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I moved back to America for many reasons. I wanted to be closer to friends and family; I wanted the familiarity of an environment I knew; I wanted to date people who had more in common with me. After more than five years on the road, it was time.
Conversely, I left Boston for lots of reasons — one was when Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat went to a Republican in 2010. It was the fourth in a series of setbacks that I took as a sign that it was time to leave Boston.
And so I traveled — and kept America at a distance. I was in Paris when Sandy Hook happened, crying my eyes out about those poor babies from my hostel bed. I voted but otherwise ignored the 2012 election (beyond “binders full of women” memes), watching Obama claim victory from a rental van in Cape Town. I was in Sri Lanka as Ferguson burned, in disbelief at a fellow blogger who would write, “Don’t worry about #ferguson when you could look at these elephants!” to get more likes on Instagram.
I kept America at a distance too long. I wanted to come back and fight. On the ground, in person, not just donating and signing the occasional petition online.
And now the fight is bigger than I ever imagined.
In every election, there are always cries of “If _______ wins, I’m moving to Canada!” — regardless of a person’s ability and/or desire to actually do so.
Now, more people can actually leave the country than ever before. All very privileged people, yes, but there are many more of them. More people are working online, either for themselves or as a remote employee. With thousands of blogs, books, and guides out there, more people are realizing how to make this dream a reality.
Now — is that a bad thing? Not at all. I love when people travel more, and the world is better for it, too. But there’s a refrain edging out lately that has been bothering me.
I’ve spent a lot of time in digital nomad hotspots like Chiang Mai, Medellín, Bangkok, and Berlin. Those cities (and many others I haven’t visited, like Playa del Carmen and Oaxaca) are teeming with American expats. Like any other group in the world, most of them are awesome people with a few assholes thrown in.
But there is a certain kind of American expat that you meet frequently while traveling:
A person who says, “I just don’t fit in America anymore.”
A person who ignores the news at home, but is always quick to share, “See? America’s fucked,” when anything goes wrong.
A person who chooses not to vote.
A person who says, “So glad I don’t live there anymore,” when anything bad happens.
A person who donates neither money nor time to any causes in America.
A person who completely forgets that there are vulnerable people in America.
A person who believes that they have no duty to help anyone besides themselves.
A person who says, “None of this matters — I’m living it up in Thailand because I’m smart!”
In nearly every circumstance, these people who left home are among the most privileged. They did not escape because they were in danger; rather, they left because America wasn’t quite what they wanted. These people are very often male, nearly always straight and white (though there are a handful of gay people and a few people of color), who earn more than enough money to get by, even if it’s just in Thailand. Politically, they’re usually ultra-liberal or libertarian.
Soon, “Woohoo, I can get healthcare for cheap here!” takes the place of, “Shit, if I don’t vote, 20 million of my countrymen could lose their health insurance — I can’t let that happen.”
Soon, “Hell yes, I’m so glad there are no guns here!” takes the place of, “I need to contribute to get assault weapons out of the hands of criminals.”
Soon, “Good thing I don’t have kids!” takes the place of, “How can I get my representatives to protect the planet?”
It’s the selfishness that bothers me the most. Despite the cultural aspect of living in another country, expats often dwell in a bubble of easy work, cheap alcohol, nightly gatherings, and picking up locals, socializing exclusively with people exactly like them. When you’re in a setting like that, it’s easy to forget that anyone else exists.
I find that attitude cowardly.
I was never that bad, but I fully admit that in my first few years of travel, I was too self-centered for too long. I was barely eking out enough money to get by and didn’t donate to any cause at home. I spent my mental energy on refugees in Thailand and Agent Orange victims in Vietnam rather than the needy at home. I stayed mostly away from the news. And every day, I congratulated myself for getting out of America, away from the expensive healthcare and threat of gun violence.
Something changed a few years ago. I’m not sure what it was — perhaps a greater awareness of privilege. Over time, I realized that I wasn’t doing enough to help my countrymen and had to step up as a person.
Leaving America is one thing. Leaving America and choosing to ignore it is another thing entirely.
I understand leaving. If you feel unsafe in America, please do what you need to do to keep yourself and your family out of danger. If your healthcare is in jeopardy, get yourself where you can get proper care. And you know what? If you want to leave for fun, that’s okay, too. Living abroad is a wonderful experience and it will change your life. So is travel. And it was good for me for so long.
