What it’s like to be a US expat in Berlin right now

Ahead of the imminent 2020 election, we speak to five Berlin-based US citizens about how their hopes, fears and long-term plans have been impacted by politics.

Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony was on 20th January 2017, and 467 days later, I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket out of the United States. In the long months between those two events, I did what so many other Americans were doing. I went to John F. Kennedy International Airport, as did thousands of others, to protest Trump’s immigration ban. I boarded charter buses before dawn that shuttled protesters to Washington, DC. In those early months, before Trump fatigue exhausted us all into a protective numbness, there was a palpable sense that we could fight this. Americans could stand up, fight back and raise our voices loud enough to stop our new president’s most cruel impulses. But with every week came another terrible news alert about the government’s slide into chaos, so one year, three months and 12 days later, I joined countless others who had left the United States of America to seek out a more perfect union of democracy and decency someplace else.

For me, that leap of faith led me to Berlin. First in 2017 on a quick five-day trip to assess the city, and then on 1st May, 2018. Like so many other US expats, I was privileged and able to tap into enough resources to be able to flee and choose how much of the American political system to keep an eye on. But as I settled into a life here, I found that no matter the distance, so many in the American expat community couldn’t help but keep glancing over their shoulders to take stock of what was happening in America.

As the Democratic nomination process ballooned and expanded into a 29-person circus car, conversations about the candidates commonly came up in bars and clubs around the city. Then, as the nominees were whittled down and Joe Biden clinched the Democratic nomination, talk turned to how dystopian Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was in contrast to Germany’s science-focused approach, which kept numbers, deaths and hospitalisations low. Before the pandemic obliterated our reality, returning to America often felt like a decision based on ideological differences. And now a pandemic was sweeping across the country nearly unchecked, returning to America started to feel like a death sentence.

With the presidential election hurtling towards the final few weeks (after what has felt like about 300 years of anxiety-inducing headlines), I reached out to five US expats in Berlin to talk about how the election has impacted their hopes, fears and long-term plans.

Jake Indiana, Magazine Editor [She/They/It/Thou]

@jakeindiana

Are you hopeful about a Biden presidency?

I’m hopeful in the sense that it will vastly improve our foreign relations, decrease the number of children locked in cages on American soil and somewhat stifle our death march towards climate collapse, but the vast changes we desperately need are not going to happen at all under his leadership. 

How did Trump’s election in 2016 impact your view of the US and your long-or short-term plans?

When Trump was elected I had already firmly planted my roots abroad. However, I was overwhelmed with the notion that I should return to the US and fight on the frontlines, so to speak. Eventually I realised it would be devastating for my mental health and that I would be put to best use reminding the world not all Americans are white supremacist monsters.

What outcome do you expect from the election?

I have a feeling Trump will be re-elected, and even though I don’t want that, I am also deeply afraid of what he and the alt-right domestic terrorists are capable of doing if he loses. It gives me an anxiety I wouldn’t have if he simply wins again.

How has the Trump presidency and the upcoming election impacted your mental health?

Hahahahaha.

Can you sum up any other thoughts or feelings you want to speak on in relation to the election and American politics?

The slow creep of fascism is taking hold around the world and we are seemingly powerless to stop it. It keeps me up at night. It’s imperative we come up with some form of resistance in order to survive in a society that has a modicum of freedom”.

Patty Kim Hamilton, Playwright/Director [She/Her]

@grumpy.love

How much have you paid attention to the upcoming election, including the race for the Democratic nomination? 

I’ve paid serious attention. I voted in the primary and also voted early a few weeks ago in the presidential election.

When did you move abroad? What inspired you to move?

I moved in 2017 with the intention of staying after I graduated from college. Before that, I tested out living and working as a freelance artist in theatres in the Bay Area, New York and Berlin. I didn’t fully decide on where to move until Trump won the election. I remember a close mentor from Germany texting me the morning after the election, saying, get your degree and get back over here.” 

How did Trump’s election in 2016 impact your view of the US and your long- or short-term plans? 

Initially, the election felt very personal. It felt like the US had made a statement about its priorities and values. I saw it as a decision about the direction the US would go in, and it was a direction I didn’t share. I know it’s a huge privilege to be able to say, Ok, then, I’m out.” But given that I knew I wanted to be an artist, it felt that the climate for that kind of work was only going to get more difficult. I’m not sure where I’ll spend the rest of my life, but as far as I can see into my future, it doesn’t seem like my home base can or should be back in the United States.

How has the Trump presidency and the upcoming election impacted your mental health?

I’ve had to really learn how to uncouple myself emotionally from some issues. I am concerned and follow along, but if I allowed myself to really feel my feelings every day, I’d be unable to function. I’ve been finding ways of using my concern for justice and equality to create artistic work or invest in my communities; in other words: putting my politics into tangible action. It doesn’t ever really feel like enough, but it’s how I can conceptualise a sustainable, long-term response without burning out.

The upcoming election has been particularly difficult in the last few months. I find myself scared mostly by the instability that I am observing, and by the uncertainty and potential for things to be violent. I’ve deleted Instagram and Twitter from my phone because those platforms are, at least from my perspective, stoking polarity and outrage. I have to focus on what I can control.

