‘What is going on, you guys?’ US expats face tough questions abroad.

Why We Wrote This

Global opinion of the U.S. has broadly declined during President Trump’s term. But what has that meant for Americans living abroad, who serve as both observers of and ambassadors for what is happening in their country?

Courtesy of Jessi Rose
English teacher Jessi Rose (right) poses with a friend at the ancient city of Volubilis in northern Morocco.

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The reputation of the United States has faded across the globe this year, in large part thanks to the country’s failure to contain the coronavirus, and now sits at a record low in some countries, according to a global survey by the Pew Research Center.

For Americans overseas – estimated at 5 million – that image is more than the subject of an abstract poll. It is part of their daily lives, as they see America through the lens of co-workers, curious neighbors, and complete strangers.

“My students and friends in Morocco could not believe the images of Americans waiting in lines at food banks this April were real,” says Jessi Rose, a New York City native who teaches English in Casablanca. “Right now, from media and social media, America looks violent.”

It also means spending a great deal of time trying to explain the words and deeds of President Donald Trump.

“The question that I get the most from Canadians is just like, how is this happening?” says Alyssa Johnston, who lives near Toronto. “They feel like they’re missing something or they don’t understand some part of culture or politics to explain better what’s happening.”

Sufyan Katariwala, the son of Pakistani immigrants from St. Louis, voted for Donald Trump in 2016 because he calls himself a proud American nationalist, though he had doubts almost immediately and the pandemic has sealed his regret.

Now based in Toronto, he says he is constantly trying to explain his country’s dysfunctional politics to a confused Canadian audience.

“I never felt that I would have to assume this role … answering [the question] in all these discussions: ‘Jeez, what is going on, you guys?’” he says. “I’m fairly certain that, prior to 2016, if you were an American in many parts of the world, people would have been like, ‘That’s a cool place. I want to go there.’ Now it’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Like there’s pity.”

The reputation of the United States has faded across the globe this year, in large part thanks to the country’s failure to contain the coronavirus, and now sits at a record low in some countries, according to a global survey by the Pew Research Center.

For Americans overseas – estimated at 5 million – that image is more than the subject of an abstract poll. It is part of their daily lives, as they see America through the lens of co-workers, curious neighbors, and complete strangers.

“An American in Paris”

The American expat has enjoyed a storied position in culture and literature. In France, the role has been romanticized from Gene Kelly tap dancing his way through “An American in Paris” to Ernest Hemingway’s Paris-set “A Moveable Feast,” where he wrote, “There are only two places in the world where we can live happy: at home and in Paris.”

Numbering around 250,000, Americans in France tend to lean Democratic and enjoy elite status, says Oleg Kobtzeff, an associate professor of international and comparative politics at the American University of Paris. “So Americans in France are themselves examples of soft power.”

It’s not that they’ve been universally loved. Former President George W. Bush’s war on terror, including the Iraq War of 2003 that many allies condemned, made him as unpopular in France as President Trump is today.

But disdain has been replaced with a new, distinct sentiment that Ursuline Kairson, a Chicago-born jazz singer who has lived in Paris for over 20 years, sums up succinctly: “Now they feel sorry for us.”

Americans are now banned from visiting many countries around the globe because of the coronavirus. The U.S.-Canada border, the world’s longest undefended frontier, has been closed to nonessential travel for seven months.

That closure is symbolic of how frayed America’s relationships have become. Canadians have arguably been the strongest U.S. ally in modern times. “The Canadians were always the first to arrive for us,” says Bruce Heyman, a former United States ambassador to Canada under Barack Obama. He says that ties became strained under Mr. Trump, who imposed trade tariffs on national security grounds and called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “two-faced.” “I think Donald Trump’s done more damage to the U.S.-Canada relationship than any other single person maybe in the history of our two countries.”

When Alyssa Johnston lived in Jordan and Egypt teaching English prior to moving to Canada in 2011, she was used to hostilities towards Americans. “When I was living overseas, America, even with Obama, didn’t have a good reputation, mainly as a holdover from Bush,” she says. “In the Middle East, my American passport didn’t help me. It hindered me.”

Now in some ways even though she is much closer to home, the cultural similarities that bind Americans and Canadians needs more interpretation. “The question that I get the most from Canadians is just like, how is this happening? Can you explain this to me? They feel like they’re missing something or they don’t understand some part of culture or politics to explain better what’s happening,” she says. “When I’m kind of faced with the fact of how ridiculous it is and I have to answer those questions or be the voice of the American, of this country that they’re looking at being a dumpster fire, it does kind of create some anxiety.”

