Americans in Asia have had some version of the same experience for the last four years: picking up their smartphones, checking the news, and being gobsmacked by the latest shocking story that unfolded while they slept.
There were the nonstop inflammatory comments from outgoing President Donald Trump, deadly police violence, more than 400,000 coronavirus deaths, and most recently, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol this month. The drumbeat of alarming news led to debates over when, if ever, to return home.
But Wednesday’s presidential inauguration of Joe Biden is providing relief for many even as America remains bitterly divided and Trump has refused to attend, breaking with tradition and raising fears of more violence. Biden’s vows to ramp up vaccine rollout, re-engage with the world, and restore a level of normalcy to governing have been a source of cautious optimism, though not all are convinced substantive change will come.
VICE World News spoke to Americans living in Thailand, China, Japan, India and Singapore about their reactions to the tectonic shifts in U.S. leadership, and whether a Biden presidency will lure them back. For privacy reasons some preferred to use their first name only. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Joshua Charles Woodard, a 25-year-old engineer from Chicago who works in Shenzhen, China
“During Trump’s presidency, there has been a lot of unrest in society. One thing that the Trump administration did do was to show the entire world the underbelly of America that has been there the whole time.
Some Chinese people would ask me if the news was real. They just found it so unbelievable that things are happening in America, a country that loves to tell the world that we do things perfectly, and democracy is flawless. The perspective some Chinese people have is America is the land of the free, I can do anything there, it’s perfect. In reality, it’s a lot more messy.
For the first time in a very long time, the entire world has gotten to see how deep America’s problems run. That’s probably a big thing that Trump’s presidency gave the rest of the world.
For my career I still want to spend a few more years out here. During the Black Lives Matter protests, I definitely would want to be there to join the protests, so it’s probably better for my safety that I was here in China.
Biden being elected makes me more willing to go back, just hoping that the xenophobia that’s so rampant in America will decrease, making it a bit more comfortable moving around the country. Hopefully worries about white nationalists will decrease.”
Chester Drum, a 47-year-old doctor practicing in Singapore whose last trip to the U.S. was two years ago
“As an overseas American, I must say that I’m looking forward to positive change under Joe Biden and the incoming administration. The past few years have been quite a ride and watching events unfold from afar leaves you either feeling depressed or anxious—it’s easy to feel that way with everything that’s been going on. Seeing it through media coverage and the internet can be quite anxiety-inducing.
The best governments make decisions based on science, logic and data that will benefit their constituencies and public understanding. That’s one of the most important things you can do. Not everything is a popular (or emotional) opinion. As a doctor, I can say that the respect for science has not been a strong suit of the prior administration. So it’s exciting and heartening for me to see scientific advisors being appointed to cabinet. We needed that for a long time. The issue of vaccinations is one example of Biden’s trust in medicine and science—I’ve liked everything I’ve seen so far. I am also looking forward to the change in immigration policies.
We will soon see a time of great transition in the U.S. and how Biden frames that transition will be very important for the way our country is viewed over the next four years—and to make up for previous years lost. It will be interesting to see Biden and Harris trying to bring the U.S. back together after such long periods of deep divisions and certainly, so far, he’s been doing a very calm and collected job—as he always has.
Myself and other overseas Americans will be looking for a bit of inspiration from the inauguration as well. We all want to see a future where every American citizen has value. I believe Biden will talk about it in his speech. I’d probably travel back home to the U.S. either way once travel restrictions lift and the virus comes under better control, hopefully soon. My life and work is in Singapore but I can say that my family and I are more likely to live in the states under Biden, under peace and stability.”
Abigail Smith, a 36-year-old from New York, has lived in Thailand for eight years and is a development director for arts organization Creative Migration
“The anxiety of getting to my New York Times app [to catch up on the news from overnight in the U.S.] usually just takes me until 7:30am. I just don’t want to open it up. There have been a number of mornings that I’ve had my coffee and almost spit it up. This has been a very long period of acute events. It’s been this way for the last four years but the last year has been so heightened. That anxiety is sitting somewhere between extreme relief that I’m not in America right now and extreme guilt that I’m not in America right now. That guilt of not really being part of the process and not really being able to be there to support anyone struggling, be it with the pandemic, racial injustice or the million fucking things that have happened.
If you would have talked to me a year ago on this date I’d have said by June 2020 hell or high water I'm moving back to America. Yet here I am still because it’s untenable. Unfortunately the effects of the administration or the effects of the pandemic are not going to go away the minute Biden steps into office. I don’t see it happening in the first few years. It’s still stressful to think about moving home.
