November 08, 2008

Is it ok to tell people I'm an American now???

That was hands-down the most amazing party I have ever helped organise! The entire wing of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC-Phnom Penh) was packed with expatriates, with best guesstimates of around 400 by 9am!
Just as they declared a winner my friend hollered into the microphone: "AMERICAAANS!!! RAISE YOUR HANDS!!!"

...and that's when the dam broke. Fists shot up through a rain of confetti and the roar of cheers. Expats from various western backgrounds turned, tears of relief flowing, to hug strangers next to them. All the world had reason to celebrate, not just Americans, and to celebrate on several levels.

The greatest part was the turnout of so many Americans! We don't normally congregate outside of rare embassy events since that's asking for trouble. Those hands signaled change already occurring, since no expatriate could in his right mind volunteer that s/he's American for the hostility it invites, no matter how proud to be an American s/he is and no matter how festive an event in a safe environment. Until now.

Remember when people actually looked to us in friendship, with admiration, in our travels? Instead now we've had to avoid looking conspicuously American. We honed instincts for keeping a low profile and watching our backs: no talking loudly, no sneakers, no baseball caps, handle the blue passport discreetly, dodge the "where are you from" question and thank you lucky stars I can pass for a non-American.

As Americans living abroad far off the tourist tracks, we rely on a rational approach to global relations. We are the frontlines for the wrath caused by our government's ill-informed unilateral activities that have intensified threats to America and its expatriates. In meetings, even when my capacity is to represent not USAID but another bilateral, I am targeted for the ire about my government's policies that I don't even agree with. Even Keith— who rarely raises his voice or argues— has on occasion had to defend himself against a barrage of assaults and needed his friends' physical interventions, for the simple fact that his all-American looks makes him a target. We're reduced to apologists, defending ourselves for being American, alone with no one taking our side, especially in this post-9/11 world where our government squandered the outpouring of goodwill towards us by wanton engagement in war while options still existed, all the while hypocritically preaching "Christian values".

And we aren't all tree-hugging development wonks out to rescind the Gag Rule (Mexico City Policy) on abortion either. Our guests included Americans both based here and passing through from different walks of life-- businessmen, developers and investors, corporate attorneys for Microsoft and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley, regional officials from WHO and the UN system including the World Bank, foreign diplomats, pastors, even our US Ambassador to Cambodia joined.

And today, when we woke up, that tender of global goodwill was somehow back. America as an ideal, and America as a country, has defeated a campaign and reign built on cultivating hatred, fear and ignorance. Internet blogs, editorials, and opinion pages from all over the world are swelling with positive energy that includes us now. Strangers stopped to congratulate me and Keith on the streets and in the store when they heard our American accents. Khmer colleagues eagerly debated their rudimentary understanding of US democracy with me. Against all odds, they told me, it happened in America and maybe one day it can happen in our country.

No matter your political inclinations, this event was a triumph of the grassroots that is the foundation of a democracy. Amazingly, the complete and utter absence of southern conservative anti-intellectualism in Obama's winning formula is a statement that marginalises the under-educated, impoverished, whiter South and bible belt's centrality to national politics. Even if nothing gets accomplished in the next four years I applaud the hope this outcome has inspired all over the world. And I am glad that now, once again, logic and reason will take its rightful place in governance, even if only for the next four years.

Wow civic participation... Yes America.... YES WE CAN!!!

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