There is power in watching the way individuals and groups operate in a foreign country, but engaging in conversation with them provides intriguing insights.
I joined Cole in a conversation with a woman yesterday on the train from Germany to Switzerland. She was born to a diplomat in her native home of Afghanistan, where she was raised in the Islamic faith. Since then, she has come to acknowledge a god, but not necessarily the god of Islam. She has lived in Germany and the United States throughout her life and was on her way to visit her son who is attending school in Geneva. Her career consists of working with refugees to set up internships through which they can get a foothold in life and a new society. In regards to immigration, she was supportive of the current German policy which is pretty open to refugees, but agreed that our current president has a valid point in his concerns about a few dangerous individuals flowing in through an open gate. This led her to speak with skepticism about our leader, saying that she is concerned because he is crazy. However, she maintains a positive regard for Ronald Reagan, who was in office during her years in America: “he was a cowboy, but he was good.” She was quite impressed that we were American students studying overseas because she identifies herself as a global citizen (shout out to the TCU mission statement) and truly values the importance of seeing other people.
This again brings up my question of what does it mean to be American? Whenever we have identified ourselves as Americans, people immediately comment not on our love of McDonald’s or obnoxious tourists, but on our president, the face of our nation. More to follow…
I asked our new friend what she believed to be the greatest divisor in the world right now. Is it race, religion, nationality, politics, or something else that builds these Berlin-esque walls? She answered quickly, but with wisdom. She did not address any of these topics, and skipped the idea of division as a whole, instead choosing to focus on the importance of looking at what unites us: our humanity. She remembered the day 9/11 happened. It wasn’t just us who felt it. She has become somewhat accustomed to terror around her continent and nation. The Manchester attack had happened mere days before our conversation, but she was still traveling and living her life as normal. She agreed with me when I proposed that perhaps changing your lifestyle and living in fear let’s them win, that to a certain extent, we must be resilient in our lifestyle to bind with humanity against terror. Terror thrives off of the ability to make people fear. I am reminded of my (beloved) brother’s teasing as a child, and how my mother would suggest that if I don’t let it bother me, it would go away because the effect would be lost. I feel an urge to act intelligently and with awareness, but to not fear terror. This fearlessness is not because I am an American citizen, though I still weep as I watch that video. This fearlessness exists because I am a global citizen in a world that should focus on the unity of humanity, not the division by terror, or separation by race, religion, or politics.
Shorty after this friend left, a young man of about 27 years joined us for 20 minutes. His name was Allain and his current occupation consists of equipping and preparing leaders and individuals for conferences as a part of the United Nations. He received his bachelor’s degree in Australia, and his master’s degree in international relations from a university in Geneva. I asked him what he believes to be the most important function of the United Nations. His response was that the United Nations focuses on two main matters in the world: peacekeeping and human rights. These combine to create an urgent push for resolution. He has worked at conferences between the opposing sides of civil wars and international conflicts as they attempt to compromise and resolve for the protection and betterment of all. The superhero lessons I’ve learned teach me that there is always another way: you don’t have to kill to solve a problem. It’s beautiful to see and know that the United Nations strives to embody this morality. Circumstances arise where nations are scarred by war that may or may not (up to you) need to occur, but Allain dedicates his life’s work to resolving conflicts and protecting people. I’ve always believed America should serve as a protective force in the world because we can never be sure that someone else will. I am grateful for the United Nations, Allain, and the work that is done to create peaceful resolutions.
My third valuable interaction with Europeans regarding America brings me again to the topic of immigration. I had the opportunity to talk to some counter-protestors at a demonstration in Marienplatz in Munich. These 16/17 year old students were waving the flag of the European Union as a message against the anti-EU, anti-immigration demonstration that would be starting soon. Police were all around the square keeping a watchful eye, but I got to ask these students, who were from a German town two hours away, some valuable questions. They feel very strongly about the EU and what it stands for as a union of nations. They follow the reasoning that if we don’t help the refugees, who will? This was interesting to see as we learned about the very nationalistic history of Munich and Bavaria, where many people believe they are Bavarian before they are German. (Oh identity, that which middle schoolers dread and adults still struggle with). These students also relayed sentiments that were strongly against our current president and his ideology regarding immigration. It seems that to the rest of the world, American news is a reality TV show starring, well, a reality TV star.
International views of Americans are very tainted by the face and figurehead of our nation. As an American, I pledge allegiance to the flag and all that our nation stands for. As a human, I find that I have a responsibility to humanity rooted in the greatest of all my allegiances.
My gratitude to reside in the United States and the hope I have for my nation is not tainted by the actions of any single individual. I still believe in our nation as a whole, but the rest of the world harbors a severe skepticism because America becomes synonymous with the man leading it: the most powerful man in the world.
No man is an island, and no nation can be an island any longer in this evolving world. When I look upon my CR mates, I see my sisters, my brothers. When I look upon strangers in a far off land, I understand the importance of seeing a sister and brother. My goal coming into TCU was to look at every individual as if they were my sister or brother. “What if I greeted people with the enthusiasm that I embrace my brother with after not being together for months?” I asked. That action has the power to make people feel loved (which they are and should be) because in the grand scheme, every man and woman is my brother and my sister. I fail at this regularly, my humanity is my downfall, but it is a valuable mindset that makes me better. My own brother is essentially 99.99% genetically similar to me. The woman Cole and I talked to on the train is approximately 99.5% genetically similar to me, based on scientific analysis. Again I ask, who is my neighbor?
So, what does it mean to be American? My experiences here have taught me that it does not mean much to be American, or even the president of the United States, if you cannot love the world. The moment our nationality becomes an “us and them” situation is the moment that we fear others instead of loving them. The moment our red and blue became “us vs. them” was the moment the world started watching the pinnacle of democracy stumble. The moment our attitude becomes “us at the cost of them” is the moment we descend down the path that nations and leaders have blazed before, leaving only destruction in their wake. Whether or not we would like to admit it, America is in the international spotlight. The spotlight likes to focus on our ring leader, but we as the American people must live on to be the nation we were born to be, regardless of what any of our leaders do. Many people here in Europe have been to America and they love it. A nation is not its leader and a leader is not its nation. Let us unite together as the people of TCU, and when that excludes people, let us bond together as Americans, and when that excludes people, let us rise up as citizens of the global community under which no man, woman, or child can be ignored. When we ask about foreign views of Americans, we are inherently seeking out the noted differences between us and them, instead of the woman on the train’s idea of focusing on commonality.
I recall the conversation that I’ve received, given, and watched where the 5-12 year old kid is told: “You’re a leader, now are you going to use that for good or for bad?” America, you’re a leader. Global interconnectedness has become too great to ignore now.
Being American means believing in freedom to such an extent that you would seek it for each individual of our whole world. If this gift of freedom is so great, how could we not want to give it to every imprisoned and oppressed citizen of the global community?
Let us not be divided as a nation by a single man, but be reminded of the very thing that unites the world: humanity.
The importance of what these conversations have taught me is part of why I chose CR: that I would see how others see by removing the red, white, and blue glasses to be a citizen of the world first. Anyone can talk to a friend, but who can talk to a stranger? Anyone can help a friend, but who can help a stranger?
The greatest leader in history (in my opinion) once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The Earth is home to all of us, let us not be divided.
Written in Switzerland, land of neutrality.