A curious thing happened to me during the 2016 Presidential election. Well, one curious thing among many, I suppose. I was rather profoundly against the views of one of the candidates, and often enough would say so in social media platforms such as Facebook, appending articles in most cases from well known, reliable, mainstream sources which I hoped would further explain my point.
Well, one morning, I received an instant message from an old friend of mine in Portland. I had not seen him in some years, even before leaving America, but we had once been quite close. In fact, he had lived in my house for a time, eaten my food, slept in my spare bed when he was down on his luck, out of a job, newly divorced from his wife.
More surprising yet, then, was the message I received that morning. I should stay out of American politics, I was told. I should just enjoy the life I had going in Bali, sit on the beach, improve my tan, and leave America to Americans.
The most curious thing about this, to me, was not so much that an old friend would turn on me. The campaign season had caused many bitter divides–or rather, revealed many bitter divides, among friends, among associates, even among members of the same family. What struck me most was the idea that because I had been outside of America for six years, I had become, in his mind, no longer a full-fledged American. I was out of touch, corrupted by paradise, disenfranchised of my national identity by suntans on the beach.
Similarly, another acquaintance in an online political discussion group wanted to know what any of this had to do with me. How is it that American politics, American issues affect you as a resident of Bali? What pertinence can it have in your life? What relative experience do you have of what is currently going on in our country?
Hmm. Where to begin? There is the pertinent fact, for instance, that, as an American citizen, I pay taxes to the American government. My desire, as with all tax payers, is to see my contributions responsibly distributed, and, for this reason, I am interested in policies that strike me as responsible, progressive, compassionate and, yes, reasonable.
Moreover, I am a recipient of Social Security, and stand to receive Medicaid when and if I return to America. It is therefore of importance to me that these programs thrive under the protection of a government that will continue to devote resources to those who have worked a lifetime to receive them. In Indonesia, the populace does not enjoy this great gift of our responsible democracy. Pensions are restricted to government workers, policemen and politicians and bureaucrats. The rest, the vast majority, work until they die; or if they are too ill to work, they must rely on their family members for food and shelter and care. Most people here do not have health insurance. In the case of illness or injury, they must either spend everything they have or borrow from relatives and friends, or simply suffer, and often enough die of curable maladies. There is no Obamacare. There are no charity programs. If you end up in the hospital, you must pay before receiving treatment. There is a story of a man who died in a hallway while awaiting the desperate attempts of his family members to gather funds. One case among many.
And so, yeah, you’d better damn well believe that I care about the American way, about the great abundance that enables us to care, about the honorable commitment of our government to represent all and extend benefits to all.
Here in Indonesia, the government is run by graft and corruption, greed and class consciousness. Yes, little by little, we begin to see the rise of a middle class, we begin to see a more progressive distribution of wealth; and yet it remains, in this day, a populace composed of the very rich and the very poor.
Aside from practical matters such as these, I did not, upon coming to Bali, simply shed my American skin and become an Indonesian. And, to Indonesians, I will never be anything other than an American, even were I to live here for the remainder of my life. To them, I am a bule–which means, essentially, a foreigner. They may think that I am an Australian or that I’m Dutch, simply because most white people here are either Australian or Dutch; but they will not in a thousand years mistake me for Indonesian. In fact, even were I to become an Indonesian citizen, for some unimaginable reason, I would still not be an Indonesian. I would remain a white person, a bule.
I was born in America of American parents, lived 55 years in America, was schooled in America, worked my career in America, buried my parents and my brother in America. And so no, my old friend, I have not changed my identify, discarded my heritage, forgotten my culture, ceased to care about my nation. You can take the American out of America, but you cannot take America out of the American.
In short, I am, always have been, and always will be as American as apple pie–not the fake kind that they stuff in plastic wrappers in the Mini-Market, but the kind that mom used to make from scratch and set on the windowsill to cool.