I’m truly blessed to come not only from a democratic family but a liberal friend group. Over the last few years my friends in America have been more concerned with asking what others think of us. So does everyone in Thailand think we’re just nuts now and our country is on fire? It’s a nuance that I've definitely seen. Hopefully Americans across the border are realizing they’re not the only fucking thing in the universe. My dad asks me all the time ‘so what do Thai people think about this?’ And my friends ask me all the time. I think there’s a lot of embarrassment and shame right now to be an American.”
Rich, a university student in Tokyo
“I am currently living in Japan as a university student, but my family lives in the United States, so without question, I will eventually go back to America to visit them when the pandemic dies down. However, if the question is whether I would go back to live there permanently, I cannot answer ‘yes’ with much certainty. I have always been strongly opposed to the hateful rhetoric spewed by Trump and his campaign even before he had taken office, and that feeling of opposition only became stronger after seeing his actions throughout his presidency. Because of that, in a way, coming to Japan during his term in office has served to help me distance myself from Trump and all of his rhetoric.
With that said, while I certainly prefer Biden over Trump, I do not necessarily consider myself a Biden supporter per se. With his questionable history concerning race and LGBT related issues, as someone who is black and not cisgender, I cannot help but see Biden as the average older white male progressive politician who sticks with whatever is politically convenient in order to stay in a position of power. His responses to recent events that stress ‘unity’ only further confirms this notion to me, because the responses simply come off as attempts to appeal to moderates and maintain the status quo, which I’d prefer to see quite radically changed. So, while I certainly think the position of president is better off with him in control, it does not at all make me feel compelled to book the next flight back to America.
While living in Japan for the past two and a half years, it has almost felt like watching a dramatic TV show unfold from a distance. In this past year alone we saw the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the storming of the Capitol, and the drama-filled election all in the midst of a poorly managed pandemic, and to be honest, absolutely none of it really took me by surprise. What we are continuing to see in America is the true face of the nation and the result of its history and culture, and as history has shown, even if the noise surrounding social and political issues is to die down a bit, it will surely bubble back up again in due time. That is just the way the nation is set up.
Over the past year, I have heard a lot from other Americans abroad saying they feel embarrassed or ashamed, but I somehow cannot quite relate to such feelings due to both my social identity and my own personal outlook. As someone with many overlapping marginalized identities and having grown up in poverty, I have never really felt like the country has ever ‘claimed’ me nor has it ever cared about me or my family’s well-being. So perhaps because of that, I have never felt particularly proud or ashamed of America because it was never something of mine to be proud or ashamed of to begin with.”
Joellen Anderson, co-founder of a nonprofit animal rescue organization and organic farm, from Arizona but now lives in Dharamshala, India
“I am completely thrilled that Trump is leaving office! For the past four years, I have followed the news and have heard from my friends and family back home, and it has been very distressing. At times, it felt like I would end up as a refugee here in India while my own country was being torn apart. The riot on the Capitol demonstrates just how dangerous Trump's policies and rhetoric truly are.
I work full-time here in India, so I have no immediate plans to return home permanently. But I am hopeful that the Biden administration will be more effective in bringing the pandemic under control through vaccination, so I can return home for my annual visit which I missed last year.”
R. Scott Davis, Bangkok-based photographer and lecturer from New York
“I’m relieved his assault on multiculturalism is over. One of the finer parts of U.S. history, one that I’ve always been proud of as an American, is our appreciation for civil rights and the Civil Rights Movement. But with Trump, even from day one, he was interested in governing only for his base. It was obvious it was just to hell with everyone else as he tried to undo as much of the Civil Rights Movement as possible.
The pathological lying was bad enough, but his racism was revolting. For four years, we watched him from abroad as he groomed his cult back home, staging those pathetic and embarrassing rallies.
In the end, his presidency wound down to a despicable raid on the Capitol. I thought it was the perfect metaphor for his four years in office. He never did have the moral majority, and he never will.
People think about us differently because of Trump. And our reputation as a nation has taken a hit because of his coddling for dictators. It’s been humiliating, but the strong man’s scourge isn’t unique to America. People have lost faith in democracy all over the world.”
Reporting contributed by Heather Chen, Hanako Montgomery, Snigdha Bansal, Viola Zhou and Caleb Quinley