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An American Abroad

Elliot Podwill
January 20, 2018


by Elliot Podwill


IN 1968, as a young sports fan watching the  Olympics on TV, I found myself, for reasons I couldn’t quite understand, rooting against the American athletes. I rooted for any individual or team that was competing against their American counterpart, and particularly supported athletes from poor countries. This made sense to me: the civil rights movement was still in progress, and my sympathies rested wholeheartedly with formerly colonized peoples. I knew that American athletes had opportunities most third-world athletes lacked, and it’s natural for many to cheer for the underdog. But something else was going on as well.

Around the same time, I went on my first trip to Europe. The American War was raging in Vietnam, and I was scolded because of it. Eventually I started telling people I was Canadian or British, or, if in ill humor, responded, “Do I look like Lyndon Johnson? Don’t you think it’s possible that Americans also oppose the war?” On this first trip abroad, I felt especially comfortable in Belgium, a nation that had long since abandoned notions of greatness and was busy squabbling over language issues at a level that had little impact on other countries. Like the Scandinavian countries,  small, well-organized, militarily insignificant, and prosperous Belgium didn’t produce residents who needed to lie about their home country when traveling abroad.

An obvious source of embarrassment was U.S. foreign policy: dancing with tyrants in Nicaragua, Iran, Chile, the Philippines, Indonesia, Congo and other countries where torture and kleptomania were the rule of the day. Governments were being subverted to protect the interests of Big Oil and United Fruit. We were responsible for teaching apartheid to South Africa and for the arrest of Nelson Mandela — no surprise for the country from which Germany had learned the word “Untermensch” as a racial term (from Ku Klux Klansman Lothrop Stoddard’s The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-Man, 1922, translated into German in 1925).

Today, a generation after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has eight hundred foreign bases and troops in nearly 150 countries (including 300 U.S. soldiers in Norway!). By contrast, Britain, France, and Russia, have a combined total of thirty base outside their borders. The U.S. spends more on “defense” than the next seven highest spending countries combined. I’m still waiting for the peace dividend I knew would never arrive.


EMBARRASSMENT prevented me for many years from visiting Vietnam. Had I not been a college student, I easily could have wound up shooting rice farmers. When I finally went, I was surprised by the friendliness of my male age peers in former North Vietnam, who assumed I’d been in the military, and wanted to share a chat and a beer. By contrast, in the U.S. after 9/11, there were three hundred hate-crime incidents against Sikhs, revealing both American violence and ignorance.

“We’re number one” used to be an American slogan, no longer believed for the most part in the U.S., where bridges are decaying and children sit in classrooms that have broken windows. New York’s subways? Ever ride the train in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Barcelona, Athens, Paris, or London? One doesn’t hear daily announcements that the B/D/F/N/Q/2/3/and 6 lines aren’t running because  .  .  . Somehow Spain and Portugal can afford efficient national mass transit, clean trains running on time to  every region, gorgeous old or impressive new stations along the way, and charge less, besides. For starters, compare photos of Atocha Station in Madrid and Oriente Station in Lisbon with pictures of Penn Station in New York.

Airports? Forget about it.

I needed to see a dentist while in Adelaide, Australia some years back, who apologized for his old-fashioned equipment, which looked state-of-the-art to this New Yorker. More importantly, he confessed that school children in Australia have their teeth checked only twice a year. “I bet in the U.S. kids are required to see the dentist as often as needed,” he told me.

“Well, actually my daughter who is a public school teacher in the Midwest tells me that kids come to school crying due to severe toothaches and visit a dentist only when the teachers take up a collection to pay the bill,” I responded.

This was not noticeable to him on his one trip to the U.S., visiting New York, Las Vegas, Miami, and the Grand Canyon.

Even patients in poor Sri Lanka have a public clinic or two in every town providing health care for each citizen. Somehow this overpopulated tiny island nation, with few natural resources, can pony up the money to provide basic medical service for all. By contrast, a domestic version of Doctors Without Borders, Remote Area Medical, is found in some poor American communities, where people sit in their cars for two or three days in order to guarantee they’ll be seen by volunteer doctors and dentists who show up once or twice a year. The U.S. could provide everyone with decent medical care without breaking a sweat, but chooses not to.


I’VE BEEN TRAVELING especially widely in recent decades, an average of three overseas trips annually, many countries visited. It’s been clear to me for years that to see one’s own country clearly. it’s necessary to visit many others.  The scarcity  of Americans abroad in places other than Western Europe is a lesson unto itself, especially considering our large population. Yes, you’ll see some in Angkor Wat, Bangkok, and Hong Kong, often with tour groups on a hasty visit to four countries in six days, or on a cruise. Otherwise, Americans are pretty thin on the ground.

