We communicate daily in languages we didn't grow up speaking. We have learned to adapt to cultures that have not entirely adopted us. Barack Obama might call us, as he has himself, "citizens of the world." But for Americans living abroad, it's our chance at changing the world as American citizens that is calling many of us back to our hometowns next week.
"I feel an incredible drive to get home for the election," says Tioka Tokedira, who has lived in Paris for the last five years and is traveling to Philadelphia to vote and volunteer. "Obama gives me a feeling of hope and pride, especially after dealing with negative French attitudes toward Americans."
For Vivian Juul Cintron, who grew up in the Bronx and has lived in Copenhagen for 18 years, the prospect of Obama winning is a precious lesson in history worth taking her 13-year-old son out of school for a week. "I have this unexplainable need for both of us to be there when the first biracial African American is voted into presidency. I see my son in Obama—the hope and possibility. My son may not fully understand the entire implications of this, but I see the pride in his eyes."
Having lived in Berlin since the Bush era began, I have been the sounding board for regular German rants about everything wrong in America; Michael Moore's books sold faster here than in the United States. Yet as I touched shoulders with 200,000 Germans cheering and applauding Obama's presence here, I knew I was witnessing history, and I knew that I had to return to my American home to vote for Obama.
As African-American expatriates in Europe, we willingly spoil myths and challenge stereotypes about our race; however, we always represent America, which has grown increasingly unpopular since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In Berlin, where bullet holes from World War II are still visible in building facades and a bombed-out church in the middle of the city remains deliberately unrepaired, the repugnance for war is deeply felt. When Obama stood here and reiterated a message of peace and diplomacy, I held my head just a little bit higher that day.
Since Obama's visit, most of us expatriates have spent hours in front of the computer, poring over information from American sources. We want not only the insides scoops, we want to be up on the latest gaffes, the hilarious spoofs and even the ad nauseum analyses of pundits and/or wannabe experts. While I may have ignored some of these self indulgent bloggers in America, being so far away from the election makes every American perspective intriguing.
"I think I'm addicted," Vivian says. "I got up at 3 a.m. to watch all the debates. I must watch everything on MSNBC, The Daily Show and The View. Then I read Huffington Post and CNN, ABC and CBS news. I also try to take in a little Fox News just to keep an eye on what they are saying. Amazing there is time for anything else."
Here in Europe, the U.S. election receives daily news coverage and piqued interest from Europeans. "It's on everyone's minds," says Tioka. "You find people anywhere and everywhere and they want to talk about the election."
Not surprisingly, most Europeans want to talk about Obama.
"All the Austrians I know are definitely hoping that Obama wins," says Veada Stoff, a native of Los Angeles who has lived in Graz, Austria for the last 31 years. She'll be voting for Obama in Florida. "They fear the Bush economic and international policies will continue if McCain gets elected."
Perhaps now more than ever, Europeans are paying close attention to the U.S. election due to the global economic crisis that began in America on Wall and Main streets. While only 40 percent of Germans own their homes (compared to nearly 70 percent in America) and are traditionally weak consumers, the American culture of debt will directly affect the average European taxpayer, thanks to an interconnected banking system.
"Sometimes I think French people are more informed about the election than some Americans," Tioka says. "They have a better sense of the platforms and the issues."
Meanwhile, we cringe when Americans like Joe the Plumber reach European news; he confirms a stereotype of an ignorant nationalist who has no real understanding of the scope of the issues facing his own country, let alone the world.
I recently read a column in a respected German newspaper about Americans having a peculiar tendency to vote against their economic interests. A political candidate's personality, religion and other emotional aspects, the column pointed out, take over the American voter's priorities and not the issues. When I read such things, I sigh in shameful recognition.
"It's hard being an American abroad," says Veada. "The Bush administration has such a terrible reputation."
While we love the ideals, opportunities and people who make America great, as expatriates, we have a unique perspective of experiencing how our government's arrogance and hypocrisy have damaged America's standing in the world.
"America is still home," Tioka says. "But (in the last eight years) it has been like having an alcoholic relative in the family. You owe up to it but do you really want to spend Thanksgiving with that person?"
The first step toward recovery is admitting there needs to be a change. Like a dedicated family that drops everything to stage an intervention, we are putting aside our lives in Europe to go home, elect Obama and finally get America into rehab.
"This is a historical event none of us thought we would see in our lifetime," Vivian says. "I want to be surrounded by my people when and if it should happen."
Rose-Anne Clermont is a Haitian-American writer based in Berlin, Germany.