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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review: Notes on a Foreign Country - An American Abroad in a Post-American World

It is always deeply satisfying to find a book that I can add without hesitation to the Flophouse American Diaspora reading list.  Notes on a Foreign Country:  An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen is such a book.  It is certainly one of the better takes on living abroad that I've read in the past few years.  Not only did it satisfy my desire to better understand how American identity changes through emigration,  it is a fair accounting of  the innocence with which Americans at home (and sometimes abroad) view the home country's relationship to and place in the world.  For make no mistake, Hansen believes in the decline of American power, prestige and influence in the world.   She is "an American in a post-American world."  

Before I tell you what I liked about the book I will start with a caveat emptor and some of the things I didn't like.  This is not a book that attempts to be neutral or objective - in fact, Hansen suspects that objectivity is simply impossible.   Notes on a Foreign Country is not an academic book but it isn't a typical expatriate biography, either.  You won't find much in the way of citations and you won't learn a lot about what it's like to live in Turkey.  Much of the book is about her discovery of the history of her own country in Turkey, Greece, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

If you studied Political Science or History she covers things that you probably already know.  Read it anyway to see the process of discovery.  In spite of an Ivy League education she seems to have been completely unaware of just how deeply intertwined the US was with those countries.  She came from a conservative background in the US and one could say that with each migration she became less so.  Sometimes the book feels like one is listening to a convert which can be rather tiresome.

There is also a complete absence of other Americans abroad.  It is as if she is the only American in Istanbul which we all know is not the case.  She did not solicit their views for the book which is a shame.  It would have been interesting to hear from other resident Americans, especially those who had been in the country for twenty years, say, instead of ten.  It is also sometimes irritating when she claims this or that characteristic for all Americans which may be true in her part of the US (East Coast) and in the socioeconomic circles she was raised in but is less applicable in others. Sometimes she qualifies this by reference to race: "White Americans."

I don't know quite how to describe her politics but I will say that there is much in the book that will anger American conservatives and a few things that will surely anger progressives. I certainly was not amused by her using "missionary" as one of the examples of "terrible" things Americans can be in the world.  She is deeply critical but generally thoughtful and that was enough for me to have kept reading.

Migration: Hansen left the US in 2007 for Istanbul, Turkey on a writing fellowship and has lived there ever since .  Like many Americans abroad she arrived abroad as a young adult after she had completed her university studies.  The era in which she left the US is important, I think, to understanding her perspective.  Growing up in what we might call these days "Trump country," she was a child during the Reagan era and still young when the Berlin Wall fell.  Thus, the three national events that mark her consciousness are 911, the Afghanistan/Iraq wars and the Great Recession.   The first was a direct attack on US soil, the second was military interventions that did not end well (did not, in fact, end at all) and the third an economic crisis that left many Americans impoverished. Her conclusion is that these things profoundly changed Americans.
"[T]he lives of American citizens, who have long been self-sufficient and individualistic - the masters of their own fates- have become entwined with the fate of their nation in a palpable way.  It is also perhaps the first time Americans are confronting a powerlessness that the rest of the world has always felt, not only within their own borders but as pawns in a larger international game.  Globalization, it turns out, has not meant the Americanization of the world; it has made Americans, in some ways, more like everyone else."
"More like everyone else."  Yes, and Hansen, in some ways, is no exception. Intentionally or not, she joined the 200 million or so people on the move in the world.  In fact she is a migrant twice over. First she migrated internally from a small regional town to the big city; from Wall, New Jersey (pop. 25,000)  to New York (pop. 8 million) and then she finally landed in Istanbul (pop. 14 million.)  She describes her hometown in the US this way:
"My town, populated almost entirely by the descendants of White Christian Europeans, had few connections to the outside world...I don't remember much talk of foreign affairs, or of other countries, rarely even of New York, which loomed like a terrifying shadow above us, the place Americans went either to be mugged or to think they were better than everyone else."  
Every step of the way Hansen was drawn by opportunity:  the chance to go to university and later a fellowship to go abroad and write.  She stayed in Turkey for what sounds an awful lot like economic reasons: there was work in Istanbul  and the economy was booming.
When my fellowship finished in 2009, the financial crisis whittled away any desire of mine to go home either in the short term -there were no jobs- or in the long term.  The financial crisis made me stop looking at my future as I once had...[I]t was no longer clear that our lives would get exponentially better, as our country had always promised us. 
Identity:  What led Hansen to leave the US was more complicated, however, than economics.  She believes that she was in the midst of an identity crisis which was not about sex or class or calling but about her nationality.  What does it mean to be American in the 21st century?  What is America's place in the world?   Americans were always told that "they were the best, that America was the best, that their very birthright was progress and prosperity, and the envy and admiration of the world." Recent events seemed to contradict that; her emigration confirmed it.  Her first glance at the airport in Istanbul in 2007 was where her sense of America as the "best" was wounded.  The Istanbul airport was cleaner, more modern, and more efficient than "the decrepit airport in New York I had just left."