Both local people and fellow travelers are amazed when I tell them how few vacation days Americans receive. Yes, relatively few Americans have passports, but that’s in part because unless they’re retired or self-employed, they have few days to travel. The U.S. is the only developed country without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday. By law, every EU nation mandates four weeks or more of paid vacation. Eight nations require that workers receive thirty paid vacation days. Additionally, in many countries, workers are required to take all their vacation days, in order not to feel pressured by their employers to work when entitled to days off.

On a recent trip to Jordan and Israel, I spent a day with a Polish woman and her young daughter, who currently live in Reykjavik, Iceland. The two were spending ten days mostly in and around Jerusalem and Bethlehem, staying in a decent hotel, eating in fairly expensive restaurants. She told me that she earned her living stocking shelves in a supermarket, and that her Icelandic wasn’t very good. However, she still had more than enough vacation time to travel somewhere abroad with her child each year, in addition to returning to Poland for a few weeks every summer. “Someone with your job in the U.S. would never be traveling in another country unless they were staying with friends or relatives,” I told her. “Why?” “No way they could afford it or get the time off,” I answered. “But in America  .  .  .  .” she began. Enough said. She doesn’t know that 63 percent of the American population is $500 or one paycheck away from a serious problem if not a crisis, should an unexpected car repair or illness intrude. This isn’t true of a young man operating a food cart in Singapore, who had informed me that he wouldn’t be working at my favorite food court for the rest of the week since he’d be traveling to Hong Kong. “Staying with family?” I inquired. No, he answered with irritation, he had reservations at a nice hotel.

Why do these working-class people in many countries have opportunities their American counterparts lack? Maybe it’s because in the poorest county in the U.S., in rural Kentucky, where close to 90 percent of the population requires public assistance in order to sleep indoors or not rummage through dumpsters for a between-meal  snack, their elected member of congress votes consistently to reduce benefits of people like themselves. It’s unlikely that an illiterate Indian peasant would agree with the landowner who demands more than his 50 percent share of the crop, nor did the Tunisian fruitseller who  set himself on fire, triggering the Arab Spring, allow the cops to shake him down even more than they were. But American workers, in recent years, are voting down  union representation in the auto industry, even though data shows that their counterparts at unionized plants have larger salaries and protection against arbitrary firing. In much of the world, when I travel, I assume people providing vital services don’t want less agency in their place of work. In my country, too many workers endanger themselves and the rest of the 99 percent by supporting politicians who will do everything in their power to enrich a handful of supporters and screw the rest of us. Even in countries where rightwing parties are growing, e.g.  France, no one threatens to take away national health or affordable education or subsidized housing. My wife no longer travels domestically outside the Northeast, not wishing to support with her tourist dollars people whose political decisions will threaten her Social Security or her grandchild’s education or other women’s right to a safe abortion.


ON MY FIRST TRIP to India, more than four decades ago, I was approached several times by middle-class men wanting me to help them start a business by providing them with money. I found this astonishing. I was a young graduate student with long unkempt hair, wearing a funky t-shirt and jeans, able to travel abroad only by skipping lunch for half a year and by having friends to stay with. To these men in Delhi and Mumbai, as an American I had to be rich. After all, wasn’t everyone in America rich?

Yet the America of my youth was a  country where the wealthy by and large accepted paying more in taxes, where regulation was for the most part seen as the cost of doing business. After all, we were the only industrialized nation not devastated by World War II; our products dominated the world; this was an economically golden age (if you were white, at any rate). My college education, as a militarily useless English major, was funded by post-Sputnik money dedicated to the defeat of communism. The CEO earned fifty times more than the average worker, not five hundred timers. So why wouldn’t poor me have been seen as rich?

My graduate-student counterpart today is saddled with debt, and unable to travel as freely as I was. By contrast, in many nations, education is as free as healthcare. This may be another reason I see so few young Americans abroad, even in inexpensive countries like India. Would the erstwhile Indian businessman still see the young American as a potential investor? I’m not sure.

