Four Non-Americans’ Views of America

University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Bascom Hall. You can study here and get smart, but you can’t stay. (Credit: Richard Hurd/Flickr)

Listening to non-American friends living overseas, the United States seems like a lumbering giant with little idea of how it impacts the world. Its democracy and merit culture remains a draw for people in developing nations who desire to do better, but President Donald Trump’s immigration policies are confusing everyone.

Two weeks ago I told you about my conversations with four American friends living overseas and how they view the United States as expatriots. This week I spoke with four more friends, all non-Americans that once lived in the United States at some point, live in other countries now, and occasionally travel here on business or on vacation.

Everyone I spoke to is highly educated: We all went to business school together at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sebastien Rexhausen is an energy sector business consultant living in Bonn, Germany. Faisal Siddiqui, whom I wrote about last week, has been a hospital CEO in numerous Indian cities. Leonel Preza is an El Salvadoran now working as a factory manager in Vancouver, British Columbia. Qasim Munir is a chemical engineer working for a fertilizer manufacturer in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Geography it seemed, was everything, as I spoke to my old friends. My German buddy, Sebastien, who flies into Houston for work on a regular basis, finds America to be pretty much the same as he’s always experienced it. He applied for and obtained a five-year work visa with no problem. But as a European, he’s acutely aware of America’s sharp divide between rich and poor.

“The big divide between the affluent and poor is a topic that’s big in the news back home – coupled with drugs,” particularly the United States opioid epidemic, says Sebastien.

My El Salvadoran friend living in Canada, Leonel, now views everything through a Canadian lens (more on that later). Looking over the U.S. border just a few minutes away from his home in Vancouver, he sees the U.S. as divisive and centered on capitalism, that forgets to provide residents with the basics.

“[Canada is] like the U.S. thirty years ago. They are not as competitive, aggressive as in the States. In general people are nice, everything is organized, orderly. Here in Canada, you get health care and schooling for free. The university is less expensive than in the States. For me, experiencing the States is the sheer volume of the economy,” Leonel says.

Leonel and his family drives to visit Seattle every few weeks, and he has family he visits in Las Vegas and Boise, Idaho. So he manages to check in regularly on the U.S.

“The States have changed. You see more immigrants, but you see more poverty. Divisions from the rich to the poor, you see those big gaps. But you don’t see that as much in Canada.”

But my friend in Islamabad, Qasim, sees less of the rich-poor divide and more of the opportunity.

“[America] is an ideal place to immigrate, because the systems and processes are fair, there’s very little corruption, and you can excel and go fairly. My time there I found it to be the same. It’s a dream place for lots of people.”

Qasim expressed a bit of concern about prejudice against immigrants, but not too much. “It’s a country which 95% of the time makes you feel welcome. Every now and then you run into a person who makes a remark and it ruins your next hour or so, but that happens very little.”

But when discussion turns to American foreign policy, everyone had big criticisms for the U.S.

“Who would think people in Wisconsin would vote for Donald Trump?” asked my friend from India, Faisal. “What we hear about America is that it is not what it used to be. As a free country, as a place accepting of people of different backgrounds. From our perspective the bubble has burst.”

Qasim, whose country, Pakistan, just finished a series of deadly border battles with India, says many Pakistanis blamed the United States for the fighting since India’s fighter jets, bombs and artillery mostly comes from American arms manufacturers.

“We all know who was backing it up. There was someone that supporting it – the U.S. That’s who was pushing it,” he said.

Pakistanis, wedged between Afghanistan where the U.S. is fighting a hot war, and India, which the U.S. is warming up to in an effort to hem in China, are predictably sensitive to American actions.

“People here are almost convinced that whatever India was doing was with the backing of the U.S. That does not leave a good feeling at all. The more literate people say it’s more about business, there’s no such thing as ethics. It is all about give and take so the United States can leverage China. The U.S. needs a check on them.”

Pakistan is still a largely illiterate country, Qasim laments, and because of that, few people are able to read newspapers and form their own opinions about the world. So if the government says the United States is to blame, they’ll go along with that idea.

“The bottom line for a commoner, is they lack the capacity of interest to go into the depth and details. They just want a one liner from the government. Whatever they hear becomes their belief,” Qasim says.

Leonel, the El Salvadoran in Canada, thinks the U.S. is often totally unaware of its impact, and just bigfoots its way through the world. For instance, he thinks the twelve-year long El Salvadoran civil war from 1979 to 1992 was probably unintentionally lengthened by American largesse.

