In my Arabic 1001 class, we learned how to say our nationalities. When one of the Americans in the class accidentally claimed ‘I am America’, our tutor, a cheerful Palestinian woman, giggled. “It’s a common mistake,” she said, “for beginners to say that they are a country, not a nationality.”
This little misspeak, for all its accidental arrogance, seems to perfectly encapsulate the international attitude towards United States citizens abroad. We are not students, or friends, or colleagues. We are, like it or not, often seen as satellite embassies. Taken to task for every political view, social statistic and international policy our great nation produces, it is often difficult to convince foreigners that we, as Americans, are not America.
Living in the United States is almost like living in a passive-aggressive civil war; the American people no longer have much unity, and as such have lost much of the 20th-century style loyalty to their country. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, the average partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans has nearly doubled since the late 1980s. Most of this polarization has occurred in the past twelve years; that is, post 9-11. The so-called “War on Terror” has amped up American paranoia and hostility, much as the Cold War did, but to the detriment national unity.
Americans living abroad, however, seem to have adopted a different view. The domestic turmoil of the United States seems to lose its bearing from 3,000 miles away; the shared challenges of international living eclipse the political divides. After all, how can one quibble over gerrymandering or States’ Rights when faced with such obstacles as beans on toast and unintelligible Scottish accents?
According to a report by the Overseas Vote Foundation, there are between three and four million Americans living abroad, around 200,000 of whom reside in the UK. The only countries with higher numbers of US nationals are Israel and Canada, both of which house about 250,000 American citizens. There are more Americans abroad than in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont combined.
More than one-seventh of the students matriculated at St Andrews are Americans, which is a concentration higher than at any other UK university. St Andrews may not be a perfect sample case for American communities abroad, but it’s pretty close. This year, with the Presidential election close at hand, the St Andrews Democratic Society and St Andrews Republicans Abroad have collaborated to watch the debates and to encourage American students to register to vote or send in their absentee ballots. The drastic political rift from stateside has been watered down by the Atlantic into friendly banter. The rivalry here is not vicious or virulent, it is friendly.
Why do we, as Americans, choose to leave our homeland? It’s not a particularly difficult thing to do logistically, but socially? Do we go abroad to explore other cultures and countries? Or, is it simply the most convenient way to achieve a certain goal? I, certainly, cannot claim that my motives for attending a university abroad are purely intellectual. I did not come to St. Andrews merely to read International Relations in an international environment— the fact is, it’s much less expensive, overall, to attend University here. It’s cheaper to be sick, easier to learn, and looks excellent on your Résumé.
Overall, though, the logistics fall to the wayside. Surrounded by a vaguely hostile international force cultivated by the downfall of the late 20th century American Empire, Americans find solace in one another. It’s hard to maintain the extremist two-party system which would be abhorred by the founding fathers when all that we have is each other. The enemy of my enemy, the proverb says, is my friend. If the international communities in which we live see us as an America that is no longer the shining city on the hill, and not as Americans seeking to rebuild it, can we still claim that our political enemies (be they Kenyan-born socialists or Texan neo-nazis) are “un-American?”
Even more difficult to overcome, arguably, is the idea that many people here simply don’t care about your political orientation. Of the native students I’ve spoken to, almost all of them have said that they don’t particularly care about American domestic politics. Patrick Campbell, a first year English student from Lincoln, told me that “You’re all just Americans to us, really.” Here, far from home, we are not Democrats or Republicans. We are not a divisive political system, we are a country. We’ve found something we’ve lost, three thousand miles from where it was last seen.