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An American Abroad: Election Edition

November 10, 2016

Several people have asked me what my experience this election season – as an American living abroad in Singapore – has been like, so I’m going to attempt to explain it. Though I make my living as a writer and editor, I’m not particularly articulate (and am certainly not eloquent) when it comes to politics. But I’ll try anyway.

A bit of background for the uninitiated, though: Singapore isn’t all that different from the United States. It’s a young nation (51 years), a democracy (of the Parliamentary sort), and the population is made up of people whose ancestors – largely from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and the Middle East, but from other places, too – at some point made the move to Singapore. There’s freedom of speech and of religion, and it’s not a particularly socially progressive place, at least when it comes to the laws on the books. Not so different, right? Right.

When the campaign season started up, I received lots of questions about why there are primaries and the way our electoral system works, but people didn’t seem to be all that interested in discussing American politics.

All that changed when Trump started winning primaries.

“Are people actually taking him seriously? Why? How?” they would ask. “Do they not think he’s a farce?”

I didn’t have an answer.

That isn’t because I’m apolitical or because of my political affiliation (I’m registered as an Independent, actually), but because I legitimately could not understand how people could vote for him. There were some great people campaigning to be the Republican presidential candidate – people I probably would have voted for – but, somehow, Donald Trump kept winning primaries despite his inexperience. I chalked it up to white people liking his brusque, off-color comments and identifying with his white nationalism. But I also sort of thought that people were doing it because they thought it was funny, or that maybe they weren’t all that informed and voted for him because they’d heard his name before, or that they liked the little thrill of feeling defiantly anti-establishment by voting for someone so unqualified. In any case, I had conjecture, but I had no real answer.

When the party candidates were nominated, I began getting many more questions. What did I think of Hillary, could I believe that Trump won the nomination, who would I be voting for. But what struck me most was that people here were suddenly very engaged and very interested in the American election.

I’d always had a sense that the rest of the world watched the US in a way that the US, by and large, does not watch the rest of the world, but I never understood exactly what that meant until I lived abroad. Singaporeans (and other non-American expats I know here) watched the debates. They listened carefully. They read articles from newspapers and magazines and online sources all over the world. They sent them to me and asked me my opinion on them. They for sure had opinions.

Now, I generally am not engaged by or very interested in politics. I find politics and political rhetoric tedious and exhausting – I think probably a lot of us feel this way. But more than that, I always felt like the decisions didn’t really affect me (hello, privilege). My thought process was that one way or the other, I’d be fine. So I never really became invested. I never really cared on a personal level. And suddenly, here I was caring very much.

A large part of this was because I found Donald Trump to be so incredibly unqualified to be president. The other part was that I agreed with very little that came out of his mouth. I found him repulsive, hot-headed, narcissistic, willing to say anything for a headline, rude, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and immature. He wasn’t a person I could take seriously, let alone respect.

“How could people vote for him?” they continued to ask.

I continued not to have an answer.

So, Hillary Clinton became my candidate, and for the first time I’d be voting for a Democrat. Did I agree with everything she said? No. Did I like everything about her? No. But, I agreed with a lot of her platform. Most of it aligned with my hopes for America’s future and my idea of what America is: vibrant, diverse, kind, generous, bold, exuberant, tenacious, courageous.

I’ll be honest – I was excited to vote for her. I’d voted in other elections and always took pride in the act of casting my ballot, but I’d never been legitimately excited about a particular candidate. I was excited about her. Yes, part of this is because of her gender – I was thrilled to vote for a woman. But a bigger part of it was knowing that I was voting for someone who I knew without a doubt was the better person for the job.

When it came to light yesterday that she would not be the next president, I didn’t know how to make sense of the fact that a large portion of Americans voted for Donald Trump. I found it jarring that a large portion of Americans perceive and think about things so differently from the way I perceive and think about them.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the reasoning behind why some people voted the way they did – for example, I know many people who only care about abortion and will vote for a pro-life candidate no matter their stance on anything else – and I understand being afraid of change, and I do see the appeal of someone who isn’t a career politician. But I don’t understand voting for him. He isn’t just his “stance” on one issue. He isn’t just unqualified. He is vile – the things he has said and done prove that, to me. And, to me, voting for him – or against Hillary, if that’s how certain people want to couch that action – was saying that you either agree with his backward-looking vision for America or that you are okay with America being racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQIA, unconcerned with facts, and mean-spirited.

I’ve spent the last two days in an emotional whirlwind. I’ve never felt anything like this churning slurry of confusion, sadness, worry and rage. It’s the rage that’s new. (Hello again, privilege.) I’m furious about and heartbroken over some things family and friends have said to me. I don’t begrudge them their right to say it, or their right to vote, but I’m still sore about it. That said, I’m trying to be kind. I’m trying to be hopeful. I’m trying to be optimistic. I’m trying to love. I’ll get there.

This morning, I woke up and took my dog for a walk. During the walk, I mentally prepared for the questions that would come from friends and coworkers in Singapore today. I was ready to admit my disappointment and express hope. But when my coworker looked at me this morning and simply asked, “How are you holding up?,” I burst into tears.

That took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to cry today. I definitely didn’t expect to cry over the results of the election. But there I was, ugly crying at my desk anyway, sad to my core that the America I love and describe when Singaporean and non-American friends ask me what it’s like isn’t what I thought it was.

“How could they have voted for him?” they ask me.

I still have no answer.

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