A room of nearly 50 students at the University of Melbourne stood cracking jokes as they watched the electoral votes for President-Elect Donald Trump pile up Tuesday. But for Dara Storer ’18, who has studied there this semester and was one of few Americans in the room, the results of the presidential election were not just some far-off joke — they spelled the future of a homeland she has felt slipping farther and farther away.
“It’s a lot easier for international kids to laugh off the election,” she said. “It felt like I was about to cry. It was isolating.”
For students studying abroad, watching the election unfold from over a thousand miles away without the comfort of fellow Americans has been an alienating experience. Many find themselves receiving dozens of questions from non-American friends, having to explain the unexpected choice of a country whose reputation has dissolved in the eyes of many foreigners.
A mirror image
Trump’s victory follows a more widespread trend of recent successes for right-wing campaigns rooted in xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments, many of which Brown students have encountered abroad.
In the United Kingdom, Carol Shi ’18 watched CNN alongside Brits starting in the early afternoon local time Tuesday. The situation felt all too familiar to Brighton locals, who had watched their own country vote to leave the European Union just months before. Shi said her British companions identified parallels between Trump’s candidacy and Brexit. Both drew strength from older, conservative voters, who found themselves at odds with minorities and young people.
And that’s exactly what happened: 37 percent of voters between 18 and 29 voted for Trump, while among the nation’s most reliable group of voters, those 65 and over, 53 percent voted for him. With Brexit, 19 percent of those between 18 and 24 supported a British exit from the European Union, while 59 percent of pensioners wanted the country to leave, according to TIME Magazine.
Despite warning signs, the results still supplied a shock that hit home for students abroad around the world.
In Oxford, England, Kyoka Kosugi ’18 began the night watching the election results at a university bar with nearly 50 people, Americans and Brits, around her. When it seemed like the swing states would not be called until the early hours of the morning in Britain, Kosugi made a plan to leave and head to bed optimistic that her preferred candidate — former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — would take the lead. But before she could leave, a Brit stopped her and told her that “one of the worst parts of Brexit was waking up and finding out about Brexit.” She resigned to stay up the entire night and watched as nearly every decisive state on the map turned red.
In France, Leah Steans-Gail ’18 opted for an early bedtime after a night of celebrating what she thought would be Clinton’s imminent victory. But when she woke up the next morning, the vote was all too different and reflected the presidential race she’d seen just getting off the ground in France. There, right-wing politician Marine Le Pen has run a campaign for president as leader of France’s National Front, a right-wing group with a strong anti-immigration stance that has been gaining popularity. Le Pen congratulated Trump Wednesday, hailing his victory as part of a “great movement across the world.”
Disconnects beyond borders
Just 10 hours after the final call, Kosugi said that British students had already stopped discussing the American election. “They’ve already accepted it.”
The same could be said for France. “A lot of responses I’ve seen have been a little glib, which is the opposite of Brown,” Steans-Gail said.
The day of the election brought feelings of isolation as well. Suzanne Warshell ’18 was one of just a few Americans watching the election with 20 other international students studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She decided around 1 a.m. her time — when it was clear Clinton would lose — that she needed to go home and process the election by herself.
“It was kind of uncomfortable to be surrounded by non-Americans,” Warshell said. “There was that gap — it felt a lot more significant to an American.”
“I feel powerless here. But at the same time I think everyone on the ground feels that way, too,” Steans-Gail said.
“I feel so ashamed to be from America right now,” Shi said. “I wish I had a British accent.”
Several sources said that one of the first questions foreigners have asked the last few months upon hearing an American’s accent is “Who are you voting for?” Many Brown students feel the need to explain themselves to those they meet and own up to the embarrassment Trump has caused their nation.
While many Brown students abroad have already been asking themselves how a Trump victory could happen, as one of comparatively few Americans in their host countries, many are also expected to provide answers to friends and classmates there.
For the past few weeks, Storer has been overwhelmed by questions over dinner while at the dining hall, confronted by peers with questions like, “What’s going on?” and “Why do you (Americans) suck so much?”
“It’s hard to give a real explanation,” Storer said. “It definitely feels like being tokenized.”
Embarrassment, shame or having to answer foreigners’ questions about Trump will be among the smallest of impacts this election has on day-to-day life, “but it’s also one of the hardest things right now,” Warshell said. She particularly feels the weight of having to explain herself in Argentina, a place where the United States has drawn considerable ire.
From his perspective between Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories, Marcelo Rivera-Figueroa ’18 is also reeling from the shame of being American right now. On top of having to discuss Trump with his peers in the Middle East, “there’s still a huge feeling of guilt for all of the awful things we (Americans) have done here.”
Coming back to America
As the sun faithfully rose over Haifa, Israel, Rivera-Figueroa stood outside a bar with several other American friends studying abroad. Flicking ashes of their cigarettes to the side, they half-joked about staying another semester. No one laughed.
In many ways, it has been a privilege to be away from the United States during this election. Students noted that they were more easily able to separate themselves from the drone of the 24-hour election news coverage and tune into election news when they chose. But now, returning to the United States seems daunting, especially having gained a new perspective on how some of the tactics proposed by Trump in his campaign are similarly applied in foreign countries.
Rivera-Figueroa, a Latino who says he is often mistaken for Arab, thinks about the times he has been randomly selected while at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel and is reminded of Trump’s threat to promote stop-and-frisk policing. “I get nervous now when I see a soldier at a checkpoint, and the thought of bringing that back with me to the (United States) … doesn’t make me feel good,” he said.
While many on social media joke about leaving for Canada, some students abroad look forward to their return back, even to a United States they no longer know or love the same way.
“I don’t think it’s fair that I just get to leave,” Warshell said. “I want to be in the (United States) working against this. … It’s a large setback, but it’s not the end.”