Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Observations from abroad on U.S. elections

As I write this it is Wednesday night November 9th here in China. It has been a very interesting day because with the time difference today was the day that the United States voted. This is only my fourth year living overseas, but it just so happens to be the third U.S. presidential election I have experienced from overseas. Living in a foreign country during a presidential election is a unique experience that I felt warranted a post. This post is going to be on my observations of how people abroad perceive the U.S. elections. It is not about politics. I have never stated my political beliefs online and I do not plan for that to change.

The first presidential election I experienced from overseas was the last one I could not vote in.  In 1996 I was 15 days too young to vote (a number I calculated years before the election, because that’s just the kind of person I’ve always been). However, even as a not quite 18 year-old, I was intrigued by how interested people of other countries were about U.S. elections. My school asked me to speak to the 12th grade class and explain how the elections in the U.S. worked. A lot of people were curious because elections in the United States work very differently than elections in most other places (not only because of things like the electoral college, but also because you are voting for an individual rather than a party). There were a number of people who asked me questions about the election, but
they were simply questions on how the system worked. The media covered the election in what to me at the time felt like great detail (but is nothing in comparison to what happens today), but it really wasn't that big of a deal.
My next experience with living overseas during a presidential election was in 2004. In 2004 I was old enough to vote so it was a more personal experience. I had to plan far in advance and request an absentee ballot to arrive by mail and then mail it back in in plenty of time for it to be received. I remember being excited to cast my first ballot and I had a few Chinese people who asked me about the election. China is not a free country, but I learned that they do have elections of sorts. I was also informed by my friends back then that they had no choice, but to vote and that they were given a list of names that they knew nothing about to chose from. The other interesting (but not surprising) thing about the elections in China is that they are not done by secret ballot. During this election there was some interest and curiosity amongst my Chinese friends and like the 1996 election it was a little surprising at how interested the rest of the world was in the election. I still remember after Bush was re-elected seeing the headlines from the British papers and being surprised at just how much the rest of the world cares about the U.S. elections.
Fast-forward now to 2016. This summer I was in Europe just after Brexit and during the national conventions. The two topics that people wanted to talk about were Brexit and the upcoming U.S. election. I wasn’t as surprised by how interested people were because not only had I already experienced it with two previous elections overseas, but I could see how interested I was in Brexit and how much I wanted to talk about it with the various Britons I met during my travels. However, none of this prepared me for today. 
Yesterday was November 8th and to me this was the important day because even though we are 13 hours ahead of the east coast, November 8th in my mind was election day. Yesterday I downloaded the I voted “sticker” that I’ve included on this blog (and tried, but failed at posting it to Facebook). Yesterday, in my mind was the important day. Yesterday, had some questions. I had a couple of co-workers from South Africa who were asking me questions about the election (I refused to give my opinion on who I though would win or who I was voting for). They were especially intrigued about the fact that you could write-in a candidate. I learned from them that apparently (this is hearsay after all) that in Australia you get fined for not voting and in South Africa a non-vote is counted as a vote for (I believe they said) the opposition. It was interesting because this information came after they asked me what would happen if I didn’t vote. I wasn’t sure how to answer the question and was like, “then I don’t vote…” Yesterday, was an interesting, but not all that surprising a day...
 I don't think anything could have prepared me for today. The world has changed a lot since 2004. One of the greatest changes is social media. Because of social media I have a better feel for what is going on back home than I ever had before. Another change is live-streaming. Right before I left China in 2005 I tried to stream my first video ever (it was a movie trailer). The Internet speed was too slow to actually see anything in the video. Today, you can easily watch live updates and stream video commentary (although from China that can still be a touch difficult) and with the time difference lunch time (noon) was right when most of the west coast polls were closing. 
My morning was lived in a state of normalcy. My afternoon was not. I got to school and spent a little longer on breakfast than I had planned to because my Chinese co-workers were asking me questions about the election. One of the questions they asked me was who I voted for. I explained to them that we vote by secret ballot and that oftentimes we don't tell people who we voted for (possibly not even our families). They then told me similar stories to what I had heard in 2004. One of my coworkers told me the only time she had ever voted was in college and the teacher handout the ballot and told the students which name to pick. She told me she was sure that the teacher was just passing on the instructions that had been given to her and that the election had no meaning to her. My other coworkers agreed.
I left breakfast and figured I was done with election talk. I taught my morning Chemistry classes, graded papers for a while and then went to lunch. As I mentioned above, noon was when the west coast polls closed and I quickly realized two things 1) my international co-workers were watching the election results very carefully and 2) they felt a vested interest in the election. Throughout lunch every time a state was projected to be won by either Trump of Hillary you would hear cheers or sighs (I'll let you guess which way the thoughts were going). I got asked quite a few questions about how the electoral college and other related things worked. After I explained several aspects to one co-worker his response was, "now I understand so much more about what I've seen in American television programs."
The most interesting part though was how frustrated my International (read non-Chinese and in this case non-American) co-workers felt. They were frustrated because I think they feel just as strongly as Americans do about the results of the election (they feel that what happens in America greatly effects them, and I think they are probably right), but also feel helpless because they don't have a voice.
On Wednesdays we have staff meetings and the first thing that happened in the staff meeting is one of my Chinese coworkers sat down beside me to show me a Chinese website that was calling Trump the winner (none of the U.S. media had done so yet). Throughout the meeting everyone was watching phones and computers to keep up with the results. While the principal was telling us about report cards and other typical things one of my co-workers informed him Trump had won. My principal is an American and he looked at the guy who said it and replied, "aren't you a Canadian?" (Knowing full well he was). As he said this another Canadian walked in to the room and he turned to her and said, and what update on the U.S. elections do you have for us. I have to admit with so much focus on the election I was glad to go home (not that my whole subway ride wasn't about politics - it was). Thus, being overseas doesn't in anyway limit how much the election is talked about or the strong feelings. I for one am at least glad it is now over. Hopefully, we can unite and end the divisiveness that I've seen of late.
One last side note. I mentioned in 2004, I applied for an absentee ballot that was mailed to me and then I mailed it back. This year, I could receive my ballot by mail and mail it back or I could receive my ballot electronically or by fax. In all three cases you had to complete a voter identity confirmation and have it witnessed by someone over 18 (I witnessed for a friend and had a fellow American colleague witness mine), then if you received it electronically you could mail it back in or return the ballot electronically (if you received it by mail or fax you HAD to mail he ballot back in)

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