Not that American alter kokers are such a common sight either. The number of workers receiving a traditional pension paid largely by the employer is rapidly diminishing, replaced by the mostly employee-paid 401K. Most recipients of decent pensions are union members or municipal workers, the groups largely overlapping. Far and away the largest source of income for the poorest 60 percent of American retirees is Social Security,with  the vast majority receiving well below the monthly maximum of $2700. (And they’re paying taxes on their meager benefit, thanks to the beloved Ronald Reagan — no tax on SS until he was elected.) Social Security was never intended to be anything but supplemental, but for all too many it is the only revenue between themselves and utter destitution.  By contrast, many of my foreign age peers escaping the cold winters of Europe and East Asia are able to afford travel in warmer countries. They’re not worried about the Trump plan to cut their benefits by many billions of dollars. They’re secure.


SPEAKING OF SECURITY, the happiest people in the world according to a recent Gallup Well-Being Index are the Danes. A recent article in National Geographic summarizes the findings and presents a report on Denmark, Singapore, and Costa Rica, three very different countries that are close to the top of the Index. Their people share in common a sense of security: little can threaten their well being. Here’s a passage about Denmark:

Danes grow up believing they have the right to health care, education, and a financial safety net. University students draw a government stipend in addition to free tuition. New parents can take a yearlong government-paid parental leave at nearly full salary; this includes gay and lesbian parents. People work hard in Denmark, but on average less than 40 hours a week, with at least five weeks of vacation a year. The price for such lavish benefits is one of the world’s highest income tax rates, which starts at 41 percent and tops out at 56 percent — a field leveler that makes it possible for a garbageman to earn more than a doctor.

It goes without saying that security is something a wide swath of the American public lacks.

Most mornings, while having breakfast, I listen on the radio to Democracy Now or NPR. Each day there’s at least one story that’s a knife in the gut, revealing national carelessness and cruelty. Recently, New York NPR reported on the elimination of a small local program, costing next to nothing, intended to advise at-risk-for-pregnancy teenage girls. The national broadcast then reported on spending cuts for public education in virtually every state over the past ten years. These funding reductions are especially cruel at a time when the stock market is breaking records on a regular basis and unknown billions are sitting untaxed in small Caribbean Islands. Our new gilded age is a security buster. Even previous political “third rails” like Social Security and Medicare are now endangered. Ask people from Canada or France or Singapore if they feel that their vital safety net programs are at risk.

As a progressive American abroad, I envy the unadulterated pride in country I’ve seen that has nothing to do with military might. One year, I was in Seoul, Korea when football qualifying matches to determine who would participate in the Olympics were being held. Korea was a quarterfinalist. Curious, I set my alarm clock for 3:00 a.m., the time the match would be televised in Korea. Little did I know that what seemed like the entire city  of ten million was also awake and watching. When Korea scored its first (and only) goal, the city felt like it was literally rocking. I cheered and screamed along with them, happy to participate, at the same time glumly thinking that were this an American team, I’d not be setting my clock. Should I grow excited, when student debt has exceeded overall credit card debt, when even lunatics are now legally allowed to carry guns, when the majority of women  don’t live within driving distance of an abortion provider, many of whom have been scared off or outlawed? When spending for the latest generation fighter plane that may never fly grows ever greater while the streets in my affluent Manhattan neighborhood are increasingly clogged with the homeless? I’m more aware of homelessness in New York than in Beirut or Phnom Penh.

It would be naive to believe that vile politics don’t exist in other countries as well. I was charmed not many years ago by the people of Burma (I refuse to call the  country by the name it was given by a corrupt and brutal military), little suspecting that as a group they’d later support genocidal behavior aimed at the Rohingya minority. Equally charming older people in Cambodia may well have been members of the Khmer Rouge. The Tunisia I visited was unspeakably corrupt, Vietnam autocratic, Singapore dictatorial. But these countries are not mine, so I don’t feel responsible for their many unjust acts. In addition, there’s always a lot more I can do in the U.S. to work for a progressive agenda; not doing more makes me complicit. I can’t work effectively for change in other countries.


IN THE PAST, people hostile to my thinking had asked me if I thought things were so wonderful in the USSR, and I’d responded “of course not.” The Soviet Union wasn’t acting in my name, so paying as much attention to its behavior made less sense than focusing on the U.S. Besides, since I live here, I know more about this country than others. Even Israel, whose success I admire but whose settlements I abhor, gets a relative free pass.