“The civil war in El Salvador lasted for 10 years, but the U.S. gave [the government] intelligence on where the guerilla commanders were. If they wanted, they could have ended the war in a year. But the U.S. kept sending money to maintain the war. That money [went to] the government, ‘Hey, we’re receiving free money for a war, why stop it?’ That’s why the war lasted 10 years,” Leonel claims.

I think Leonel’s analysis is oversimplified, but it does illustrate something very real, which is that America, the largest economy in the world, can quickly swamp a tiny country of 6.5 million people, and not even notice. What is certainly true, is that the United States was sending around $500 million in aid a year to El Salvador during the 1980’s, and American military officers were helping run the war for the government. We were in deep, with big consequences for El Salvadorans, and barely any for Americans back home.

This is felt by Sebastien, from Germany too. It’s big news in Germany that the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords, that Trump is pressuring Germany to stop building natural gas pipelines to Russia, and that the U.S. is demanding Germany not use Chinese telecommunications technology in favor of American tech. Most of those things aren’t really talked about in the United States.

“[Trump is] trying to go away from being the institution of the world to ensuring everything benefits the U.S. [He is trying] to take a different stance of the United States’ role in the world, which in the past was balancing. But now it’s U.S. first,” Sebastien said. “The U.S. was an institution for global policy making. I’m not sure if that is not lost to a certain degree. He is enabling other bloks or parties to win in that global race for positioning.”

Finally, because that seems to be the biggest concern between the United States and the rest of the world, Leonel’s immigration story is another great illustration of how the rest of the world works.

Born in San Salvador, Leonel came to earn an M.B.A. at the University of Wisconsin after he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. Graduating in 2003, he headed back to El Salvador to manage a massive Maidenform factory with 10,000 workers. He gradually climbed up the ladder, and by 2008 he was managing nine factories for Hanes Brands across Central America.

By then gang violence was getting worse in San Salvador, and concerned for their two young children Leonel and his wife decided they needed to emigrate. But he told me, “To get the States, it’s very hard. You need a family sponsorship or a company visa,” neither of which this Fulbright Scholar who managed nine factories for a major global company could conjure up.

But Canada offered an opportunity, he said. “In Canada they have a point system based on education, level of English and your skills.” The system is straightforward – meet certain requirements, you get points. Get 67 points or more, and you can become a permanent resident. (Try an example test for yourself here.)

Leonel had enough points, and he and his family obtained residency in Canada in 2014. Then, just four years later, they applied for Canadian citizenship in October 2018 and became Canucks. Just like that. You only need to be a Canadian resident for one year.

“Now we have Canadian passports!” Leonel said.

These are the El Salvadorans we’re keeping out of the U.S.

Four Reports From Abroad

The American consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. (From NBC News)

For Americans living overseas, the rest of the world’s reality is difficult to escape, since they’re swimming in it daily. I wondered about those differences and what it’s like to be an American expatriate, so last week I interviewed four friends and family members living overseas: An Episcopalian priest in England, an English teacher in Vietnam, a journalist in Turkey and a teacher in Nigeria. Each one has lived in their current country for a least a year, most have lived overseas for ten years or more.

Most of them spend a good deal of time explaining the allure of President Donald Trump to their foreign friends. My friend Mike Gibson, who works for an English-language news service based in Istanbul, Turkey says, “When people look at what’s going on [in America]. It’s really bad. We’ve basically lost any credibility we might have had, that was tenuous at best. The whole Trump election, it looks awful. It encourages the worst elements,” he says. “It encourages the worst elements in different societies to follow their worst instincts.”

“I get asked the most about Trump. It’s the thing Britons find so confusing,” says Devin McLachlin, an Episcopalian priest living in Cambridge, England. “There’s a large [American] cultural influence [in Britain], so they do find Trump disorienting. It’s creates a cognitive dissonance with what they understand of the optimistic view of American culture.”

They all had fewer reports on foreign views of Trump than they did about than they did about the difference between living in the United States versus in their new home. All of them remarked on how little crime they experience – no matter where they live.

In Lagos, Nigeria, a constantly growing city of 20 million people where my sister Susanna Pav is a teacher at an American School, there’s tremendous income inequality, sometimes within the same block, but that doesn’t translate into crime, like it does in the United States. “There isn’t the same sense of threat of crime. There’s guns and drugs, but it doesn’t feel as unsafe,” as in the United States. “My perception of crime is that it’s much lower because it doesn’t get the same media hype as it does in the U.S. and gun violence against expats is low relative to general population,” she says.

