Time abroad provides students with new political views

By Daniel Gilbert

Brittin Romero, a third-year in the College studying in Rome, may not speak Italian, but has no problem reading the political writing on the wall. “Just going on the amount of graffiti I’ve seen on the streets of Rome denouncing Bush, I would say it is something that weighs heavily on the minds of Italians,” Romero said. “As for the students here, I feel most of them are planning to vote by absentee ballot, and have tried with some success to watch the debates.”

Instead of reading about most of Europe’s virulently anti-Bush sentiments, Romero is one of 203 students studying abroad from the University this fall who has seen firsthand how foreign countries have responded to the American presidential race.

Experiencing the election in foreign societies, in turn, has given Chicago students a new lens for understanding American democracy and society. The common issue weighing on locals in Europe, Asia and Latin America, say Chicago students studying there, is U.S. foreign policy, and how President Bush or John Kerry would handle the crisis in Iraq.

The public sentiment in China and Japan regarding the American election appears to be less polarized than in Europe. Eric Jacobson, a third-year in the College studying in Kyoto, Japan, described his host family’s reaction to the upcoming election as sympathetic to Americans, who appear to be facing a tough decision.

“The Japanese seem to think it’s really taihen in America—a word which basically means ‘difficult’ or ‘bad’—without even telling me that they’re talking about the election,” Jacobson said. He added that most Japanese view Americans as preoccupied with politics and unable to make up their minds, citing the constantly changing presidential polls.

According to Jacobsen, the first presidential debate between Bush and Kerry was virtually ignored by the Japanese. “This made me appreciate how much the debate rests on the way a speaker says a particular word or phrase, and how they perform for the audience, a quality that can’t seem to survive translation and is subsequently lost,” he said, adding that the Japanese were largely anti-Bush as a result of U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Josh Vizer, a fourth-year in the College, spent last summer in Beijing. Among the Chinese he encountered, he observed an appreciation for the U.S. electoral system, saying that the overwhelming majority preferred Kerry to Bush. There is a split, however, between the opinions of Chinese government officials and those of the man on the street. “Those in power seem more apt to respect Bush for having the authority and power to wage such a huge military campaign,” Vizer said, noting that while the government remains officially neutral on the election, it points to the 2000 election as evidencing that the U.S. is divided. As for the man on the street, “Most people told me that they were unhappy with the direction of American policy and that unjust war, corporate greed, and unilateralism would soon lead to drastic consequences.”

Vizer also noted that he did not meet a single Westerner in the course of his travels who supported Bush’s foreign policy agenda. While the Chinese lightly favor Kerry, they remain skeptical of American politicians in general.

John W. Boyer, Dean of the College and one of the main proponents of the expansion of the University’s study abroad programs, said students studying abroad should respond seriously to questions about American institutions and politics. “I always urge students to approach these transactions as real learning experiences, almost as ethnographic encounters,” Boyer said.

Closer to home, Costa Ricans in San Jose are visibly protesting the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Annie Miller, a third-year in the College, described the students at the University of Costa Rica as “extremely interested in world events,” noting that they often protest political actions of which they do not approve. “There is an extremely anti-Bush sentiment here, which does not mean they want Kerry,” Miller said. “I think the biggest issues are with the war in Iraq and the free trade agreement that Bush is pushing Costa Rica to sign.”

Miller spoke of anti-Bush phrases all over the city and particularly on campus, many of them against the “TLC,” or free trade agreement. “It is interesting that this is the subject of graffiti here—very different from what you will find in the U.S.,” she said.

For Monica Iyer, a third-year in the College spending the quarter in Paris, the political discourse was a breath of fresh air. “As an American, I feel comforted to be in a country where more people share my views on the Iraq war, and a little bit relieved to not be constantly bombarded by the election news,” she said, adding that although Bush is not well-liked in France, Kerry is not thought to have his own identity. Iyer, who described herself as liberal, plans to vote by absentee ballot.

Across the English Channel the political mood is much the same. Citizens in the United Kingdom, many of whom are displeased with their government’s involvement in the Iraqi war, are watching the U.S. election polls avidly.

Ann John, a third-year in the College studying in London, noted that the British seem a lot more interested in U.S. political events than Americans are in British politics. “The recent debates made headlines, and many of the papers are very pro-Kerry,” said John, describing the Brits as “curious” and “very interested” about what she had to say regarding the election. “A lot of people here assume that because you’re American, you support Bush, which is understandable, but definitely not the case with me,” she said.

In Dublin, third-year in the College Anelise Shrout encountered a similar response when she identified herself as an American to a group of Dubliners. “One student seemed to think that all Americans were rabid Bush supporters, and even went so far as to say that Americans could be classified into three groups: idiots without common sense, thieving New Yorkers, and rednecks,” she said, adding that every American with whom she had spoken was planning to vote for Kerry, perhaps suggesting a trend in political identification among the kind of student who chooses to study abroad. “I think that for the most part, Europeans are inclined to think that Americans have a very limited view of the world and support every bit of American foreign policy,” Shrout said.

Maria Cecire, a third-year in the College had an altogether different experience when she spent three weeks during the summer in Zambia. Cecire traveled with a group of U.S. physics teachers while filming a documentary about a math and science high school. Even in the more modern zones of the country – the capital city of Lusaka, and Livingstone, another relatively large city – the contest between Bush and Kerry was not big news. “I didn’t really notice people discussing the U.S. elections,” said Cecire. Meanwhile, news of the election did not penetrate into the smaller, more remote communities. “Most people, especially in the rural areas, don’t own a television,” Cecire said.

Boyer spoke of the importance of learning about diverse regions of the world, emphasizing how each region has something particular to offer. “If one goes all the way to Vienna, one should try to understand the unique features of life there and how it might be different from life in Chicago,” he said.

In his closing remarks, Boyer struck an optimistic note: “If we can train a generation of young American leaders to understand how other people and other countries think about their worlds, as well as explaining to them how we think about our world, we may make a modest but still very important contribution to international understanding and cooperation in the future. I think William Rainey Harper would have liked that very much.”