Why do Americans leave their country? Some go on cruises, some become eco-tourists, some renounce citizenship entirely and some take up arms alongside mullahs. Something drives even the most tethered teens to “do” Europe, if they have the means. The freer, hairier sorts go diving off of cliffs and bungee jumping from third-world bridges. They smile when words fail, give the shirt off their back as a sign of goodwill and iron Canadian maple leaves onto their bags, just in case. They feel their whiteness intensely or their color richly. They get diarrhea, endoparasites and an enlarged sense of self. And if they come back, they have the jolt of seeing home through a stranger’s eyes. It’s a pilgrimage Americans take to no place in particular. For a certain portion of the country, it is the closest thing we have to religion.

Steve Cotner

Today, people are talking about leaving in a more urgent way. Before the election, Republicans mentioned leaving if they lost (Imagine!), and now lefties are making it the new slogan. It’s a joke of course, mostly because people name Canada when asked where they’re going. But there is also a sense that people are testing each other, saying the inappropriate to see who’s with them, and how far.

The coastal states and blue puddles probably feel confident going abroad, knowing that everyone but Poland and Turkey would have voted for Kerry. They don’t fear terrorism the minute they cross the border separating America from the world. They know they’ll be able to find like-minded people somewhere on the planet. But it is getting tough to be an ex-pat. The State Department will only let you give up citizenship once you have the right to reside in another country, and the process of becoming a citizen somewhere else can take years. A person can sidestep all this by going through the “World Service Authority” in Washington, D.C., which has made more than 1.2 million people “world citizens,” but many countries refuse to recognize the title.

An alternative would be starting your own republic. When things got bad in Nigeria in the 1970s, the popular Afro-beat singer Fela Kuti set up his own Kalakuta Republic. At one point he had something like 29 wives, all backup singers, whom he called his queens. But when his hit record insulted the Nigerian soldiers by calling them zombies, they came and burned his place to the ground. Never mind, then.

If anyone still has a wanderlust, just remember that there are certain places you probably don’t want to be. Fifty serious incidents occur each day in Baghdad, mostly bombings, kidnappings and snipings. And there are parts of the world that no one sees — who could say how bad they are? Since the 1980s, Algeria has been so dangerous that even Paul Theroux, the travel writer who will go anywhere, will not risk it. In the United States we argue over the number of votes stolen. In Algeria they argue over the number of people recently massacred.

Some experiences of my own include being yelled at by Sowetan motorists for being a white American tourist and zipping into Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe for a day — a place where U.S. citizens are told to stay out or else use extreme caution. Zimbabwe is in the middle of an economic and humanitarian crisis with half the country facing famine, but like a good eco-tourist, I just came for the horseback riding. Aside from the guard who pointed an automatic rifle in our van, my biggest threat that day was a cape buffalo that, had I not been on the horse, would have charged me, gored me, stamped on me and then urinated acidic pee on me to make sure I was done. If I moved, it would repeat the process as needed.

The thing that I learned, besides that the word “nature” is often shorthand for “things that can kill you,” is that no one ever leaves politics behind. Boys learn that girls can talk about their bombed-out city and flirt at the same time. Girls learn every whistle, click and cat call for their rubia hair. Politics is there to greet you, wherever you touch down. And even stranger, it’s not your politics. If you go to the Hector Peterson Memorial Museum in Soweto, you might cry at the sight of a slain boy being carried through the streets, but you neither killed him nor carried him, and you’re not crying for apartheid, because you can’t really know what that was. You are crying for humanity at that point, which is very unsettling. Politics becomes another name for misery, and it finds new forms every day.

But perhaps knowing that is the first step toward a life worth living. America is not the worst place in the world, but neither is it the only place. Every time we leave it, for a week or a month, we are like an airplane skidding off the ground. We begin to see the world more clearly. We think of how little we are, but also how free and we wonder what held us in place for so long. And maybe if we can break the tether once and for all, we will really feel at home in the world.

 

Cotner can be reached at cotners@umich.edu.

 

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