Returning to the US on two occasions she was able to look at the US with new eyes and to see and experience an America she had not known before.  In the first she encountered the American health care system without insurance: "flies lived in the public hallway showers" and "that night in the hospital was one of the two times I viscerally understood how degraded America had become for many of its people." In the second she went to Mississippi to interview a doctor serving African-American low-income (or no-income) patients who had the audacity to suggest that America might want to look at Iran's rural health care program because something about the American system was not working. "Half of HIV-positive Mississippians didn't seek or receive treatment, because the vast majority of the people didn't have health insurance."

What does it mean to be the citizen of a country where one isn't sure that life will be better, where the infrastructure is crumbling, where schools do not teach about the wider world, where a hospital is dirty and unpleasant, where people with life-threatening illnesses cannot be treated because they have no money?  There are countries like that all around the world, but Americans never thought their country was one of them.

Ignorance and Innocence:  Hansen's argues that Americans'  ignorance of the world and professed innocence about their country's presence outside the US are a terrible combination and has done enormous harm at home and abroad.
"We cannot go abroad as Americans in the twenty-first century and not realize that the main thing that has been terrorizing us for the last sixteen years is our own ignorance - our blindness and subsequent discovery of all the people on whom the empire-that-was-not-an-empire had been constructed without their attention and concern."
And I would add here that going abroad is not necessarily a cure.  However well-travelled, however long Americans stay abroad, my experience has been that they know precious little about the history of the relationship between the US and the host country.  Many seem to have no idea that as Americans they don't just walk into another world where all agree that the slate is clean, where they can completely reinvent themselves without reference to the past and the relationship between the US and that country.  From that comes an arrogant expectation that they should be deemed personally innocent in any encounter where that country's citizens raise uncomfortable topics .

Americans were liberators and occupiers in France.  They were conquerors and occupiers in Japan and after seeing a picture of Osaka in 1945, I will never look at the skyline of the city from my balcony in the same way ever again. It is very easy to say, "I wasn't born then and I had nothing to do with it."  But it is worth thinking about whether or not many of the migrants I know (including myself) would be Americans abroad in France or Japan today if those things had not happened. Are we, in a sense, beneficiaries of someone else's tragedy?  That, I think, is an excellent topic for discussion.

What is not, in my view, reasonable is to simply disavow any connection to these things at all. To say there is no empire and, in any case, it has nothing to do with me.   What Hansen shows is that despite ignorance and self-proclaimed innocence, the people of the countries we enter know quite well what that history is and have their own feelings about the responsibility of Americans for their nation's actions past and present.  Perhaps one element of local integration for Americans abroad is acknowledging those feelings and accepting that history in its entirety.