Are you hopeful about a Biden presidency?

It’s hard for me to say. The US is seriously broken and I’m not necessarily that excited about Biden himself, but I’m hopeful that a Democratic administration could lead to a more stable and functioning democracy. It could put us back on the path of giving greater, more equal rights to a larger number of people. 

Mehran Karimabadi, Graphic Designer [He/Him]

@mayronk

How did Trump’s election in 2016 impact your view of the US and your long- or short-term plans?

I’d say that his election definitely fast-tracked my eventual departure from the US. It made the thought of having to stay in New York harder, when all I had wanted was to get out. It was surreal watching him win. My three roommates and I sat in silence for 30 minutes, just staring at the walls, thinking about how we were going to navigate this new landscape of hate. 

How much have you paid attention to the upcoming election, including the race for the Democratic nomination? 

I haven’t followed every detail maybe as closely as I should, and I certainly cannot watch the debates (Trump and Pence talking makes me physically nauseous), but I do like to be informed on actual policy changes and the initiatives that move us forward.

How has the Trump presidency and the upcoming election impacted your mental health?

The number of times I’ve tried to get a therapist should be a good enough answer already. It’s as if I took out my brain and put it in a blender. I think I go through about five different emotional states within the first hour of waking up, it goes from worry, to depression, to hope, to anger and then finally I plateau at numb.

If you could choose one Democratic candidate instead of Biden, who would you have chosen and why?

I really resonated with Bernie Sanders, and a lot of people our age still do. It was refreshing to see someone who [has] dedicated their life to the betterment of other people and fought for social and racial equality. If I could replace Biden, I would throw Bernie in there to fix this shitshow.

What outcome do you expect from the election?

This is a tough one because a lot of people I’ve talked to on this side of the world think that Trump is going to win again. I’m a little skeptical. I just can’t imagine, with what is happening right now in the world, that people would still vote for him. Our supposed leader” doesn’t know his ass from his elbow. 

Elena Gabbro, Stylist/Artist [She/Her]

@elena_gabbro

When did you move abroad? What inspired you to move?

I moved to Berlin five and a half years ago. I had lived in Bulgaria as a kid and never really felt at home in the States – or anywhere for that matter. I was a foreigner everywhere I went, so I ended up in Berlin, where everyone has more or less the same backstory. I feel very much at home here.

How did Trump’s election in 2016 impact your view of the US and your long- or short-term plans? 

I had been in Europe for over a year [when Trump was elected] and I already knew I wasn’t going to move back to the States. I’ve always supported causes I believe in outside of the voting system, as I find this to be more effective. The only thing that changed for me when Trump was elected was how loud I was about the causes I care about. 

How much have you paid attention to the upcoming election, including the race for the Democratic nomination? 

I pay as much attention as I can, really. I’m juggling the politics of my two home countries, as well as attempting to be active in the one I live in. I give where I can and contribute to what I believe in. I vote where I can and where I think it will make a difference. I choose my battles carefully so I’m not overwhelmed. 

Can you sum up any other thoughts or feelings you want to speak on in relation to the election and American politics?

The thing that I have learned is that no body of government has the individual’s well-being in their best interest. I believe in empowering yourself, the people around you and your community. I believe that educating yourself and others is the best path possible. Our governments have proven time and time again that they don’t care about us. Whatever temporary comfort they present is not a real solution. 

Take care of yourself, give when and where you can. Educate yourself, fact check, keep spreading the right information. Question absolutely everything. Don’t stop fighting. 

Jorge Duarte, Visual Artist [He/Him]

@ioroeouarte

How did Trump’s election in 2016 impact your view of the US and your long- or short-term plans? 

I was still in university then and the mood on campus was sombre. It was as if someone died, or something died inside all of us that day. Could it have been hope? For us, for the world? For our futures? The world took his campaign announcement as a joke and while he could draw a crowd, the crowd itself was more frightening. It revealed the deep-rooted hate and brutal inequality the nation was built on. Sure he’s bad, but America has been bad all along.

If you could choose one Democratic candidate instead of Biden, would you? If so, who would you have chosen and why? 

Of the whole lot? Bernie Sanders, of course. A Sanders/​Warren ticket would have been ideal, but the dream is having someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the ticket. For that, we have to be patient, but what will the world look like in eight years? How can we be so sure that climate disaster doesn’t wipe us all out before a Green New Deal is thrown into the mix? We need these policies now, and we can’t keep having white men born over half a century ago be our voice and representation. 

What outcome do you expect from the election?

Uncertainty. Instability. I don’t want to expect the worst, but one thing is certain: having Trump as president again is the most unsustainable outcome for our planet.

How has the Trump presidency and the upcoming election impacted your mental health?

It has changed my reality. It feels like chaos coming from all directions. I laugh to cope because it’s absurd. Is this real life anymore? It all feels like a freefall and the question that echoes in my mind is: where am I going to land? 

Can you sum up any other thoughts or feelings you want to speak on in relation to the election and American politics?

Not enough people back home are having a conversation. No one is thinking critically anymore. Everyone is being fed some sort of information and taking it as fact. Get informed, talk to each other. Vote. Act. 


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