I’ve learned a great deal since I made the decision to move abroad. I’ve learned that Google maps is no match for cities older than the United States. I’ve learned that the ten years I spent navigating the NYC subway system equipped me with the ability to decipher virtually any subway system in the world; and most recently, during a meal in Portugal that left me nothing short of breathless, I learned that Anthony Bourdain is always right. But aside from the personal lessons I’ve learned, I’ve also come to understand the ways in which travel has allowed me to see my home which is to say the place from whence I came, with new eyes. Here a few things I’ve learned about the U.S. since I made the decision to leave:
American popular culture has permeated 99.999% of the earth’s surface
Ok, don’t quote me on that. But, fake statistic aside, you get what I’m saying. The omnipresence of American popular culture, be it the music, the fashion, the slang or the celebrities, is undeniable. Whether you’re eating your way through a major European capital, or taking a stroll through a sleepy 14th century Spanish town, the Kardashians will find you. This realization is at once disheartening and, in some ways, uplifting: The former, because the inability to wrest oneself from the Kardashian death grip in many ways undercuts the escape that travel and movement across the globe is meant to provide (and don’t even get me started on cultural imperialism); the latter, because the fact that Kim K is always watching proves just how easily the spaces that ostensibly exist between us can be collapsed. Of course I’d rather see King Kendrick's face on Gran Via in Madrid, Or Wynton Marsalis' face in a storefront window in Heidleberg. But in the meantime, I’m just going to continue to marvel at and appreciate the ways in which American popular culture (when produced, used and consumed responsibly) can serve and has served as a kind of lingua franca. I can however do without the McDonald's though.
The U.S. wants me to Die...
Hyperbole, but not really. After spending the past two years living in a country that provides its citizens AND the expats who reside within its borders, low-cost to free health-care; low-cost to free higher education along with low-cost to free medication, I’ve come to the conclusion that the United States of America wants me to die; or at the very least, is indifferent to my survival. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the U.S. I love my country. It’s where I was born, it’s where I grew up. It gave me Jazz, southern BBQ, Sam Cooke and New York City. What I am saying is, the U.S. just doesn’t love me back. If it did, it would try harder to keep me alive. It wouldn’t allow a health-care system with the profit motive as its central, driving force to proliferate. It wouldn’t provide better care to those with more money and lesser to no care to those without money. It wouldn’t put me into a situation in which I have to choose between a wisdom tooth removal, and textbooks for my 20th Century music theory class.
The U.S. doesn’t want me to live
This may seem like the same thing as number two, but it isn’t. Check it. There’s life and then there’s living. There’s being alive and then there’s living. And having lived for two years in a land of cheap travel, low-low cost education, work-life balance; incredibly inexpensive wine, food, fresh fruits and vegetables; non-sexualized nudity and non-stigmatized sex; I’ve come to understand the deep appreciation other countries and cultures have not just for life, but for its quality. And this ability to just live is severely lacking in the United States. I of course in no way blame this on U.S. inhabitants.
The U.S. -the world- is full of people who just want to live; but the U.S. with its high cost of living, the inaccessibility of high-quality foods and the obscene costs of higher education make living that quality life unnecessarily and unfairly difficult. Here a glass of wine with a nice meal at a nice restaurant with your family and/or friends isn’t a special event, it isn’t the preserve of the rich or well off, it’s just life. In the E.U., if you can get into college, you go to college. If you break your leg, someone fixes it for you. Here, you aren’t punished for not being rich. In the U.S. often times, it feels like you are.
Near, far, wherever you are, U.S. politics matter...
Not just to the U.S. but to the rest of the world. I mean hey, they don’t call us a superpower for nothin’. What happens there matters here and whether it’s Hillary and her hawkish ways, Trump and his gold-plated replica of the Resolute Desk or Bernie’s rampant idealism and his birds, who will be standing on the Presidential seal come January is a matter of great importance or at the very least, interest, to Americans and non-Americans alike. And as an American traveller/expat, even if you haven’t paid close attention to an election since Bush V. Gore, you will be made to answer for the current melee that is American politics.
Being Black and/or Brown in the U.S. is a whole thing unto itself
The Prison Industrial complex. The Revolving door of Black Men, Women, Children, TransMen and TransWomen gunned down in the street. I knew all of this. I know all of this. What I didn’t know until I moved abroad was how free I could feel as a Black American Woman, which is to say I didn’t know how captive I felt as a Black American Woman living in the U.S. Sure, being Black and abroad comes with its own challenges, but being here, on this side of the ocean I feel weightless. The pigment of my skin matters to few. Its brown hue does not evoke a history no one wants to remember. The coil of my hair inspires little more than appreciative curiosity; and my body no longer feels like a blank page onto which authoritative eyes read histories and expectations, or etch ideas and desires that aren’t my own. Here, I’m not a part of anyone’s story. Which means I get to write my own. It’s lit.
I love the U.S. I would not exist in the way that I do were it not for my country of birth. But leaving it has been one of the better choices I’ve made in my life, second only to my decision to major in music and tied with my decision to eat at that restaurant in Portugal (seriously Anthony Bourdain is Bae) if for no other reason than the fact that, as G.K.Chesterton once wrote ,“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as foreign land.”