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We Are All Diplomats: The Politics of Being an Expat

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Growing up American in the Soviet Union, I was highly aware of my nationality. When we moved to Moscow, I was only six years old, and not quite sure what being American meant – but I knew I was one, and lots of people around me weren’t. When the first McDonalds came to town, I understood I was somehow connected to the symbolic edifice, even though my parents agreed that it was not an acceptable place to eat, and I certainly hadn’t felt any relationship to the golden arches when we lived in the States. Being in an international setting brings our own national identities into relief.

I was living in France when George W. Bush was elected to his second term as the President of the United States. I stayed up all night with astonished French friends, watching the outlines of states turn from pink to dark red. From their perspective, this was a person at the helm when the Congressional cafeterias changed the menu listing from French fries to Freedom fries. To the French, Bush Junior was an overindulged war-monger. I, as the sole American amongst my peers, was charged with explaining why he would continue on as President (despite losing the popular vote).

Then, I moved to Kuwait. Kuwaitis I met had mostly fond memories of Bush Senior, thanks to his intervention after the invasion of their country in the Persian Gulf War. Upon learning my nationality, locals would cheer “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and offer high-fives. It was a blatant contrast to the French perspective. Again, as an American, I was personally associated with the actions of my president, though I was not even old enough to vote when he took office.

As a foreigner, we represent our countries everywhere we go. My nationality is part of my identity, and a major element in how others see me when I am a guest on their land. I bear the responsibility of my politicians’ mistakes, along with the credit for American successes. Though I have spent more than half of my life abroad, my passport marks me as a symbol of the United States, and my actions reflect upon my fellow citizens.

As the State Department is facing major cuts to funding, and U.S. diplomacy is threatened to be gutted, it is critical that Americans around the world represent our country with integrity. While I am still don’t think I could tell you exactly what it means to be an American, I do know that I am committed to contrast the image (however justified) of the Ugly American[1] while I am fortunate enough to visit other places on this earth. International educators are reminders to the people we meet around the world that our countries are more than just the high-visibility emblems we come to associate with each place. Any national population is diverse, and many of us – regardless of political leadership or corporate icons – favour diplomacy, positive international relations, and active participation in constructive global citizenship. Whether we signed up for it or not, we are all diplomats.

[1] Burdick, E. (1999). The Ugly American. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.