Besides my being carried aloft on the shoulders of people everywhere I go, there’s been no discernible change in attitudes toward Americans in the Philippines since the U.S. presidential election. Before the election, every non-American I met in Asia asked me with fascination and dread what I thought would happen, as though my name were Gallup and I had a finger on the pulse of America. I didn’t. Part of being an expat is not being sure where the pulse is or whose pulse you’re looking for. Still, as le Américain, I was the designated pundit among those who didn’t know better. (Actually, none of my friends overseas are French, but le Américain seems classier than “that Yank” or the ever-popular “American dog.”) Boating down the Mekong River in Vietnam in September, Margie and I found ourselves in the same boat as two Australian families. I struck up a conversation with a chatty doctor and her teenage son. Although Margie is a newly minted American (it’s only been a year since her swearing-in as an American citizen, in Des Moines), I’m the one who seems obviously American in the old sense of what an American looks and sounds like (I’m white and have an American accent), so Margie never fielded one question about the election. As we motored slowly down a tributary of the Mekong, the Australian doctor remarked that it would be a historic election.
“For America,” her son remarked with the perfect cynicism of 16-year-olds the world over.
“The only thing we don’t understand in Australia,” the doctor continued, “is why it has to take so damn long. It seems to go on forever! In Australia, the whole thing is over in a matter of weeks.”
Frankly, I agreed with her, and I might have considered saying something a little more insightful than “I agree” had it not been for our guide, an ex-Vietcong guy born in 1947 named Tung, whose mother, sister, and brother had been killed by Américains not so very different from me. (Perhaps, in Vietnam, using French is as bad as using English. How about "Amerykanie"—i.e., Polish?) Tung had taken a special interest in me. For about the hundredth time that day, he started to sing an impromptu song about what we were going to see. The songs were always sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”
This was my second day with Tung. The day before, he’d taken us to the Cu Chi tunnels, north of Ho Chi Minh City, where I had to feel the impossibly deep war wound on his shoulder—he had been shot by an American gunship during the Tet Offensive and had nearly died. And I had to listen to one antic, guilt-inspiring lyric after another, sung at full tilt with a full-on smile. “And now we’re going to see the village where the Americans committed unspeakable atrocities!” Try singing that to “Auld Lang Syne.” So, yeah, I’m not sure the election meant all that much to Tung at this late date, but it still meant something to me. Tung, in any case, was singing to the choir—I had only been a boy during Vietnam, but knew enough at 10 or so to know nothing good would come of it. I had been against Iraq, too: My name appeared with those of dozens of other writers in an advertisement, paid for by Dennis Lehane, that ran in the New York Times on the eve of our latest invasion. We called ourselves Writers Against War. A lot of good it did, but it was a noble statement, and when, to my shock and … awe, the American people voted Bush back into office in 2004 for a second crack at Armageddon, I took cold comfort in the fact that, four years later, this pointless war would be laid squarely on the ornate doorstep of the Republican Party. I couldn’t even believe that Republicans still existed in 2008. Hadn’t we outgrown them yet? To me, voting Republican was impossibly primitive, something akin to voting for a nematode.
So, now, four years later, I was off gallivanting on my own foreign escapade (minus the atrocities), and I needed to vote like never before. Better yet, Margie and I were, in a way, giving the world an extra vote. If the world could have voted in the election, polls showed that an overwhelming majority would have voted for Obama. In 2004, Margie had been part of the majority of humanity affected by America but unable to have a say in its leadership. But now, in this election, she could vote, too. At Margie’s swearing-in, the judge in Des Moines had spoken movingly to the crowd, telling the new citizens that every one of them should consider him- or herself as American as someone whose ancestry could be traced back to the Mayflower. “Nor does this mean,” she continued, “that you should forsake your homeland. You do not have to give up the love of your homeland for the love of America. And you have an advantage: Most of you can speak more than one language. Some three or four. That’s not something that can be said of the majority of Americans.” This is a ceremony every born-and-bred American should see, I thought, as I was leaving the courtroom to find a parking ticket on our car. “Welcome to America,” I told Margie.
So I was determined not only that I would vote but that Margie would, too. In September, before I left the States, I printed out absentee applications for both of us and sent them in with instructions to send our ballots to my cousin David, who lives in L.A. From there, he would FedEx the ballots to us in Manila. (I didn’t trust any nation’s postal service with this task.)
A couple of weeks after we arrived in Manila, I received an e-mail from David saying that the ballots had arrived, and a few days after that the awaited package with our ballots arrived. The package indeed contained absentee ballots—for the Johnson County school-board election. I had just shelled out $75 for ballots for a school-board election, and, worse, had I been just dying to vote in that school-board election, I would have been disappointed to learn that it had already taken place!
I smelled conspiracy. This was the stuff of movies, or at least of e-mails. Obviously, a Republican mole had infiltrated the Johnson County Election Board, and this sleeper cell had been awakened just in time to thwart any likely Democratic voters in Iowa. We were, after all, a swing state. I wouldn’t put it past them. Most likely, the Republicans had commissioned a poll that showed that the election would be won or lost by two votes in Iowa!
Or maybe I was overreacting. “There’s no way you’re going to stop me from voting, despite your unspeakable atrocities,” I sang to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” as I typed an outraged e-mail to the Johnson County election commissioner. I received a polite reply from an election official a day later apologizing for the confusion and expense but informing me that by law they had to send out ballots for all elections to those who requested them. And, to make it easier now, they sent me a link to print out absentee ballots for the general election. By this point, I was completely flummoxed. Why couldn’t we have received these electronic ballots in the first place? The obvious answer is that that would have been too simple. Never mind. I printed out my ballot as well as Margie’s and then followed the instructions on what was needed to mail the ballots back in a way that would ensure the vote would not be disqualified. I read and reread the instructions for putting the ballots in the secret envelope and attaching the affidavit and making sure that the envelope was completely sealed—it was kind of like an origami project, but certainly it did not approach the difficultly of carving an ice-sculpture replica of the Johnson County Courthouse (one of the lesser-known requirements for absentee-ballot requests in Iowa).
Afterward, Margie and I took the next logical step and flew to India to mail our ballots. While this was not an actual absentee-voting requirement (if you’ve already completed the ice sculpture), it seemed like a nice touch. Actually, I had been invited to a writers’ conference in Delhi, and where I went so went our ballots. Happily, my good friend the Hong Kong–born writer Xu Xi, also a naturalized American like Margie, was in attendance at the conference, too, and agreed to take the ballots back with her to the States and mail them from there. She wouldn’t even take the cost of the express-mail envelope from me—it was her contribution to Obama’s get-out-the-vote effort, she insisted.
Hillary Clinton says, “It takes a village,” but, in my efforts to vote, it took a planet. So allow me to end with a song sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”:
I voted for O … ba … ma
and maybe now I can stop pretending
To be a Ca … na … dian
When I travel around the world.
All together now.