In Canada today, the favorability rating of Mr. Trump is at 20%, its lowest measured for a U.S. president. It was 83% for Mr. Obama, according to Pew data.

“I felt safer being in this part of the world”

The election of Mr. Obama was, for many around the world, a reset after damage done on the international stage under the globally unpopular Bush presidency. As the son of a Kenyan father, the American president personified the “American dream” for many around the world.

“I stand before you as a proud American. I also stand before you as the son of an African,” Mr. Obama said at a speech at the African Union in Addis Ababa in 2015. In South Africa, a country whose own history of segregation was still fresh, the moment felt especially poignant. “South Africans claimed Obama as one of their own, just like we did,” says Stella Nkomo, an American and a professor of human resources management at the University of Pretoria. “There was a fierce sense of identification with the U.S. for electing an African president.”

“It was always like America had a halo around it,” Dr. Nkomo adds.

But Mr. Trump has repeatedly demeaned Africa, using a harsh scatological obscenity about developing nations and complaining to aides that Nigerian migrants would never “go back to their huts” in Africa once they had seen America.

Dr. Nkomo stumbled as she tried to explain how the same country could have two presidents that saw the continent so differently in such swift succession. It’s telling, she says, that “as an American I felt safer being in this part of the world than I would have in the U.S. during this pandemic.”

For other Americans overseas, the disillusionment in America is just as stark, but goes back longer.

In China, when American James McGregor visited on a backpacking trip in 1985, most Chinese people he encountered were enthralled with his homeland. “The Chinese people I met believed that America was almost this heavenly place,” says Mr. McGregor, who moved to China as a newspaper correspondent in 1990 and is now chairman for the China region of APCO Worldwide, a global consulting firm.

Courtesy of James McGregor
James McGregor visits with Chinese children in a village in the vicinity of Yan'an, Shaanxi Province, in 1993, when he was a Beijing-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He says that he finds the Chinese much less enthralled with the U.S. today.

In the last decade though, the Communist Party’s powerful propaganda apparatus has asserted Washington’s goal is to keep China poor and weak. The trend has been amplified amid Mr. Trump’s trade war with China and blaming Beijing for the coronavirus. “The Chinese people are looking at this president and saying you can see American decline in full technicolor,” says Mr. McGregor.

As an executive today, Mr. McGregor has had to grapple with the shift in power as Chinese companies grew smarter, more advanced, and more powerful relative to their U.S. counterparts. “The Chinese know the power is on their side now, and they believe that America needs China more than China needs America.”

Loss of respect for the American people?

In the Middle East, for the better part of two decades, the U.S. has been embroiled in war and political brokering, projecting hard power that left few in doubt as to who was the global superpower. For Americans residing in the region, that meant constant questions from family or friends in the U.S., who were worried about their safety in a place depicted as unstable and rife with ancient hatreds.

Now, amid the pandemic and the presidency of Donald Trump, whose leadership has polarized the U.S., many American expats are asking themselves questions about safety – that of their family and friends back home.

“My students and friends in Morocco could not believe the images of Americans waiting in lines at food banks this April were real,” says Jessi Rose, a New York City native who has spent the past five years teaching English in Casablanca. “Right now, from media and social media, America looks violent. It looks like there is conflict all over the place.”

Cole Phillips, a World Bank consultant in Jordan, says when he first arrived in 2014, people would always ask him how to secure a visa to America.

“Now, I actually hear people say that they do not want to go to America because of what they see as xenophobic tendencies by the Trump administration and a wider hostility to migrants and people who look different,” he says.

Americans abroad are uncomfortably familiar with foreigners’ views of America’s stature in the world in a way that Americans at home are not. And Jen Natoli says she fears that disdain for American politics is starting to bleed into disdain for the American people, who had previously always been seen as distinct from their leaders.

Ms. Natoli, a union organizer originally from New York now living in New Zealand, says this trend “was highlighted by us pulling out of the Iran deal and Paris accord, but perhaps most starkly in our COVID response,” she says.

“Not only did we not contribute to the world efforts to fight the pandemic, but the Trump administration has encouraged the American people to reject science and public health measures. This means the loss of respect globally has expanded to the American people, not just the government.”

• This story included reporting from Ann Scott Tyson in Seattle; Ryan Lenora Brown in Johannesburg; and Miriam Bell in Auckland, New Zealand.

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