“Have you ever felt like your own country just doesn’t represent you?”
My friend asks me this while simultaneously boiling the kettle and chopping apples to put into a crumble. She’s from Scotland and we’re in her Dublin apartment where she is making me dessert as she rants. (I stress eat and she stress bakes so it’s a win-win situation we have going on here).
She is asking because the year was 2016 and just weeks ago, the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union in a national referendum referred to as “Brexit.”
I listen and nod because the year was 2016 and during this same time, America is dealing with a string of shootings leaving two black men dead within days of each other, at the hands of police.
So when she asks me if I’ve ever felt like my country doesn’t represent me I look squarely at her and answer honestly: “Everyday.”
2016 was not a good year for a lot of people. Bowie. Prince. Leonard. Carrie Fisher. Harambe!? The list goes on—and it hurts.
But 2016 was also been a year I spent on a working holiday visa in Ireland—a dream I made a reality these past twelve months.
It is a privilege I see most clearly: while I will go on to describe this last year as being one of the best and most memorable of my life, it is the same year that hate-speech among politicians became a new norm, that 49 people were gunned down in a gay club in Florida, that an armed van terrorized and killed 90 people in France, that a presidential candidate mocked a disabled reporter, and that Chad Michael Murray is set to be publishing a book before me. Wtf.
So many people have been affected by this last year and not for the better. As the months wore on, the view from the across the ocean—while only about five hours ahead of the States—only looked more and more desperate.
It was apparent from the beginning that Irish citizens and others I met from all over the world were interested in the goings-on of the 2016 Presidential election. In January, they already knew about Bernie Sanders and were big fans! “Wow, these people are way more informed on my own country’s politics than I am,” I thought, and was equal parts intimidated and intrigued.
For me, politics talk would’ve previously been listed under a “confrontational” conversation category, the kind of which I actively avoided. My mother is a liberal while my dad is more conservative—they joke that their votes only ever cancel each other out. Unsurprisingly, we never debated much at the dinner table beyond whose turn it was to do the dishes.
As I began to participate in political discourse more and more, I thought perhaps the election was merely unique because I was seeing it from across the pond. Friends laughed along with me at Ben Carson’s ludicrous comments. They voiced their own grievances with Hillary. They became concerned for their friends and family the longer Trump remained in the running—and even more so as Britain chose to follow their nationalist movement and leave the European Union. Discussion of politics began to feel less “aggressive” and more smart and constructive conversation. Politics became an essential exchange between people of different backgrounds.
But again, the year was 2016 and it wasn’t just my new European participatory perspective that was skewing things.
The last few weeks in Ireland, the post-election questions were only: “What are we thinking?”, “How can Americans be so ignorant?” And the worst: “How do the words ‘President Trump’ feel?”
To which I reply idk, idk, and please don’t say that without placing a full pint in my hand to numb the pain.
I met very proud Irish men and women in the past year and, indeed, gained my own sense of pride and admiration for the country. However, there is a global mentality present that I don’t see as clearly in the United States.
With one of the highest rates of emigration, many Irish people live abroad and are fully aware of what’s happening beyond their country’s borders as they carry on with the “craic” from back home. And our US superpower is very much entwined in the goings-on in this modern world.
I hear you, the “They’re apples and oranges!” argument. Yes—we’re a physically larger country so the rules that apply to small countries don’t necessarily relate. But that also doesn’t mean we should not adhere to the remedial “Think about how your actions will affect others” concept that we learn as children. Cue that Aaron Sorkin master-monologue from “Newsroom”: we are not as “‘star-spangled’ awesome” as we’d like to believe.
America suffers from such tunnel vision. How many Americans even knew what Brexit was? Does Gary Johnson know what Aleppo is? And I admit myself, I still don’t fully understand how the Electoral College works. (But this video helped me quite a bit).
A small but simple example is that under a Trump presidency, the J1 visa—one granted to Irish college students—will likely be eliminated. If you’re unfamiliar, this visa has all the benefits of a study abroad semester without the studying. It’s a three-month stint that basically provides Irish youths a summer of independence in popular American cities as they discover that US college life actually is exactly how the movies picture it with red solo cups and a cappella groups.
While yes, this is a trivial bonus to the presently positive Irish-American partnership, it certainly helps to foster great relationships between the two, inciting an interest to explore, return, and learn from one another.
Nearly every time I claimed Chicago as my home, there was a person familiar with the Windy City because they spent three months working at a Dunkin Donuts in sweltering humidity, eating enormous slices of pizza, and having the time of their lives on their J1. It provides an immediate common ground and is something I’ve been grateful to use as conversation fodder these last twelve months.
Opportunities to interact and experience cultural exchanges at such a formative age can help shape young people’s worldview, but it’s not only the loss of my small-talk topics I’m concerned about. That is a minor consequence compared to the ocean of negativity Trump has promised us even in his first 100 days in office. Who knows what will happen to the visa that I just completed? How many best-year-ever’s are we robbing from future wander-lusters?
We can do better than that. We can all do better than that. This liberal bubble that millennial mainstream is holed up in (myself included) has got to burst (See: SNL “Election Night”). In many ways, I love the bubble. In actress and comedian Ilana Glazer’s video response to the election, she rightly exclaims “We’re having so much fun in the bubble!” She’s right—the memes, guys. The memes.
I appreciate being able to commiserate with people that agree with me. I’m a cis-gender white woman and I generally feel safe and accepted on a daily basis (until I walk home alone and check behind my shoulder for Dementors/rapists every thirty seconds). It makes me feel good to know that my friends do not tolerate racism or stand for sexism. (Also a bonus: The Bubble accepts diva cups, #freethenipple, and avocado toast.)
But in a jarring realization, I knew that if Hillary had won, I would’ve high-fived my friends, shed a few tears of joy on the shattered glass ceiling, and continued on with the nice lil’ dream of a year I’d been having.
Case-in-point, here I am writing my think-piece about this, I’ll likely binge several more episodes of “Gilmore Girls” and could oh-so-easily dissolve back into my matcha-tea soaked liberal life—my own “over-educated echo chamber of which I was firmly a part,” as a friend Stephen so rightly writes. But I don’t want to—and I don’t think I can.
I am sorry to say that it took such extreme measures to fully awake from the suburban coma of comfort I resided in but THANKS FOR THE WAKEUP CALL, 2016. And while I’ve always been an optimist, I see this as one of the only silver linings of such a polarizing year.
Now is not the time to sink back into routine. As John Oliver says in his closing 2016 episode, “It will be too easy for things to start feeling normal, especially if you’re someone that won’t be directly affected by his actions.” We must keep reminding ourselves that this is not normal. Democrat, republican, libertarian, socialist, gay, straight, trans, crooked, mutt, muggle, gorilla—2016 was not normal. And it wasn’t just because I was living in Ireland consuming way more butter than ever before.
I don’t want America to feel any more foreign to me than it does now. The more time I spent away from home, the less and less I recognized the ugly, misinformed mass of social media that threatens to strangle it. I will not pretend like the orange man in a blonde toupee supposedly leading us to retrieve our long-lost “greatness” represents me.
2016: my dream of living abroad, of meeting new people, of traveling to different cultures— changed me as a person.
2016: the nightmare that was this political spectacle—has fundamentally altered the way I view my home country.
This year has shown me that your home isn’t always the country where you were born in. And I’ve been fortunate enough to learn that—now how will I use it?
2017, I am awake and I am on fire.