Even though there is is much poverty in Lagos, people are unfailingly polite in surprising ways, Susanna says. For instance, ever-present traffic ”go-slows” caused by people hawking everything from bananas to toilet seats result in people getting out of cars to argue. But Susanna recounted one man stepping out to shout at another driver, “Excuse me sir, did you not see the sign there that tells you to go left? I beg you, why did you not respect the sign?” The politeness can be shocking to how harsh Americans typically act, she says.

Father Devin, a Chicago native who lived in Hyde Park, is floored by the lack of crime in England. “I never see police officers here. Not only are they not armed, they just aren’t there. Even to me it feels underpoliced,” he says. “I went for a hike recently and grabbed a kitchen knife to bring on the trip, and my colleagues were very concerned, because they think about knives a lot here, because they don’t have guns.

“Our gun murder rate is unimaginable to people in Europe. They had a wave of youth violence which amounts to a bad weekend in Chicago. It amounts to how normalized violence has become to me in the city of Chicago. We’ve gotten used to a lot of violence [in the U.S.]”

Mike, who has lived in Istanbul for five years says that even in a country with political violence, he’s barely seen crime. “Turks are easy to get along with. I’ve never been robbed or physically assaulted. Like, we had a military coup!”

For these people living in a different country, It also becomes clear how culture permeates every decision and interaction.

Bill McGowan, an English teacher in Saigon after doing the same in China for eight years, grew up in sunny, suburban Los Angeles with a very non-political family. Now, he feels like he’s had a kind of awakening.

“I think with China and Vietnam and a lot of the Asian cultures, they are collectivist. They’re much more into it together, where the family is most important thing. Whereas looking at America, you can really see how individualistic we are. That has really affected me. American is a more selfish country. In terms of the health care thing: We’re such a rich and powerful country, but we could give a shit about our fellow Americans. ‘I’m going to get my own, screw the rest of you.’ Not to say that doesn’t happen in China or Vietnam. But there, there’s a sense of a group thinking moving forward,” Bill says.

Living in Nigeria, Susanna says she has become acutely aware of wealth. “One of the most striking things [about coming back to the U.S.]  is the size of the cars, the supermarket with twenty different brands of mustard. The consumerism. The space everyone takes up. The houses, the yards, everything is so well taken care of. It’s just dripping with wealth. Even in middle-income neighborhoods. The sense of privilege that you’ll always have these things. It will all be OK.,” she says.

Mike in Istanbul says the Turkish culture of politeness can be very difficult for Westerners to navigate.

“You will hear a lot of foreigners say, ‘The Turks are polite. But you can’t trust them. They don’t do what they say.’ I’ve been here five years, on a thousand occasions, people will say let’s make sure we have dinner that weekend. They are saying that, and it never happens. As a Westerner, my response is, that person is untrustworthy. But the reality is they are just being friendly. The distinction is in how Americans understand the relationship between truth and a lie.

“I think [Turks] think it’s important to be polite and tell people what they want to hear.

“For instance, asking for directions. ‘Do you know where this street is?’ And you can ask three or four Turkish people. They will all get it wrong, but will spend real time trying to explain how to get there, rather than say, ‘No I don’t know where it is.’ They all want to help you try to help you find it, even through they don’t know where it is. They can’t say, ‘No I don’t know where it is.’ They’re all trying to be courteous and helpful. That’s something every Westerner will have encountered here at some point.”

As alien as Lagos might seem to an American, once you get used to way life works, it can be managable, says Susanna, who has lived in Nigeria with her family for almost six years now. “Nigeria is different from other places in Africa, where there is more development. Nigeria is notoriously corrupt, [other countries are] corrupt, but Nigeria really takes the cake…Going out shopping, to the movies, locals are warm, helpful. We never experience hassles for the most part where there shouldn’t be. Every once in a while, we get stopped by a police officer with a machine gun, and they’ll ask us for money. They say like, ‘Hello! Hello! Do you have something for us today?’ And then you pay them and that’s it.”

There’s a flip side to the corruption too Susanna says, by applying a bit of “dash”, what Nigerians call bribes, you can smooth out bureaucratic paperwork, like when clearing customs or brushing aside getting fingerprinted for a new job. “The positive experiences far outweigh those negative ones.”

For all of my ex-pat friends, American identity never fades away, but the reality of where they live has maybe changed what it means to be a patriot.

“[America] is farther away,” says Father Devin in Cambridge. “Which is to say, more uniform than when I was living there. All that diversity does merge together…I’m aware of how particular and peculiar the U.S. is, that vast geography. That sense of being a nation of immigrants and that sort of diversity that you don’t have in the same way here in England, outside of London.”

“It’s home,” Bill, who is living in Saigon, says of America, “But maybe I’m seeing it without the American flag waving behind me, and a hand on my heart.”