An ideological tug-of-war is being waged over those who hold the power to define what it means to be American and to have an American identity in the 21st century. Feeling dismayed and unsettled, many of us watch our society’s political devolution into tribalist echo chambers, zero-sum extremism, populism and constant scandal — all of which permeates our personal lives and our interactions with one another on campus. Studying abroad means leaving behind the discretely defined political bubbles of the American left and right. For me, it meant studying among the globally diverse cohort of students at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), a university which hosts a bilateral student exchange program with the University of Utah.
Ranked 33rd in the world for “most international school” in a review by Times Higher Education, the campus of HKUST becomes a global microcosm during the school year, with people from all over the world engaging with each other academically and socially. Discussing American politics with the students at HKUST invokes a wide array of emotions — to many of the students, American politics was little more than a ridiculous media spectacle broadcast from another dimension. Some had polite criticisms. More than a few had strong opinions on the topic. Among the most controversial figures in American government is President Trump. In one way or another, Trump’s foreign policies have affected pretty much every student at HKUST. When talking about Trump’s trade war, mainland Chinese students felt less than enthusiastic. European students had passionate opinions when talking about Trump’s bullying of the EU. A Korean student explained to me that due to Trump’s role in the potential unification of the Korean Peninsula, he may not have to do mandatory military service — though he admits that Trump’s significance in the role is debatable. No matter who you talk to, international students have a unique awareness of American politics that affects their personal perceptions of American identity.
Being American at an international university means that you’re going to be held socially responsible for the foreign policies of the United States — some people may begrudge you for what America has done to another country or region in the past. You may become the butt of jokes on controversial subjects such as guns, police brutality, Middle Eastern intervention and wars among other controversial American issues. You may find some international students who casually use what some would consider offensive or prejudiced language. One night, a heavily intoxicated student yelled at me, “I f***ing hate Caucasians.” His friends quickly ran to grab him and started to apologize to me profusely, though I told them I was not offended. Uncomfortable situations like these are bound to happen in an international university, but they are generally few and far between.
The aforementioned uncomfortable situations are vastly outnumbered by the positive experiences I had while abroad. You’ll find no shortage of people who are respectful and curious about your national identity (particularly if you show genuine interest in their identity, too), and I found most inquiries about America constructive. The only way I can compare the experience to anything else is that it’s a lot like being in a Star Trek TV series — in a sense, you explore a vast variety of cultures and navigate through unusual conflicts which may confront your national identity.
Practically the only bipartisan value that is left in our country is our tendency to treat our national politics with over-exaggerated importance and narcissism in the global political theatre. It’s easy to see why we’ve become so myopic in how we perceive our politics and identity, all while the whole world scrutinizes us as our democracy stands at the critical juncture of polarized politics. Studying abroad may be able to provide you with the tools necessary to place your national identity into a global context and your politics into a worldwide perspective.