I never planned to live in another country. I never did a study-abroad program, have no fluency in any foreign language and most of the time still don’t really feel like that fabled creature, the ‘expat’. Frankly, even after three+ years, living in England still seems to me like the poorest excuse for ‘foreign’ possible for an American–except of course for Canada. How hip and daring can you feel about living in a country where they speak the same language and worship the same gods (capitalism, neoliberalism, patriarchy), even if they do drink warm beer and have few strange customs? (Anyone who has seen a Brit hen night in full swing knows what I’m talking about.) And while I never had that eagerness to get to a more exotic land common to French majors, I also don’t have so much love for my native shores that I’m one of those of those wistful-exile types either–that is, the kind who are forever nostalgic for some sense of real belonging that was left behind. I don’t think I ever had all that much belonging in the first place.
But on a day like today, when something so definitively national is happening to your nation, it really does feel utterly strange to be elsewhere, and there’s no mistaking the fact that you are thousands of miles away from where it feels like you are supposed to be.
A famous critic argued that modern nations came to experience themselves as communities through experiences of synchronicity: when we all do the same thing at the same time–like watch a final world series baseball game or the hear that war has been declared–we feel connected by that shared experience of time, as if we’re a community. This doesn’t mean we agree about what we hear, or interpret it the same way, but that we were there at the same time, linked by a moment. It’s the kind of feeling that makes people say, decades later, ‘Where were you when…?’ and that makes the people asked know exactly where they were. It’s hard to think of a national experience that captures this more than voting, especially voting in an election like this. It’s a powerful feeling because it’s a feeling of stepping out of ordinary time, into a sort of group experience of the present, which suddenly feels larger and more momentous. In one single shared day, millions of people all over the country do the exact same thing: they vote. Often this feeling also produces a sense of having power–of being able to act on history instead of just having it act on you.
It’s that feeling of synchronicity and connection that makes it feel so odd to be sending an absentee ballot by registered mail and calling voters in swing states with a UK mobile and an international phone card. I’d really like be there, pulling a lever with my own hand and seeing with my own non-virtual eyes the long lines of Obama voters. But in our own, GMT-skewed experience of synchronicity, expat dems across the UK will be up all night, watching the polls and biting our nails and hoping to god that this time we do really have the power to push history in a better direction.