(the 2nd of 8 posts about my new life in New Zealand)
For people over fifty, starting over in a new country is like dropping a lab rat in a gigantic maze. Like the rat, you suddenly find yourself in an alien environment that constantly confronts you with new decision points and obstacles.
For example, learning to use a new phone system. It took me months to figure out the Christchurch phone book, owing to the unique alphabetization protocol New Zealand uses. I also had to learn to dial 111 for emergencies, 1 for an outside line and 0 for a cellphone or long distance number. And not to waste hours redialing a number when I got a “fast busy” signal. It sounds exactly like the “slow busy” signal but means the number has been disconnected.
It helped a lot to meet other American expatriates struggling with the same problems. It was also extremely gratifying to realize I wasn’t alone in my total repudiation of Bush’s wars crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As I would later learn, tens of thousands of American progressives and liberals left the US during the Bush years. In November 2003, expatriate Americans led the antiwar demonstrations protesting Bush’s visit to London. American expatriates also formed major voting blocks voting blocs for Kerry in 2004 and for Obama in 2008 (I myself didn’t vote for him – I voted for Nader).
My Struggle With American Exceptionalism
Ironically the biggest hurdle I had to overcome was my own lack of objectivity regarding my country of origin. Given that my decision to emigrate was politically motivated, this really surprised me. Somehow it seems no matter how strongly Americans consciously reject America’s immoral and corrupt political system, we all unconsciously buy into the American exceptionalism that the education system and corporate media pound into us. The belief that the US is not only the foremost military and economic power, but also the most productive, efficient, cleanest, healthiest, transparent, just and scientifically advanced.
This is an extremely rude awakening for many Americans. It certainly was for me. In my case, Kiwi colleagues confronted me for my attitude that the US was more advanced in medical research. Looking back, I am both mystified and embarrassed that I took this position. I have known for at least two decades that US medical research is mainly funded by Big Pharma, which has a well-earned reputation for buying and publishing research that promotes profits at the expense of scientific objectivity.
Two of the most common examples are 1) research that promotes fictitious illnesses (such as estrogen “deficiency” disorder in menopausal women) to market marginally effective and frankly harmful drugs and 2) research that grossly minimizes the role preventive medicine and non-pharmaceutical interventions have in promoting and maintaining human health.
The Link Between Exceptionalism and Empire
Over time I came to understand that citizens in all great military empires are under enormous pressure to hold and express patriotic and exceptionalist beliefs. In Nazi Germany, you could be shot on the street for unpatriotic statements. When Britain was the world’s great empire, they gave you a trial first, but you could be imprisoned or even executed for treasonous utterances.
This is the second major awakening for many American expatriates: until we leave, we never fully appreciate that US militarism overshadows all aspects of American life. Again I have known for decades that the US government spends more than half their budget on the Pentagon. I also know that the purpose of the US military isn’t to defend ordinary Americans. The US invades and occupies other countries to guarantee US corporations access to cheap natural resources, sweat shop labor and markets for agricultural exports.
Yet it wasn’t until I left that I fully recognized the enormous personal price Americans pay – in terms of personal liberty, freedom of speech and thought and quality of life – as subjects of a great military empire.
Well said, Dr. Bramhall! Well said! I look forward to the next installment.
Very interesting series and I’m following it with great interest.
I’m also from Seattle and I emigrated from the US for the first time in 1989 just after graduating from the University of Washington.. Since then I’ve lived mostly in France but also in Tokyo, Japan. I’m now 48 and I’ve spent almost my entire adult life outside of America. When I talk to folks back in the US (and the new word we Americans abroad are using these days is “homelander”) they have very odd ideas about what life is like outside the United States. We are, for the most part, portrayed as as criminals rich tax evaders or as hippy-dippy modern day Benedict Arnolds. This view that there is something really “wrong” with us seems consistent across the American Left and Right.
Like you I had my own “frame” before I left the US as a young adult. The reality was something else. The process of integration was difficult and took years. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what happened and how I got from Seattle, Washington to Versailles, France. If you are interested I wrote this post back in 2011 that I called The Narcissism of Difference which I think sums up very nicely my thinking these days:
Thanks for sharing your article, Victoria. I identify with many of the sentiments you express here. One major difference in New Zealand is that they allow permanent residents to vote here. I suppose this relates to having so many immigrants here. I have been voting since 2007 and became a New Zealand citizen (I’m a dual national) in 2013.