A book written by an American cannot end without a proposed solution.  Hansen argues that one antidote is "love" and I scoffed at that until I read further:
"[i]t is not until one contemplates loving someone, caring about that person's physical and emotional well-being, wanting that person to thrive, wanting to protect that person, and most of all wanting to understand that person, that we can imagine what it would feel like if that person was hurt, if that person was hurt by others or, most important, if that person was hurt by you."  
 This is a call for Americans to learn to love the world and to stop viewing it as "a place where Americans go to get hurt and to hurt others." This, Hansen admits, was her starting point for thinking about big American cities and the world beyond America's borders.

 The second is acknowledging that we are imperfect like the rest of humanity.  ("Less than the gods and more than the beasts...")   "We are benevolent and ordinary and we are terrible things, too; we are missionaries and oil speculators, racists and soldiers, bureaucrats and financiers, occupiers and invaders, hope mongers and hypocrites."  And what would it cost us, really, to cast off the veil of innocence?  In any case, as Hansen points out, local citizens who know their history don't believe it of us anyway.  And, in my view, it makes us even more untrustworthy.

Hansen ends by conceding that she doesn't know what Americans and American identity will become but this is what she aspires to:
"Whoever Americans become after this time of reckoning, it will, hopefully, not be about breaking from the past but about breaking from the habit of its disavowal.  If this project of remembrance requires leaving our country, then so be it, because it is not an escape; we will find our country everywhere, among the city streets and town squares and empty fields of the world, where we may discover that the possibility of redemption is not because of our God-given beneficence but proof of the world's unending generosity."


Maria said...

I read her article based on her book, and I agree with most of what she says, too. Too many Americans have blinkers on when it comes to their homeland. Whether or not they can be removed with travelling abroad depends on whether they want them removed, though. I haven't met any Americans here who weren't Spanish-American, so I can't say other Americans have learned to look at their country differently upon leaving it. I suppose it all depends on how introspective they are. Unfortunately, too many, Americans and others, are very involved looking at their navels to lift their heads and really see the world they live in.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Maria, Or to examine the past which shapes the present. When the Americans arrived in France in World War I, one of Pershing's people said, "Lafayette, we are here." That was an American who knew his history. France had come to the aid of Americans during the American Revolution and he was saying that this was a grateful America acknowledging a connection, a shared history, a debt. You don't hear much of that anymore on the part of Americans. Instead most recently I hear grumbling along the lines of "we saved them twice and they're ungrateful." That's a disavowal of a common history. An erasure of a relationship of equals.

The common history the US has with Japan is different in that there were years of attempts at domination culminating in the occupation of the country after World War II. I don't think Americans in the homeland believe for one minute that Japan is an equal in the relationship. There are debates in Japan about the bases and the English language and so on. And yet I don't see those things as part of the consciousness of the Americans I have met here. Please correct me if I'm wrong about that....

Inaka Nezumi said...

I don't know what Americans in Japan think about the bases. I suspect that if they don't work at them or live near one of them, they don't think about them much at all.

An interesting book about the history of US meddling in Japanese domestic affairs is "The Truth about Post-war History" (戦後史の正体), by MAGOSAKI Ukeru (孫崎 享), a retired Foreign Ministry official. I don't think it is available in English, but pretty sobering stuff, considering Japan and the US are supposed to be allies.

Inaka Nezumi said...

As for my opinion on the bases, I have always thought they were bad for both countries. But I don't think the situation is going to change any time soon.

Tim said...


My sense is a lot of the American dislike of France has to do with the fact that post DeGaulle France started trying to move "back" to a position of equal with the United States that is had lost during the first and second World Wars. A lot of Americans especially the elite don't like the assertion of equality. Even during Pershing's time it was at not as if ALL Americans supported America entering the War on the side of France.

The video below gives a good desire of France's desire to be equal in the 1960s.

Tim said...

