Matt St. John is a writer and author living in San Francisco. His works have appeared in publications like Vice, El Pais, the East Bay Express, and more.

Being an American expat in the Trump era

Being an American expat in the Trump era

Illustration by Matt St. john

Illustration by Matt St. john

The American election of 2016 was over. I was laying in bed, woken up by morning talkers and footsteps outside my Malasaña window. I rolled over to check the news on my phone, but then I thought twice. I didn't know the results of the election yet and I didn't want to know.

My head tucked deep into my pillow, I projected the coming day on the white ceiling above me. I saw two paths. One would make me breath a sigh of relief. 

I had no idea what the other would feel like. I decided to believe that Hillary Clinton was going to be president in that moment — not because I knew it to be true. 

I just didn't have to work that day and wanted to sleep in till noon.

I started to drift off, when my girlfriend rolled over and said: "Trump is winning." Then she went back to sleep.

I didn't. 

I couldn't go back to sleep because I was scared. Not just for my country — but yeah, that was part of it. Admittedly, my worries were more selfish: how was it going to affect me as an American abroad? Because no matter your political affiliation, being an American abroad has taken on a whole new meaning.

If I was anonymous — just some dude at a hostel — I could tell people I'm Canadian. The two accents aren't so different. I've met people in Vancouver who sound like they are from California. I would probably get away with it.

But my life isn't transient here in Spain. I work at a school. My job depends on my being American. It is part of my identity here, even part of my job.  At work I'm American Matt, all knoweth ambassador from the land of the Golden State Warriors, the Statue of Liberty, and cheese burgers. 

It's not that I'm ashamed of my Americanism. Sure, I disagree with half the voters in my country, but that's democracy for you. It's just hard to have your country's problems on the tip of the world's tongue. 

. . .

At first, after Trump won, I tried to shirk my cross-cultural responsibilities. At the school in Madrid that I work at, one of my teachers put me on the spot in front of a bunch of 5th graders — "So, Trump, huh?" she asked, as if I should be able to speak for my whole country. I just ignored her and started playing hangman on the chalkboard.

Grieving publicly in front of a bunch of children was not something I was ready for. 

But since then, I've had no choice but to accept my role as American ambassador. And not just with the kids at my school either. I have two checklists of European friends in my head: the ones I've talked to about the election, and the ones I haven't seen yet.
I don't have many answers to the big questions, and I've been asked them all. Hilariously, some people just ask me, "What is going on in America," as if I knew. Guys, I'm a San Francisco liberal, who has lived in Spain for the last year, and actually believes what he reads in The New York Times.  If metropolitan, American millennials had their heads in the clouds, I was somewhere on Mars.

But I couldn't stay on the red planet long.

I was pulled back down to Earth by political discussions over brunch with Spanish friends. By late night, drunken arguments with Italians. The gym teacher I only see in the coffee line at work even gave me his two cents.

My roommates, the adults I teach business English to, my Spanish tutor; since the election news broke, everyone has an opinion about Trump and my home country. Some tell me it will good for Europe to have an American isolationist in office. Others can barely say his name, like he's Lord Voldemort or something. Some think its America's turn to have an asshole in office, while a few just say, "I'm so sorry."

Whatever they say — whether I agree with them or not — it's difficult to have Trump be a topic of small talk. 

But as an American abroad, whether I like it or not, that's a part of my identity now, too.

Recently I wrote an article for Vice about watching the election from Spain. I spoke with a bunch of republicans living here in Madrid. In a phone interview, one girl told me it was rough being a republican in Spain. She found most Europeans to be liberal, and because of that, she usually just kept her opinions to herself. 

She said it was easier that way.

I interviewed those expats because I wanted to understand what it felt like to have your political affiliations under a microscope.

I never thought I'd be combing those interview notes for coping mechanisms. 

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