Dear Non-American Traveler:
Surely, by now you’ve heard about America’s pick for the 45th president of the United States of America. Maybe you laughed, maybe you cried, maybe you marched in protest. But before you lash out at me on the train or laugh mockingly in my face at the pub for electing such an individual, let me share with you what I, as an American, experienced in our nation’s capital on Inauguration Day and why I ask for your respect and empathy so that we can work towards reuniting this nation with itself and with other nations around the world.
On January 20, 2017, I traveled from Detroit, MI to Washington D.C. to attend the protests for President Trump’s inauguration. I was initially greeted with calm and empty streets as I made my way toward the White House. However, I quickly found that the streets were emptier in that area because hoards of protesters had congregated closer to the scene of the inauguration. I immediately began seeing protest after protest on topics ranging from abortion to oil to women’s rights. The crowds consisted of people from all over the world – from Mexico to China – to protest peacefully alongside their fellow Americans.
After watching the protests for a while, I realized that I do not need to hold up a sign or wear clothing with provocative, anti-Trump messages to protest. While I did feel a bit left out without any protest propaganda on me, I quickly realized that ultimately, no outward display would speak louder than my own voice. What I learned from my time in D.C. is that protesting needs to occur constantly and in every area of life, not just once every four years on inauguration day. I learned that I need to stand up to the guy making racist remarks in class and protest his views, even if I’m the only one to do so.
As I was standing on Pennsylvania Avenue waiting for the Presidential Parade to begin, rarely were there moments when a protestor and a supporter weren’t engaged in heated debate. One situation that stood out to me, in particular, was when a reporter attempted to interview a group of three protestors while surrounded by Trump supporters. One Trump supporter who saw the interview take place immediately jumped in front of the camera, stuck out his middle finger, and yelled persistently at the protestors being interviewed to give up and go home. A group of Trump supporters nearby began cheering for the guy who jumped in front of the camera and singing, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” Rather than fight back, the three protestors maintained their composures and began chanting, “Love Trumps Hate.” Soon, the voices of the three protestors were reinforced and lifted by the voices of fellow protestors nearby, and eventually, the voices of the protestors chanting “Love Trumps Hate” overtook the voices of those chanting “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” and the latter group stopped chanting. This was my first glimpse into the impact that spontaneous protests can have and the importance of speaking up for what I believe in every day, every hour, and every second that I believe something wrong is happening, and not only in the context of an organized protest.
If I had to pick one event from Inauguration Day that stood out to me the most and will forever remain ingrained in my memory, it would have to be the time when a white, middle-aged man standing behind me starting shouting obscenities and other rude remarks toward an African American woman nearby. These remarks and jeers escalated until finally, he yelled, “Go back to where you came from!” The woman replied that she is from America, and this is her home. The man responded simply by saying that, no, she had to go back to where she originally came from. While this conversation took place, some groups nearby were hysterically laughing and cheering the man on.
That exchange was one of the most offensive things I had ever witnessed in my life and the first act of blunt, shameless racism I had ever seen with my own eyes. It also helped me to realize the reality of power in numbers. Throughout this entire exchange, not a single person confronted the man; rather, we all stood by mumbling quietly to each other about how horrible the situation was. There was something about seeing him surrounded by so many supporters that made me and my fellow protestors feel powerless to stand up for the woman. Had the man been alone, he may not have been as bold as to speak such brash words, and protestors standing nearby may have been more inclined to confront him about the things he was saying. The reality today is that those who view others as being less than themselves based on race, gender, religion, etc. have now found not only a voice to speak their thoughts, but the confidence that their words and ideologies will be affirmed and promoted by the President.
One interesting observation I made that day is that there appeared to be a positive correlation between being well-traveled and protesting Trump’s presidency. Not to make too sweeping of a generalization, but I observed that the majority of people who had traveled outside of the United States – whether extensively or not – were the same people who passionately opposed Trump’s presidency. Those who had traveled extensively and still supported Trump tended to support Trump based on less controversial policies that did not involve topics like women’s rights or immigration privileges. And finally, many who were passionately supporting Trump and oppressing everyone else were people who had not traveled or seen other parts of the world. Please bear this in mind and realize that when you meet a traveling American, they are likely trying to see more of the world and respect other countries and cultures well enough to know that America is not the only place in the world that matters. Embrace them, march with them, lament with them, but please don’t harass them because they’ve already been sufficiently harassed in their own country.
My second day in D.C. was similar to the first. There were more protests, more less-than-friendly exchanges between supporters and protestors, and more emotions running wild. I attended the women’s march in Baltimore, MD, and was told by my friend who lives in the area that she had never seen so many people gathered together in that area. There were crowds and crowds of people marching through the streets with some of the most creative and powerful signs that I’d ever seen. One sign that stood out to me was an image of a Muslim woman covered in the American flag with the caption “We the people are greater than fear.” This sign resonated deeply with me because it truly embodies the reason why people are so resistant to those who are different. It revolves around the idea that what is different is to be feared, and people give into that fear too easily.
While waiting to board my flight back to Detroit, I fell into conversation with two women at my gate. We were talking about random topics unrelated to politics, and the conversation was flowing smoothly. However, it wasn’t long before politics slowly seeped into our conversation. One woman began talking about how she had booked an Airbnb downtown and was surrounded by Black Lives Matter protestors, and she described in a disgusted tone how she had cancelled that Airbnb and moved into a hotel in a different area. The other woman proceeded to share her story about a similar experience with protestors. She recalled waiting to buy a Trump shirt when protestors began marching up and down the street, and the woman became so afraid that she forgot her sunglasses on the clothing cart. She received an unbelievable amount of empathy from the other woman, and they continued talking about the how, thank goodness, now Trump could finally make the necessary changes to make this country great again.
From my interaction with the two women at the airport and with other Trump supporters on my flight back to Detroit, I found that every time I encountered a Trump supporter, my natural inclination was to distance myself from them and to assume things of them that likely weren’t true. I realized that this is exactly what we should not be doing as a country right now. Distancing ourselves from those we do not agree with will not fix anything; it will only cause America to become more divided. I like to believe I’ve been blessed throughout this election to have a close friend who is a strong Trump supporter. He feels the same hurt that I do when hearing about the discriminating remarks made by many people who voted for Trump, and he has never once defended them. It is easy to forget that Donald Trump has a platform and that not every initiative proposed on his platform involves oppressing those different from ourselves.
We are hurting in America too. Yes, this is affecting the entire world, but those of us who did not vote for Trump are often the ones feeling the repercussions of the worldview he has encouraged throughout the country. Standing against travelers simply because they are from America will only serve to separate America from the world even more at a time when America desperately needs to be united with the world.
One question lingered in my head throughout the weekend: What does greatness mean? What does a great America look like, and what is it that Trump wants America to become? I continue to ask this question and am open to hearing the thoughts of both supporters and protestors alike. In my opinion, greatness is having a nation that is united, accepting, and powerful through their unity. I also see greatness as America developing positive and strong relationships with countries all around the world. Please help us move towards this idea of greatness by being patient with American travelers and not holding the actions of their country against them as individuals.
Author: Hope Chen
Student at the University of Michigan with an insatiable desire to travel. I blog about budget travel for students, my spontaneous adventures, and occasionally an outburst about global politics as it relates to travel. Currently planning for another summer in Germany – this time in Berlin.
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