Yesterday, lying in lost in thought trying to make it through yet another bout of stomach problems caused by some unknown bacteria whose source I can’t quite pin down, it occurred to me yet again- this is the longest time I have spent away from the United States and all of the comforts (and discomforts) of home.
While I can’t claim to enjoy being laid out by the mystery bacteria that is wrecking havoc on my gastrointestinal system, it certainly has given me time to think. And think I have. From the topics I’ve explored in past blogs, to what health and health care mean here relative to the United States, to America’s responsibility to others across the globe, between the cringes of discomfort it was a day replete with mini-revelations.
Perhaps the line of thinking that has captivated me most over these past few days is what it means to be an American – both on a personal level and in the eyes of others, including Bangladeshis and citizens from other countries across the globe who inevitably feel the aftershocks of American actions. I suppose it all started when, at a wedding celebration I attended a few weeks ago, a curious fellow guest struck up a conversation with me about American politics. “What do you think about Hillary Clinton running for president?” she asked. Since then I’ve added the question to the long list of queries I’ve come to expect, along with “Are you married?” and “Do you live in New York?”
While she was disappointed with my answer that, “unfortunately, I doubt that America is ready to support a woman for president- even if she is married to a popular past president,” the question started the wheels turning. Because really, when we meet a German national, do we ask how they think Chancellor Merkel is doing since she took office? While it is a fascinating topic, I just don’t foresee it coming up in casual conversation.
In trying to figure out why these questions don’t arise, it becomes ever more clear to me that, for better or worse, America occupies a unique position in the world – that of the world’s “lone superpower.” And while I try to distance myself from the American government’s actions (our unpaid dues to the UN for example, or the Iraq war for another), making that attempt for distance just doesn’t fly here. People continue to ask “but why does your country do that?” and no amount of explaining can make clear that, to me, to be American doesn’t mean to support every American action or inaction in the world. To be American in Bangladesh, for many people I have talked to, means to be irrevocably tied to the actions of American government, both at home and abroad.
And that is where the guilt sets in. While I’ve been in Bangladesh, I have almost entirely neglected American politics- and somewhat happily so. As a resident of the District of Columbia, having spent time on the Hill with various lobbying campaigns, and as an avid news watcher, over the past several weeks I have relished my vacation from America and all of the maneuvering of our politicians. But if, on the other side of the world, being American is often seen as synonymous with supporting American policies abroad, then by being inattentive I’ve been committing a very serious crime.
I can’t help but wonder if Bangladesh is the norm rather than the exception across the globe in being aware of internal American goings-ons and their possible effect on national and international issues. And then, if it is the norm, my duties as an American citizen take on a much greater weight than I tend to acknowledge. My failure to participate, even for a split second, in American politics is then a failure not just on a personal, moral level as an individual citizen, but a very real failure to all peoples across the globe. If there is no corner of the globe which remains isolated from the hand of American government, there is no corner untouched by my lack of participation. Then it is clear to me- as an American, I can make no excuses when the livelihoods and lives of so many stand to feel the impact.
It is all quite clear-cut when you boil it down to the bare essentials. Life must be political- there is simply too much hanging in the balance. And my attempts to explain that the American government’s actions are not my own is nothing more than a pathetic attempt to explain my guilt away.
It turned into one of those days where I wished Imodium AD could do such wonders for guilt pangs as it does for stomach cramps – but then what other force can be as effective a motivation to create change for the better? It may be the inner cynic in me, but I can’t help feeling that compassion or a vision of a shared humanity has all too often proven not to be motivation enough to get those of us who enjoy the spoils of power off the couch and into the service of shaping a more equitable world. Maybe some discomfort is part of the solution.
Posted By Caitlin Burnett
Posted Jul 22nd, 2007