To put it simply and mildly, the United States has not been very popular with other countries over the last eight years. An endless and directionless war, a collapsing economy and a powerful conservative movement headed by an extremely unpopular president have taken a toll on our international reputation, making for some awkward encounters for American UR students studying abroad.
Just ask junior Chris Aguilar, who was greeted on his first day in Vienna, Austria, with a huge billboard reading ‘Bush Go Home,” and who later learned that ‘Bush” had become a slang Austrian substitution for ‘stupid” (as in ‘You are so Bush”). Or ask junior Jason Scheff, who was unsettled in his language and communications class in Salamanca, Spain. He explained the perspective of America he faced abroad as ‘[a country] full of lies and deceit, willing to do anything so long as we benefit.”
While Scheff felt that foreigners realized that a disconnect possibly existed between the wants of the people and the actions of the government, there was still, for him, ‘that elephant in the room of anti-Americanism,” a feeling echoed by other students abroad as well.
Yet, much in the same way that Barack Obama had an energizing and revitalizing effect on many politically disaffected Americans, the international community too became swept up over the last few months in the movement for change that he represents. A BBC poll in September of 22,000 people across 22 countries found that Obama was preferred four-to-one on average. Obama’s support abroad was so overwhelming prior to Election Day that conservative pundits had begun making bitter comments about him campaigning abroad, especially with regard to his weeklong tour of Europe over the summer.
American politics are always widely discussed internationally, but this injection of such a popular and charismatic figure into the campaign, the high stakes of this year’s election outcome and the historic nature of an African-American presidential candidate made the election all the more enticing to the rest of the world. If any of the UR undergraduates studying abroad this semester thought they might be able to avoid the all-out media frenzy that accompanied the presidential elections here in the United States, they were wrong.
‘I have been astounded by the widespread coverage this election has received,” junior Brittany Crowley, who has been studying in London this semester, said, echoing a sentiment of a majority of UR students studying abroad. ‘Obama and McCain have appeared on the front of daily newspapers for over a week now and the British people have been exceptionally interested… in where the candidates stand and how our political system works.”
Even overseas, that pervasive political rhetoric over every nuance of the campaign was present. ‘I couldn’t believe how many times Sarah Palin was on the cover of El Pas,” Scheff said. ‘I lost count. And this was the vice-presidential candidate of the party that was trailing in the polls, mind you.” While the extent of the coverage abroad was close to that of the American media, the perspective was often different, UR students reported. ‘The general sentiment here is that the American presidential election is an overpriced, theatrical spectacle,” senior Emma Stieglitz, studying in Amsterdam, said. ‘They have a great time laughing at our political antics.”
This attitude is exemplified by the treatment of Palin, who, as Scheff noticed in his accounts of Spain, was disproportionately covered. ‘She epitomized the stereotype of the ignorant American that doesn’t pay attention to anything beyond his/her borders and doesn’t travel outside them either,” he said, explaining this Spanish fascination with the vice-presidential nominee.
‘Unfortunately, I have not heard too much about McCain without the mention of Sarah Palin,” junior Lydia Yale, who is studying in Australia this semester, said. She found that in regard to Palin, the Australians took on a similar attitude to what Stieglitz observed of the Dutch. ‘Interestingly enough, the only thing anybody seemed to like about her was the rendition done by Tina Fey on “SNL’,” she said.
The media was not the only way in which American politics pervaded the study abroad experiences of UR students this semester.
The election also served as a starting point for conversations with locals, a common ground of sorts for people of very different nationalities and backgrounds. Stieglitz took note, for example, of the tendency of the Dutch locals to ask Americans if they were for Obama.
‘If the answer was yes the conversation ended with mutual respect, and if not they would pepper you with questions about foreign policy, Bush, and of course, Sarah Palin,” she said.
Scheff was impressed by the fact that even the local children in Spain seemed to be well versed in American politics. ‘I’m interning at a school in Spain, and even my kids were well-aware of what was going on. Some of them asked me who I was voting for, and I was very impressed to learn that most of these middle school kids not only knew the names Obama and McCain, but also their parties,” he said.
When Election Day itself came around, students abroad were unfortunately miles away from the excited Rochester viewers in Hirst Lounge, as well as the throngs of crying and cheering Obama supporters in Chicago, Washington, New York and other American cities.
Indeed, as American supporters of Barack Obama embarked on a night of celebration, students abroad were faced with an uncomfortable time difference that left them learning of the results in the middle of the day or the early hours of the morning. Yet the international community did not let this difference deter them from joining in the excitement surrounding Election Day. ‘At the beginning of the semester I was a little disappointed that I would be out of the country on Election Day, but I think being in Amsterdam was just as exciting,” said Stieglitz, who spent election night watching CNN in a bar in Amsterdam and received a celebratory glass of champagne around five in the morning.
Around the world, UR students participated in similar celebrations. ‘I was invited to an American themed election party at a London flat where “American’ music, food, drinks and election coverage were focal points,” Crowley said.
Even when the results came in the middle of the day, as they did in Australia, there was a celebratory atmosphere. ‘One girl ran out of the hostel with her hands in the air, screaming “Obama won!’ in extreme excitement,” Yale said.
The results of the election certainly do not mark a complete reversal of the unpopularity that America has faced abroad, but students do say they have seen signs that the tides are turning in that regard. ‘Now that Obama has won, people seem to think that America has made the right choice, finally,” said Yale. ‘As for their attitudes toward us, I have yet to sense a change but it has only been a day. Maybe the world is on hold about us until Obama in office and there is a real change.”
Other students sensed a positive change in the aftermath of Obama’s victory. ‘Every shop I entered, people kept congratulating me and our new president,” senior Julie Shin, who has been studying in Edinburgh, Scotland, said. ‘They even offered to give me 20 percent off on anything that was red, white or blue.”
The true indication of the response overseas may come from the headlines that UR students encountered in the days since the election. Scheff was excited to pick up a copy of El Pas triumphantly headlined ‘Change Has Come to America.” Crowley was similarly struck as she walked into a tube station in London to face a row of free newspapers plastered with Obama’s face, reading ‘The Day America Became a Little Bit Cool Again.”
Perhaps with time this newfound perception of so-called coolness can lead to more substantial changes in American foreign relations.
But as of now, UR students studying abroad are at least able to enjoy a warm attitude from locals on the subject
of their home country, as well as a unique new perspective on American politics they only could have gotten from living overseas in such a high stakes, historic election.
Healy is a member of the class of 2011.