Perched on the edge of a couch in a Nicaraguan hostel, I watched as news stations painted states red and blue, added up numbers, and made projections, until finally an African American man who ran on the platform of hope was declared the president. As the screen flashed the words "Obama elected 44th President of the United States," the hostel's other guests, each as glued to the TV as I was though none were from the U.S., exchanged high fives and jubilant whoops.
"Cheers," the hostel owner toasted, passing around glasses of champagne he'd bought in anticipation of the event. Change, it felt, had come not just to America but to the world. When we left Nicaragua the next morning for Chile, I threw the imaginary armor I'd worn during my past years of travel into the trash.
"Where are you from?" people asked, as they always had when we showed up at hotels and restaurants, visited attractions, or just wandered the streets. We were on a one–year trip through South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
"The United States," I'd answer, the hesitation that had once snuck into my voice when presented with that question gone. It was good to be American. My answer elicited smiles, not frowns; approval, not rebuke. Fellow travelers and locals alike congratulated us on our election results as if we had personally cast the deciding votes.
Africa, especially, was a revelation, nothing short of a love fest. We chowed down on fried chicken and ugali at Obama cafes, shopped for bananas at Obama groceries, and had our hair cut at Obama barbershops. What these businesses were called before Obama's election we never did figure out, the former names obscured by bright new coats of paint. Cars bearing "Zanzibar for Obama" or "Uganda for Obama" bumper stickers honked at us as they passed and we waved eagerly in response. In Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, we snapped photo after photo of the baby gorilla that the ranger told us was born on American election day and thus named Obama.
We defied all embassy advice about avoiding clothing that could identify us as American, and instead happily bargained for a kanga bearing a portrait of Obama and the Swahili translation of "Yes we can." After all, we were practically the only people in Africa not wearing Obama gear. His face peered out at us from the t–shirts worn by the men and the kangas worn by the women. Red, white, and blue were the colors of the day, and not just in Africa. In Vietnam, paintings of Obama hung right next to reproductions of Vietnam War era posters.
Yet it would be a lie to say that the entire world was enamored with Obama, and even in places where the bandwagon was full to overflowing, feelings waxed and waned about our president and our country. A taxi driver on Borneo told us that he would miss Bush and his aggressive stance toward militant Islam. A Vietnamese man who shared an aisle with us on a flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi lectured us on how wasteful Americans are. Kenyans, upon learning that Ghana would be the first country Obama visited in Africa, felt betrayed. And when Chicago was ousted first from Olympic host city contention, talk centered around what that meant for Obama and his popularity.
Objectively the answer to how popular Obama is today is a number, a number higher than that given to Bush, lower than that given to Obama the day he was elected. Exactly what that number is, I have no idea and I don't bother to find out. I've come to realize that it doesn't matter.
Don't get me wrong. I loved being greeted with hugs when I revealed my nationality. I enjoyed sharing cake with women who told me that they considered Obama their president too, even though they lived an ocean away. Meeting "cousin" after "cousin" of Obama in Kenya made me smile. I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of the world loving the country I have always loved. But the United States is a country with a history too deep and too broad for its reputation to be based solely on one man's presidency. America's impact—politically, economically, and culturally—is too far reaching.
The changing of the presidential guard, as well–received as it was around the world, did not incite anyone to paint over the murals in Bogota that demand "Yankee go home" or cause museums in Hanoi to edit their many references to Imperialist America. Likewise, when I think back on my years in Germany and Greece, I remember that despite moments when it felt tough to be American, my experience in both countries was overwhelmingly positive. Negative feelings about Bush did not stop my German roommates from serenading me and the other Americans in our dorm with a slightly off–key but entirely sincere rendition of the Star–Spangled Banner on American Independence Day. Opposition to America's war in Iraq didn't keep new–found friends in Athens from inviting me to their apartments, their island homes, or to join them for dinner at the ridiculously popular TGI Friday's.
When all is said and done (and sometimes it's a whole lot being said), people around the world recognize that a country's politics and a country's people aren't one and the same. How others feel about my country and my president is just a side note and, in the end, has surprisingly little bearing on how they feel about me. After all, I—not the President—am the guest in their country. Ugly is up to me.
Theresa Dowell Blackinton is a freelance writer based in Durham, North Carolina, specializing in travel and feature articles along with personal essays. Her byline has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the Washington Post, the San Antonio Express–News, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. Additionally, she is the author of Moon Outdoors Take a Hike, Washington, D.C., and Moon Kentucky (Spring 2011). She blogs about travel at www.livesofwander.com.
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