Below is a rather old paper on Francophobia in the US but I think gives a good historical overview. I think one of the more interesting aspects is how all the political turmoil in both the US and France has scrambled many of the assumptions about the view of France in the US. I would say there has been a lot splintering among different groups in America cited in their views of France since 2003. Liberal Americans after this spring probably look more favorably towards the French popular vote two round electoral system in France after Trump's and Macron's respective victories than they did in 2003. Even some of the anti semitic views of some of Trump's supporters has probably changed the Jewish American view of France since 2003.

All of this makes the present state of US French relations far far more interesting than it has been in a long time.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Nezumi-san, Thank you for directing me to Magasoki's book. You're right and there is no English translation. I did find a Forbes article summarizing it. Very sobering. I did find another title that is now on my to-read list: Legacies of the U.S. Occupation of Japan: Appraisals After Sixty Years. This one is edited by two Italian academics. Magasoki's book is cited as well as many others. If you are an American in Japan I can understand why one wouldn't want to think about this or the debate over the bases. Especially those who really love Japan. However, is it possible that understanding the context and history could shed some light on such topics as integration and the soft discrimination against them? Maybe. Seems to me that it would be a good thing to explore.

Tim, What De Gaulle did is a source of immense pride on the part of the French. (I have an old friend by the way who ws born on one of the US bases in France.) It was an assertion of sovereignty, of independence, which the French continue to this day. And in the end what Americans thought of all this was (and is) kind of irrelevant to the French. But clearly this independent streak really bothers Americans and it's worth asking why. Was it because they could do nothing about it? Sometimes I think Americans care a great deal more for the good opinion of the French than the French care about the good opinion of Americans.

Tim said...


I guess one American argument against French "independence" is it encourages "bad behavior" among other US allies. For example right now if you are Japan looking at the North Korean threat it kind of seems "unfair" that France gets its own nukes while you have to rely on a very unstable and unwell American president for a nuclear deterrent against NK. Again while their are historical reasons for this if you are Japan in the present day this state of affairs supported by the US(and France btw) can seem rather unfair especially when Russia and China haven't kept their side of the bargain in terms of stopping North Korea's Kim from getting nukes.

One of the more interesting things I found was France "rejoining" the NATO military command in 2009 that CDG pulled out of, I think was more controversial in the US and the UK than France. More than a few US foreign policy types wanted to stop it or place onerous or totally irrelevant conditions like reopening all the long closed US military bases in France(BTW, the underlying treaties related to these French bases were never fully cancelled). I think the truth of the matter is some especially US anglophiles and Brits didn't want to admit that France was coming back into NATO in 2009 as a stronger power than it was leaving it in 1966. France was basically equal with the UK if not stronger. France also got some very big NATO "jobs" in 2009 that were denied to DeGaulle in 1966.

On the other hand a significant amount of mainstream elite American opinion felt that it had always been American policy to encourage France to be part of the NATO military command since 1966 and if France wanted to rejoin the US could hardly say no and simply as a logistical matter the NATO command once France was a member again would have to be reorganized to reflect the role of France's military in 2009 NOT in 1966 when it left. Furthermore the idea of the US "adding" bases in France when the US had been closing bases and cutting military costs for years was totally laughable. Again this is what I refer to as "splits" in American "elite" opinion towards France in the last decade.

On another note I don't the think the Brits were at all happy with France laying claim to the "Number 2" slot in NATO and as such may have caused some of the physiological issues behind the Brexit vote.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Tim, A far greater unfairness is that Japan is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Does Japan want nukes? The public is not keen on that however the Right here does want a much bigger military. Look into the neonationalists in Japan. They have a lot of support in the parliament and in the prime minister which is pushing the limits of Article 9. There is a congressional report on this published in 2014 (US Japan Relation) which said, "Abe and his government also have jeopardized U.S. strategic interests in the region by taking steps that have aggravated historical animosities between Japan and its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea." The visits to Yasukuni Shrine were one of those things.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

That's 2013 and here is the link