Bush as anyone there was,” Goldberg said of the Brits he met in London.
Even if they themselves agreed with their foreign hosts’ criticisms of American policy, many students said they struggled with how to react to virulently anti-American messages. There were those who, like Gardner, used the war as an opportunity to engage in dialogues with others, but they were careful to do more listening than talking. And so these students, vocal and opinionated on campus, held their tongues, and sometimes — when they felt they had to — even lied.
“There were definitely a few times when I told people I was Canadian,” Hasegawa said.
It was sometimes easier to just avoid the issue. Why upset those so generously hosting us in their countries? While a number of American expatriates joined peace rallies in their host nations during the war itself, there seemed no appropriate way for them to express their opinions in the war’s aftermath. Students collectively said inaction was the only realistic form of action. They listened empathetically, continued their summers and kept their mouths shut, and their opinions to themselves.
But it is not always easy to keep quiet when it seems like the world has fixed one unwavering eye on the United States. Students fielded questions ranging from what salaries in the United States were like to how education worked, and were sometimes asked directly what Americans thought about the war. Regardless of politics, an unceasing international interest in all things American seems to remain constant. When Kang was traveling in Italy during the blackout that crippled the Northeast in August, news of the event was splashed prominently across the front page of most of the Italian papers. Typhoons that devastated parts of Asia were relegated to the inside pages, she said.
Being American is often equated with being “cool,” especially to foreign teens who have developed a taste for those ubiquitous golden arches and an ear for the broadcasts of MTV. But students said that while some of the cachet of being American was certainly still present, it was not culture and coolness their foreign hosts had on their minds this summer. The questions had become deeper, the conversations more probing.
“People kept asking us, ‘What was Sept. 11 like? That must have been awful,'” said Hasegawa, who, in addition to spending time in Ghana and Mali, spent 15 days on tour in South Africa with Shades, an a cappella group. “There was a lot of empathy.”
The war did not erase the allure of the American altogether, and some students found themselves the subjects of honor and admiration.
“I had several people who tried to buy me bus fare in Ghana — and these are people who make a dollar a day — just so they could come sit next to me on the bus and ask me questions,” said Hasegawa, who said one passenger asked him how to make the political system in Ghana work.
Hasegawa said the members of Shades found themselves treated as idols — or at least role models — for the South Africans.
“The phenomenon that is Shades was amazing to them — to see African Americans who were talented and who were successful,” Hasegawa said.
Shades was invited to South Africa by King Leruo Molotlegi, who asked the a capella group to sing at his enthronement ceremony and hosted the students in his community, the Royal Bafokeng Nation. King Molotlegi was so impressed with the group’s performance that he decided to form a singing group with talent recruited from his own community. He has invited Shades members to return next summer to hold the auditions and advise the King on how to help get the group off the ground.
Perhaps encounters like these were the most pleasant surprise. Before we set off on our travels, parents, friends and even the U.S. State Department warned us of the anti-Americanism we were likely to face. But even this summer, and even as American tourists, we found that experiencing other cultures — even ones that seemed so angry at ours — was not impossible.
Gardner spoke of the excitement of transforming from a self-conscious and conspicuous American to — well, at least a less conspicuous American. During her first few weeks in Russia, she attracted whispers and titters and stares on the escalators or the metro, lacking, apparently, the “metro face” she said so many Russians adopt on their way to work. But by the end of the summer, strangers wouldn’t believe she was actually American. She was being mistaken not for an American but for an Estonian or Latvian — still not native, but a little less alien.
Changing the way a world full of people views the United States is a lot for any one student to take on — if he even wants to. While we may never be able to prove that America is neither an Eden nor an ogre, some found that just the act of expressing interest in another culture was enough to show that there is more to Americans than our president’s policy may imply.
“They didn’t quite understand why I wanted to learn about things Russian when I can be in America,” Gardner said. “I had quite a time convincing them I wanted to live like they do. But when I did, they were very excited that I was interested in their lives.”