For consistency’s sake, I should mention that I wrote a post a few months back called 15 Ways to Leave the Country if Donald Trump is Elected. It was intended to be in jest. Oh, how little I knew.
There’s something to remember, though: travel bloggers may extol the virtues of leaving, but coming back to fight for your country is admirable as well.
And so I decided to come home. Because I’m just about as privileged as a woman can be, and that means nothing if I don’t use it to help others. I’m sick of watching on the sidelines, donating my money from a distance. I want to be on the ground as well, standing up for my fellow citizens who are having their rights attacked.
I’ll still travel on shorter trips (it’s how I earn my living!), but NYC is home now.
Ways to Be a Better Expat and Traveler
Overall, stay involved. Educate yourself. Donate your time and money to causes that help the most vulnerable.
Here are things you can do whether you’re traveling, living abroad, or at home:
If you’re a woman of childbearing age, get an IUD. Birth control will become more difficult to access in January. IUDs are effective for years and come in both hormonal (Mirena) and nonhormonal (Paragard) forms. Talk to your doctor (not me — I’m not a medical professional) for more information.
Set up monthly donations to organizations that help the most vulnerable. I’m a monthly donor to Planned Parenthood; some other options are the ACLU, Campaign Zero, and the NAACP. Jezebel has a great list here.
Vote in every single election — no exceptions. So much of what affects our daily lives is done at the local level. Research the candidates for city council and school committee on up. Order an absentee ballot in advance. Don’t only vote when it’s for president. And the 2018 midterm elections are particularly vital because there will be redistricting in 2020. IWillVote.org is a good resource.
Follow your elected representatives online and communicate with them on the issues. Facebook and email are two good ways. Reach out to them frequently when you have concerns.
Talk to your Muslim, black, LGBT, Latinx, disabled, or immigrant friends and let them know that you see them, you’re there for them, and you’re there to help them however you can.
Listen without being dismissive. In the days since election, stories have risen about white children telling their Latinx classmates that they’re getting deported and Muslim women being afraid to go out wearing their hijab. Listen carefully and try to understand.
Speak out in the face of injustice. This is not the time to sit back and not make waves. Speak out on everything from catcalls on women to homophobic jokes to racial epithets. Let people know that you won’t stand for it.
If you’re in America, document injustice. If you see the police detain a person of color, get out your phone and video it. That is your right and it could save someone’s life.
Encourage your elected officials to create public health insurance available at the state level. I benefited from “Romneycare” while living in Massachusetts; if each state has a “medicare for all” plan, it will protect against changes to Obamacare at the federal level.
Pay for real journalism. The media’s role in the 2016 election will be debated for years to come, but in the internet age, quality journalism will not exist unless it’s funded. Pay for an online subscription. I love the New York Times in part because they have the best community management on the web and only thoughtful comments are published, unlike other news sites whose comment sections are dumpster fires.
Try to understand the other side. More than anything, this election has shown that rural white working class Americans have long been misunderstood and overlooked. As usual, I’m starting my research through books. Hillbilly Elegy is next on my reading list; I’m also looking at White Trash and Strangers in Their Own Land. All were published this year. It’s imperative that we get to know the other side instead of just painting them as racist, homophobic misogynists.
More suggestions are here from my former landlord Dennis, who walks the walk when it comes to social justice.
It’s Okay to Be Upset
Now is a very tough time for all of us. I haven’t felt this much grief, fear, anger and confusion since I was 17. I just saw a truck drive by with “Ferguson” on it and I burst into tears, worrying now that more black men, women, and children are going to be killed by the police for no reason and any chance we had of the government doing anything about it is gone. Hillary’s billion dollars earmarked for police retraining and plans for body cams are gone. It makes me feel ill.
We need to take action — but we also need to grieve. Grief is unique and everyone is on a different timeline. Be patient if it takes a long time for you.
We Can All Do This Together
When you decide to travel, you decide what kind of citizen you’re going to be. Before you leave, I want you to know what I wish I knew when I left — that the responsibility you have to your fellow countrymen doesn’t vanish as soon as you leave the country.
You can still be involved, and technology makes it easier than ever. You can #RiseUp and fight for America from anywhere in the world.