I Feel Awful About Leaving the Country Right After the Election

So many people said to me, "You must be so happy you get to go back to Japan." It's just not that simple.
Publish date:
November 19, 2016
travel, living abroad, anxiety, asian american, japan, 2016 Election

I had very mixed feelings going to Los Angeles International Airport a few nights ago.

On that last night, I had a warm, cozy dinner with my friend Heather, her new baby, her husband, and my friend Joy. Heather is one of my oldest friends, one of those friends who has seen me at my best and at my very worst and to this day, I'm still not sure I deserve her friendship. Sitting in her living room with a couple bottles of wine, tons of Thai food, and all the baby toys, I laughed easily for the first time in a week. Heather's living room felt so safe.

I kept an eye on the digital clock on Heather's entertainment center, calculating and recalculating down to the very last minute when I would have to leave for the airport. When it was finally time for Joy to tear me from Heather and cram me back into her Smart Car for our drive to LAX, I actually prayed to do it without having a full-blown panic attack.

Aside from my usual airplane anxiety, it felt wrong to be leaving my country. With Trump having just been elected, my friends and family and I had been reeling all week. We had cried together, been angry together, been afraid together, laughed when we didn't know what else to do, and encouraged each other to fight on when stunned, numb, silence felt like the most tempting offer on the table.

And now I was leaving.

So many people said to me last week, "You must be so happy you get to go back to Japan."

It's just not that simple.

At first these words made me teary, then they infuriated me. I know the intentions were always good, maybe they were even expressing envy, but my knee-jerk reaction (which I didn't always voice) was, "Who do you think I am?"

When so many people I love are distraught, when the country I love is so dark and murky with hate, condemnation, and confusion, you think I want nothing more than to leave? To leave them?

Look, I know we've all talked or joked about "moving to Canada" if the election results were bonkers. I know I talked about my relief at being thousands of miles away in Japan. And really, I don't blame Americans for looking into life outside the US in light of the election. I don't even blame them for choosing to actually take the steps to move away in the coming months. A part of me really gets it.

But I can tell you this: being an American so far away from America right now is NOT EASY.

Any small sense of relief in not having to wonder about my personal safety as a woman and a Chinese-American in America is overwhelmed by the worries I have for EVERYBODY ELSE I care about. True, I couldn't be everywhere at once to protect them if I was in the US, but if I was nearby at least I could rush to them, be there for them, join in the fight.

While America figures out how to move forward and protect the rights and well-being of the people Trump's administration aims to dismantle and destroy, I feel so far away from the front lines. I can, have, and will make the calls, sign the petitions, cast the votes, and donate when I can, but there is the constant question, "Is it enough?" or "Is there something I don't know, that I should?"

I suppose you could be an American living in America and you might be asking yourself the same questions. However, I'm finding a rather jarring loneliness to living abroad right now that I've never felt before.

The last days I was in the US, I read the news in real time, walked outside, talked with people, saw the protests, saw what was happening. There was a sense of camaraderie, of community. We were all in it together, even if we didn't talk about it.

One day, while my friend Joy was at an appointment, I had a few hours to kill in Silver Lake. I sat in a restaurant and ate eggs and read the news and my social media feed on my laptop. It overwhelmed me – the state of America, how divided we are, the fact that I had to leave soon – and I felt my heart racing, my face flushing, the tears welling up in my eyes. Gathering my stuff, I rushed out of the restaurant before I had a full blown episode.

Walking around the block and calming down a bit, I went into a gas station to get a cold drink. Stepping up to the counter, the attendant at the register, a young East Indian man saw my puffy eyes and asked softly, "Are you OK?"

This little question, this quick moment of care caught me off-guard and I stammered a bit. "I...uh...no...I don't know. I'm having a bad day. Are you OK?"

I didn't know what else to say. I'm as clumsy with kindness as I am with glass eggs sometimes.

He smiled, "I'm OK, thank you. It's not an easy day. I hope your day gets better."

"It's a really rough day, a rough week." I said. He nodded, smiled a small smile.

"I hope your day gets better, and thank you," I said to him, and proceeded to run out of the gas station before I cried all over his selection of chewing gums.

In all my thoughts about the US right now, that young man keeps popping into my head. The election may have been the furthest thing from that young man's mind, it may have been the only thing on his mind. But for those few seconds at a gas station in Silver Lake, we were just two people who were checking on each other in a crappy moment. There may have been nothing there, there may have been a world of unspoken understanding. I can't be sure, but I believe it fell somewhere in the middle. We were two Americans who, for a brief moment, bothered to care about each other; we were "in it" together.

Of course something like this exchange can happen anywhere in the world, but with the wounds still scabbing over from the election, something about this exchange felt different. It felt kinder, sadder.

So when I got on that plane in Los Angeles to fly back to my safe-feeling home in Yamaguchi, I cried for about the billionth time in a week. Some of those tears were relief at going back to a place where I personally felt safe, where I didn't worry about being the "Chinese girl" in a sea of white faces. I desperately wanted to see my husband and talk with him about all that had transpired in just seven days. Frankly, I wanted to hide from America for a bit, I wanted a break.

But I also felt AWFUL about leaving.

I felt guilty. Like I was running away, I felt a bit cowardly. Who was I to spout out all these worries about my parents and friends, when I was hightailing it back to Japan? What was I doing to make things better? Sure I get to hide in my rural Japan home, but what about everyone who's living in uncertainty everyday now?

These sentiments have been echoed over and over again by my American friends living abroad. There is an immense need to be doing something for our country, to feel like we're contributing to the betterment of America, but we also have lives abroad, responsibilities we cannot shirk. The relief we might feel at being "safe" abroad in certain places, very quickly gives way to restlessness, anxiety.

And though those around you in your home abroad can offer attempts at understanding, or even sympathy, it isn't the same. It can be a really weird, isolating feeling, to live in a community, take part in it, have affection for it, but at times look around at people and think, "You might know, but you don't understand." Especially out here in my quiet little Japanese hamlet, the American presidential election is not of immediate importance to my neighbors. Why would it be?

I suppose that's part of the challenge I'm facing as an American abroad, to try to stay in the thick of things even when "things" are thousands of miles away, to stick with my communities, to not hide in the distance from my country when things get scary.

So to the people who asked, yes, I am happy to be home safe in Japan, but unfortunately it is not where my heart is.

Are you currently an American living abroad? Moving abroad? What has been your experience so far? How are you dealing with everything post-election?