That’s right people, I’m getting political.
Note: this was written in early January in Indonesia, post Trump’s inauguration, pre the week from executive order hell. Danny’s post about traveling the red states during election season inspired me to write down my thoughts, so give his post a read.
I’m contemplating retiring my American Flag shorts while traveling – and it feels a little sad and symbolic. They just don’t leave a great first impression. Frustratingly but I suppose not surprisingly, stars and stripes have become synonymous with Trump abroad. I learned early on to say that I’m from California and not the USA when asked where I’m from. Answering that question with “USA” will often elicit warily, “hmm, America, what do you think of Trump?” On the other hand, California seems to be recognized as its own little mini country of weed and movie stars, and that answer will usually get a chuckle or a vaguely familiar movie line.
It’s incredibly revealing to be living in a country with a Muslim majority during Trump’s inauguration month. “Muslim ban” is a phrase that every Indonesian has heard, which is a little bit heartbreaking. I watched Obama’s last address and Trump’s first news conference on YouTube from a hostel in Lombok, and it felt surreal, like I was watching the news about someone else’s country.
For the most part locals are genuinely curious and hungry for information about what is happening in the U.S. (join the club). Here are a few of the questions I’ve been asked by Indonesians:
- “Is it true that all Muslim people will be asked to leave the US when Trump becomes president?”
- “I saw a YouTube video that showed a person speaking English with an Arabic accent being beaten. Is that happening?”
- “If you have an Arabic accent does everyone think you’re a terrorist?”
- “How would you feel if we said Americans couldn’t enter our country?”
I don’t have great answers for these questions. I find myself trying to explain the election and assign “fault” for why Trump was elected, and feel myself falling into the same geographic, socioeconomic “Us vs. Them” reductionist trap that got us in to this situation in the first place.
A lot has been said this election cycle about insulated news environments and the propensity to seek like-minded information circles. Even though I’m currently writing this from an Indonesian hospital (more on that later), I’m incredibly grateful that I have the opportunity to travel, especially now. In his last address as president, Obama quoted Atticus Finch, “you never really understand a person until you walk in their shoes,” and warned against retreating into our familiar bubbles. One of my favorite things about backpacking is that I’ve interacted with people outside the Princeton bubble, the SF tech bubble, and the Bay Area bubble. I’ve met young people, old people, people from developing countries, people without a bank account, people that didn’t go to college, and people that don’t think their doggy daycare app is going to change the world.
It’s opened my eyes to how limited my exposure is to opposing viewpoints. One small example – I happened to be in London on a business trip during the Brexit vote, and everyone that I met had their minds blown with the outcome. I didn’t meet a single person that had voted to exit the EU in London. In Indonesia a few days ago I made a flippant remark comparing Trump’s election to Brexit to a few Britons (just learned they were called that). They went silent – “we voted to exit.” Whoops. It wasn’t even in the realm of possibility to me that they would respond that way. They were not from London, and they had quite a different perspective on life in the EU. As it turns out they weren’t terrifying isolationists or ignorant xenophobes, and we had a great conversation. It’s amazing what you can learn when you really listen.
In some ways it seems the world has never been more connected, but in others we couldn’t be further apart. The majority of people I’ve met native to Indonesia have never left the country, and half way around the world, their information about Americans is pretty limited to the headlines they see on T.V. and tourists that visit their country. I started to make parallels with how little I knew about Islam and where my source of information about Muslim countries comes from. As someone who started a beer blog I also can’t help but wonder how it must feel to work in the tourism industry on Gili Trawangan (the party island off the coast) as a Muslim from Lombok, seeing tourists spend exorbitant amounts of money by their standards on a substance prohibited by their religion.
My route through Bali and Lombok: I first traveled around Bali, the tourist capital of Indonesia, and then traveled by boat by Lombok. While Bali is predominantly Hindu, Lombok (and Indonesia overall) is majority Muslim. The government is secular, but there are still policies influenced by a Muslim majority, like the high tax on imported alcohol.
I read an opinion piece recently with the basic thesis of, "Bush tried to do too much with foreign policy, and Obama too little." I’m not going to pretend to have the chops to weigh in on Obama’s international relations strategy, but it’s incredible to see how Obama is viewed in the two countries I’ve visited so far. In Vietnam, “Obama’s restaurant” is a stop on the Hanoi city walking tour. The restaurant was literally just visited once by Obama, and the owner changed the name to “Obama’s restaurant” with a big picture of him eating there on the front. Indonesia is fiercely proud of Obama. Obama’s step-father was Indonesian, and he went to primary school here. Someone told me that the airport and roads were updated and some were even constructed prior to his first visit as president. People just light up talking about him. It’s clear just from watching their faces fall when Trump comes up next that we’ve already done irreparable harm to our international reputation before his first day in office.
The past month has been a rollercoaster of alternately feeling proud and ashamed of the U.S., a country that elected Obama, and a country that elected Trump. A country where I feel safe to travel freely and decide if and when I start a family, and a country on the verge of taking that away from so many others. A country with cutting edge medical services and healthcare, and a country where it is prohibitively expensive to all but a select few (very top of mind for me right now).
So, jury’s still out on the shorts. On reflection, most of the tough conversations I’ve had about religion, marriage, immigration, and politics here have been wearing my flag shorts, for the simple fact that they tend to spur discussion about the U.S. And while those conversations aren’t always the most comfortable, they’ve been some of my most meaningful moments of the trip so far. So I may just hold on to them a little while longer.