Last week, I witnessed Barack Obama’s second victory from a sports bar in Shanghai. Four years ago, I did it from a black and white TV in Cameroon. Obama’s presidency means a lot to me. I didn’t become a US citizen until 2005, and thus 2008 was the first presidential election that I could vote. And I voted, absentee all the way from Cameroon. This time, I made sure that ballot was mailed in before I departed for Shanghai. One day, I will vote in a voting booth in the USA.
I was never one for politics. Truth be told, I only became a U.S. citizen because it was far easier to travel on a US passport in Europe than as a Taiwanese (back then, anyway). But over time, I have grown a deep appreciation for my adopted country. Mostly, it stemmed from that first Obama victory in Cameroon, and subsequently my two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
I still remember that night. A group of volunteers found someone who owned a small TV that had CNN. But the reception was so bad that night, we had blurry black and white images, so we listened to the coverage and checked for the results online (development gap, anyone?). Results came through around 4am, and you would’ve thought Cameroon elected a new president. People were so happy, perhaps only because of Obama’s African’s heritage. But many held the hope that perhaps if an African descent were the President of the United States, then perhaps their lives would be better somehow. There was a sense of hope that I had never really experienced before.
I then spent two years representing the US, being the token American in my village. I never thought much of myself as an American until those two years. I thought a lot about my identity as I explain to my Cameroonian friends my role as an American, as a Chinese/Taiwanese, and what that means. Holding that American passport, as it turns out, holds great esteem for many. This holds true both back in Cameroon, and now in China.
This election, I was informed of a watch party that took place at a sports bar, The Camel, commencing at 7am; the alternative was held by AmCham (American Chamber of Commerce) charging 400rmb ($65) per head. You can probably discern which supporters went to which watch party… This was my first exposure to the Shanghai expat crowd, and as the day went on, the crowd got bigger. The victory aside, the moment that it made me very proud to be an American was when the roomful of Obama supporters clapped loudly to Romney’s concession speech. That, is the beauty of a true democracy.
It was much more apparent given our backdrop – China was going through their once in a decade leadership transition. While the government works hard at creating buzz, there is little interest from the people. It was an interesting juxtaposition between the Chinese servers at the bar, looking at a roomful of crazy Americans cheering for their newly elected president. I wonder what was going through the servers’ minds.
It’s so easy to take the US for granted, and the freedom that our democracy grants us. When I’m abroad, I become keenly aware. There is nothing more frustrating to me than hearing an American without a passport that says, “Our government is fu##ed.” Friend, you do know what that is like until you live in a country where a “democracy” actually means having the same president in power for nearly 30 years, and roads do not get paved, and you do not get electricity for days.
In case you need a visual, here you have Cameroonian’s “democratically elected” president, Paul Biya, in 1982, and then today:
So, with that, I pledge allegiance to my adopted country. Long-live the USA!