PARIS — I’m on the bus when “Proud to Be An American” pops into my head. Once it was Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved.” Another time, the Frosted Flakes cereal theme song. Nearly a year after moving to France, my brain keeps regurgitating America.
I moved to the suburbs of Paris in September to begin a seven-month job teaching English to high schoolers, sponsored by the French government. Since I was 16, surrounded by the many strip malls and cornfields that make up my home state of Illinois, I dreamed of moving to France to converse in cafes with cigarette smoke wafting and walk down streets lined with Haussmannian buildings. So here I was, at the age of 22, finally finding my feet — and footing — on French soil. But there was something that risked ruining this postcard moment: it coincided with the election of a new president back in my home country. I found myself glued to American news coverage in the days and weeks after moving to France.
And then, on that long night of Nov. 13, sandwiched between curious French onlookers and printed caricatures of Trump and Clinton on the walls of an American-themed bar, I watched the results of the election — one of the most defining moments of my young American life — 6,000 miles from home.
I feared for my country
I thought that I might find refuge in my foreign high school classroom. But even French teenagers were caught up in the Trump victory aftermath: “What happened?” “How do you feel?” “What next?” I didn’t really have answers; All I felt was fear. Fear for my Muslim friends and black friends back home. Fear for my many friends who identify as transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual or somewhere on the queer spectrum. Fear for anyone who doesn’t speak English as their native language or hold an American passport. Fear for anyone insured by the Affordable Care Act. Fear for people with disabilities, both physical and mental. Fear for Jewish families like mine. Fear for every other woman in my country, who already had so much to fight for, only to now add our president to the list. I feared for the future of my country.
I felt some relief when nobody in one of my classes spoke up to ask me about Trump, until I checked the sign-in sheet at the end of the lesson: a certain “Donald Trump” had been in attendance. I realized then that there would be no escaping what happens back home. I am, and will always be, an American. And the whole world has clear opinions on just what that means. I just needed to find out what that meant to me.
For most of the past 10 months, I've wrestled with the dilemma of whether I should stay in Europe or go back to the U.S. once my yearlong teaching gig was up. I asked for opinions when I met other Americans abroad, spoke to my French friends and called my parents back in Illinois. To stay felt like a betrayal to my country. Yet, leaving felt like an act of defeat. I hadn’t made up my mind, but I knew I would be in France until my teaching contract ended on the last day of April.
In the meantime, while I was here, I felt my job somehow evolve into something more than just an English teacher. The election of Trump was cause for lessons in civics wherever you might be.
It also happened that the world's attention would be turning to the next big election, right here in France. So when we spoke about President Trump’s travel ban, I explained what it was, detailed Islamophobia in the U.S., showed the aftermath of refugees and green-card holders getting turned away from the country — and then showed them Marine Le Pen’s statement supporting the ban.
With a fairly standard rate of only one student falling asleep per class, I felt like it was a success. But then I’d always ask my follow-up question: Are you surprised this is happening in the U.S.?
There were the occasional few students who said, yes, they were surprised. The U.S. is a country of immigrants, after all! There's the Statue of Liberty, a centennial gift famously given by France, and the whole melting pot metaphor they've heard of. But these students were far outnumbered by the ones who were absolutely not surprised.
Students, Paris — Photo: Leo Parpais
Young people in other countries, turns out, are well aware of the deep-seated problems inside the U.S. (not to mention its foreign policy). They know about health inequality, police brutality and systemic racism in my country as well as me — and with none of the same American idealism that I grew up with. For them, mine is a country that simply lets guns run rampant on the streets, that punishes murder with death, and forces its language, culture and ideals on other countries around the world. It pained me to see they were far more realistic than I was about my own homeland.
Six thousand miles from home, surrounded by tall baskets of baguettes rather than fields of corn, I saw a much clearer view of my own country.
On a day in early June, nearly nine months after moving to France, seven months after Trump’s election and one month after that of Macron, I visited the high school I taught at for the last time. My teaching contract had ended the month prior and I wanted to stop in and drop off classroom yearbooks I’d made and say goodbye to the teachers.
Being so close to the start of summer break, the hallways were sparse, but some of my students still lingered. I made the final rounds, saying goodbye and writing a note in some of my student’s yearbooks. One, in particular, caught my attention. She’s 17 years old and — as she gleefully told me when I began teaching — has plans to study in Atlanta, Georgia for the summer. I wished her well and told her to keep me posted on what happened. But as she walked away, a big smile across her face, I couldn’t help but be reminded of myself at that age.
Being a young teacher in high school makes you think often about your own relatively recent experience as a student. Did I really think teachers couldn’t tell that I was texting in class? But this one student also made me think about my own current adventure abroad. Will she see my country for all its flaws? And what about hers?
For me, my eyes are still glued to American news. But since coming to France, how I view my nationality has changed. In addition to watching how the new presidency is changing my home country, I’m watching how it weighs on the world.
There are endless examples, as Trump seems to be swaying between radical changes in global relations and a sense that he couldn't care less. One of his first acts as president has very immediate consequences: the reinstatement of the global gag rule, which cuts government funding for any organization that performs abortions. This order means that women, without access to a safe abortion, will die.
With all this in mind, I’ve decided to stay in Europe. There are many reasons for this choice, but I also feel that this is no time for Americans to merely think within the confines of our own borders. I still believe in that American ideal of my youth. I just see it differently now, and know much work is needed to keep improving it.