As we brace and prepare, and prepare to embrace, as we must, for the inauguration of our new president I have some thoughts, or really a story from across the sea and land and oceans that divide me from my home right now.
To begin with, I want to go back to the spring of 2013, when I landed on the tarmac of the Denpasar International airport in Bali, just as Obama was being inaugurated for his second election.Traveling abroad is an interesting thing, as many people know, and as this blog shows. But it is most startling when, without warning or consent, you become a symbol of every American in America. As Zadie Smith so aptly describes in her novel White Teeth, “ …hold your judgment. If you are told ‘they are this’ or ‘they are that’ or ‘their opinions are this’ or ‘they do that,’ withhold your judgment until all facts have been upon you because that land…goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions and if you think you have found two men the same among that multitude then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight” I wish I could translate this to the Thai people who see me on the street, or my co-workers, or my students or the farmers who watch me drive by their rice paddies. Sometimes I think people don’t understand that I’ve never met the president; that I actually don’t know of that small obscure town in the mid-west where your sister’s, friend’s son lived for 5 months; I am not all of America, and this could not be more true then right now.
When I landed in Bali when people saw me they would always bring up Obama’s name – literally – that is all they would say, “Obama.” The same holds true in Thailand, except now they say “Trump.” Now it's all well meaning, in both Bali and Thailand, their intentions are good; they just want to connect to you, to say something that you will understand. But that's the problem, that's the only America they know, the only English word they cling to. As many have taken some English classes in school, they know a few words, most likely not enough to make coherent sense (i.e. good morning, hello, tomato, book, Sunday, etc.) they choose to call out the one thing that defies a need for sentence structure, a name that carries meaning and thus a potential conversation and connection.
If we step back from 2017, from my teaching position, from my day-to-day life, and look at the larger picture or teaching abroad, the question becomes what am I doing here? Or what is the purpose of teachers abroad? What is my impact? Am I a cultural ambassador? Am I a babysitter? Am I inspiring young people to come to America? To speak English? The answer is foggy and maybe a little bit of all that, maybe none.
I would say my hope is to inspire interest in the English language and bring America into a three-dimensional, real place but what If what they see is no good, nothing to emulate. If all they do is connect me to the one word they know, “Trump.” When Obama’s name was whispered and shouted in Bali it was in reverence, in respect to the power one man can have to create change. The same feelings hold true in Thailand for Trump but they don’t speak with respect, they don't wish that upon themselves and their country. So what is my role now? They don’t want to come to America; therefore there is no need for English, so there is no need for me. I have become obsolete in a matter of seconds by my own hand. Great.
Except I have learned one of my most powerful lessons in fear this trip, and it takes us once more back to Bali. One day while I was walking in Bali a dog put its mouth on my leg. I phrase it like this because while its teeth never broke skin, its saliva hung on my leg and I cried out. Not in pain but in shock, one minute ago I was walking thinking about work and the next a loud, mean dog had put its mouth on my leg! Whoa! I called my friend shaking, who insisted I come back to school but I shook him off. I needed to hear a re-assuring voice and then I was fine, no biggie, literally no skin off my leg, no harm, no foul – all good. Time travel with me again to 2017 and me taking a walk after school along the river. Wild dogs are everywhere in Thailand and Bali, most are harmless, flea ridden and dirty, but harmless. And yet, as I was walking a dog came out of the bush and began walking towards me, and my palms started to sweat. My heart raced a little faster. I began to think what I was going to do if this dog started attacking me. And I was scared because 1. I had never had an issue with dogs since Bali and 2. The answer was nothing; turn around and run maybe, push the dog off, sure. But really, if this dog was going to attack me there was nothing I could do to stop it short of turning around that instant. And I had no idea what the outcome would be unless I kept walking. Dogs can become vicious, they are malnourished, tired, scared, trained, broken, and you are in their way, you are something to punish for all of that and there is no owner to inflict any sort of punishment. It’s terrifying walking around thinking something could hurt you at any minute. But it was also a strange feeling to be afraid of something so many people were not, of something so many people loved, of something so many people didn’t understand.
And I thought of Trump, and I thought of Trump supporters and I thought of the people I have met in Thailand and I thought of my students and I thought of my friends and family back home. And the way fear guides us, and defines us, makes us make choices that reverberate around the world to 7-eleven’s in gas station towns, to clubs, to classrooms, to the rooms where it all happens, to parks, to homes and into our hearts and minds.
I don’t know if I can go as far to say that my role has become to teach these children my fear, but it’s changed my perspective on what they need to know moving forward about America. On what we all need to know, that not every American preaches hate, or encourages bullying, or voted for a celebrity, or voted for a celebrity and encourages bullying (the two are not mutually exclusive), that there are no two American’s in the world that are the same or feel the same right now. That English is a language that can come in handy whether you live in America, Europe, and The Outback or just in your backyard. And most importantly living in fear is not the same as living with fear. I don’t live in fear of dogs anymore I live with it. In that moment I breathed through it, I looked that dog in the eye and screamed at the top of my lungs, “I am afraid of you but there is not enough space in this world for it. I will win. Grrr” And he shrugged and we both walked past each other, each going our own separate ways.