And the U.S. has been good to my family. My grandparents were saved from pogroms and my parents and their siblings from ovens. By and large, family members of my generation and younger have college degrees and have had decent careers. I’m retired with a pension and Social Security, safe and well-housed. So why such intense criticism? Being raised in a largely Jewish environment trumped my working- class roots and made deciding to go to university an easy call. It also provided a consciousness of racism, poverty, and other forms of social injustice and was the bedrock of my awareness of U.S. foreign policy shaped to the needs of domestic capital. I was reading I. F. Stone’s Weekly and The Nation while still in high school, aware that we were Number One on the backs of others.

I’m oddly grateful to the moronic Trump administration for letting the world see the U.S. more clearly. Yes, Obama accepted the reality of climate change, but the U.S. remained far and away the world’s greatest polluter. It’s a given that we’ll light our apartment hallways 24/7 while much of Europe requires people to undergo the complex task of pressing a button while entering or leaving their building. Is it necessary for us to use electricity at a per capita rate three times greater than first-world Great Britain, whether or not we accept climate change? But that’s a far cry from being the only nation denying the reality of human-produced climate change. A recent Pew Research Center survey of thirty-seven countries shows that people in thirty-five of them believe the U.S. is now less likely to do the right thing regarding world affairs. I’m embarrassed that Israel is one of the two nations that feel U.S. standing in the world has improved since Trump was elected. (The other is Russia.) This widespread disdain is an unacknowledged achievement.

Not that my gratitude is limited only to the Trump administration. To extend the recent past into the present, there are still prisoners being held unjustly in Gitmo, refused a fair trial. And speaking of Gitmo, there’s a school  in Phnom Penh previously used as a detention center by the Khmer Rouge now preserved as a museum. One section displays waterboarding, photos and explanation of how it was used. A decade ago I couldn’t help but stand in front of a particularly graphic photo and regale fellow tourists with word that this was the very technique being used by the U.S. to get people to confess to crimes they often hadn’t committed. I must has appeared insane, but that’s how I felt. My country and the Khmer Rouge, sisters under the skin.

“I find myself thinking deeply about what it means to love America, as I surely do.” So reads a large print quote in an ad for Dan Rather’s What Unites Us, a recent collection of his essays. Lucky guy. I wish I could feel the same way. In large measure I’m an American abroad precisely because I feel the opposite. It’s wonderful to spend weeks or longer away from American realities.

Recently I was in Catalonia, where separatist flags were hanging from countless balconies. I was hoping that Spain would remain intact. I was sorry that Czechoslovakia split, seeing no advantage to either new country. And how boring Canada would be without Quebec. However, I’d like nothing more than the see much of the U.S. secede. Lincoln blundered by demanding that the South remain part of the Union. The ideal solution would have been to win the war and free the slaves, allowing those who  wanted to leave the South to move north,  and then permitting the South to go its own way. Rick Perry, recent governor of Texas, has on occasion spoken in favor of his state’s secessionist movement. Please, oh please, feel free.

Without the South, post-World War II America would have become a Northern and Western European-style social democracy: healthcare for all, strong unions, no oppressive college debts, diminished racism,  no hundreds of bases throughout the world. Roosevelt and then Truman were fearful of losing the solid Democratic south and thus didn’t push for reforms that Southern whites and their political representatives would have opposed: heaven forbid that blacks receive a living wage and get decent schools and healthcare -- better that no one benefit. Dan Rather writes about our “shared values.” What values, precisely, do we on the coasts and in the cities share with the people of Arkansas and Kansas? A fondness for ketchup, maybe, excellent crackers and chips. I bet we wouldn’t be fighting a new war every two years without jingoistic Southerners volunteering as cannon fodder for the military. And we sure as hell wouldn’t have elected Drumpf.

So this American abroad secedes from the union each time he packs his suitcase, sticks his passport into his money belt, and hops on a plane for yet another exhausting overnight flight. And this American abroad loves most every moment he’s gone. Americans I encounter overseas are often political birds of a feather. And sometimes there’s even a is-she/he-a-Jew game played to enhance the fun: the response to “Gevalt, they have the nerve to call this drek curry?” is often a good  test. Get me outta here is what I’m thinking when at home I open the newspaper or turn on the radio in the morning; and damn, only two days until I’m home is what I’m thinking while in Beirut or the Mekong Delta or Bordeaux. Maybe when Dan Rather convinces me that we share values I’ll feel differently.


Elliot Podwill is a retired CUNY English professor. He fled the Catskills at the first possible opportunity and went to graduate school to flee Vietnam. He proudly accepts being labeled a “self-hating Jew” when the opposite means supporting Israel at all cost. His last article for us was about full-time Jewish life in the Catskills, “The Short Season.”