An American perspective - from within and without

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Years ago, during the plane’s descent onto a runway surrounded by South African grasslands, my friend turned to me and said, “Quick. What is your opinion of Bush?”

We’d been traversing the globe for 24-hours. We were jet-lagged and dirty. It was not the time for a political discussion.

“Bush? What about him? I have no opinion,” I said.  I gripped the armrests with white knuckles. Landings are my least favorite. I was in my early twenties working in a Dallas public accounting firm where a dental appointment was considered a selfish indulgence. I had no time to care about politics.

“Well. You’re going to need an opinion,” she said, but confusion clouded my eyes.

I grew up in Plano, Texas. During my childhood, my family traveled – to Grandma’s house in Lubbock, to my Aunt’s house in Michigan, but never overseas. I met Cecile at my job. She was from South African and invited me to visit home with her. I jumped at the opportunity.

During that trip, we listened to Neil Diamond as we darted through farmland that reminded me of Muleshoe, Texas. I heard Howard Stern’s voice on the radio. And yes, I was the recipient of a heated lecture by Cecile’s friend who did have an opinion about Bush. With tears flooding my eyes, I fled the BBQ wondering why South Africans knew and cared more about America than I did.

“If the price of the dollar goes up, so does our price of bread,” Cecile said. I left South Africa puzzled by the logistics, but I understood this: While America ignores most of the world, the world has its eye, always, on America.

Almost twenty years later, my family and I live in Antwerp, Belgium. We moved to Antwerp four years ago, just months before Trump took office. Today, I view America from two perspectives – within and without.

One of my expat friends stated recently, “Not only am I feeling a bit lost in my new country, but I am also feeling a huge disconnect with what’s going on in America right now.”

Most Americans abroad have the same feeling. Not only have we been unable to travel home or have visitors, but as we turn on the news, and talk with friends and family at home, America has become unrecognizable.

Last June, I visited an Antwerp hair salon and a man greeted me. As he started to treat my hair, he asked me where I was from. The heat of the summer was palpable - images of protests and tear gas crossed my eyes. Trains painted “I can’t breathe,” passed through Belgium. I have always been a proud American. A proud Texan. But for the first time during all the years I have lived overseas, I hesitated to answer.

“America,” I whispered. “I’m from Texas, in America.”

He looked at my masked face in the mirror above his own mask. With measured words he responded, “America. It’s a bit of a mess right now isn’t it?”

In that moment, I realized he was black. He told me he was from Sri Lanka, but with those words, "it's a bit of a mess right now," I wondered what he thought of me. A white. American. Woman. His skin color hadn’t registered to me because I am an outsider in this country. I am an immigrant. I saw him as so many other things - a hairdresser, a man, someone who speaks Flemish but is nice enough to converse with me in English. . . and with the weight of those words lingering in the air, all I could annunciate was, "Yeah. It really is.” The salon fell silent.

My husband and I requested our ballots in June. We received them via email, printed them, signed the envelopes, and sent them via the military mail from Brussels. Collin County confirmed receipt.

We voted. Because after the youthful ignorance of my twenties, I have an opinion about the President of the United States. And I voted because I know it’s not just America that cares about America. The world is watching.  

Celeste Bennekers

Copyright © 2023 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.