“Where are you from?”
It’s a seemingly harmless question when you’re a foreigner living or traveling abroad. But sitting at an Oktoberfest celebration in downtown Beijing, just minutes away from the U.S. Embassy, it was the first time in my life that I found it hard to say, “I’m American.”
Our dinner table that evening represented a mini United Nations. We had expats from Germany, Peru, Honduras, Norway, Finland, India, and the UK. Amongst them were diplomats, journalists, and entrepreneurs. The conversation started with, “Have they caught that pipe bomber yet? And hey, why is it called a pipe bomb?” This is what conversations about America revolve around in the 21st century?
When I left America, George W. Bush was still president. Some of the memories of the harm that the Bush-Cheney years wreaked on the world have paled in recent years due to the Trump administration’s mix of incompetence and desire to burn down everything that came before, including decades of goodwill that managed to withstand even major missteps like the Iraq War. Yet, even with Bush in the White House, I never felt so much discomfort in saying that I was an American as I do now. “Hey, I didn’t vote for the guy, and the election is around the corner,” is a typical excuse many Americans pull out when their party isn’t in power. So, why did this time feel so different?
When I joined the China Central Television (CCTV) Human Resources Department five years ago, I was making a choice. I knew that whenever I introduced myself as working for CCTV, I would be branded as working in “state media” and burdened with many of the just plain wrong stereotypes about it. At least Chinese state media have never pretended to be who they weren’t.
Fast-forward to 2018. Trump’s attacks on the “real” media have led to CNN receiving pipe bombs in the mail and journalists attacked by passers-by in the street for producing their so-called “fake news.” The current President of the United States jubilantly endorsed a Congressman who pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter just doing his job. “He’s my kind of guy,” the president said at the rally. Survey results show a growing distrust in American media from all sectors of society. Did we even think this was possible two years ago?
What’s happening in the United States now is much larger than the term of Donald J. Trump. Something has fundamentally changed in the country of my birth. Waking up in the morning in Beijing, the first thing I do is check my e-mail—even though I usually dread doing so. I’ve never had as many “breaking news alerts” in my inbox as I do now. From reporting on Trump’s latest incoherent tweetstorm to yet another mass shooting, watching America from abroad is surreal. The divisions are so deep that governing has become intractable. Watching Trump undo President Obama’s initiatives one cut at a time will mean that the next Democratic administration will have to fix what was undone, instead of proactively making the U.S. a nation the world could rely on again.
During my taxi ride to the restaurant, my driver, a 21-year-old man from Henan province, asked me where I was from. When I replied, he smiled and excitedly said, “America is great!” When I asked him if he liked Trump, he said he “definitely” did. When I asked why he said, “Because America is a great country.” The irony of China’s working class still holding esteem for Trump, who has targeted China more than any other with his unwinnable trade war, was not lost on me. Perhaps American soft power has more resiliency than I thought.
Are Trump and his politics just an aberration? A result of Russia’s well-documented influence in the 2016 election? Or is something else happening? Will America ever go back to what it was before? Will America be able to pull together and solve not only the long laundry list of problems it faces at home but international issues that it was usually on the vanguard of leading? What will the United States stand for in the aftermath of this disastrous presidency? And more importantly, does America have the resolve to fix it?