Voting Across Country Lines

Buenos Aires, Argentina

“I really don’t see why I should have to pay taxes. I didn’t live in the United States last year.” It was March and I was seriously considering tax evasion.  I hadn’t sent children to school, driven on roads, or asked a fireman to remove my cat from a tree. It hardly seemed fair to pay for public goods that I was in no position to benefit from.  And yet, the IRS had extended its long arms to Latin America. I knew I couldn’t escape death by moving abroad, but what about income taxes?

Even though I lived and worked in Argentina during all of the previous fiscal year, some of my income had been earned in the United States.  For a few months, while I was waiting for my work-residency visa, I was on the payroll of my employer’s New York headquarters. In the end, a combination of peer pressure, the promise of a generous rebate, and fear of future repercussions convinced me to pay my taxes. I couldn’t believe that the U.S. government had followed me to Buenos Aires.

I have been living in virtual anarchy for the past three years.  Residing legally outside of my home country but not a citizen of my host country, I am practically untouched by government.  The notion of domestic politics ceases to exist, and what exactly are “foreign” politics when you yourself are a foreigner?  I knew that all around the world people were dying, temperatures and unemployment were rising, and governments, institutions, and companies were failing.  But the only current events that I cared about were how expensive tomatoes had become, whether I would able to take the subway to work, or if the taxi driver would want to talk to me about Iraq.  Civic engagement became a choice rather than a duty, and I chose to abstain.  Except on special occasions like tax season and national elections.

“Have you registered for an absentee ballot yet?”  That question, recently posed by my mother, burst my self-centered bubble of ignorance and apathy.  My initial response was an obstinate “no.” I tend to turn into a bratty teenager when my mother tells me what to do.  But in all honesty, I felt detached from every aspect of the presidential election – from the candidates to the campaigns, from the issues to the results.  But more than anything, I felt detached from being an American.

In fact, not being identified as a stereotypical American had become a source of pride.  During a family vacation to Colombia, a waiter, with whom I had been speaking in Spanish, asked me where we were from.  “The United States,” I replied. 

“Yea,” he insisted, “but where are you from?”

“The United States,” I repeated with a smile. 

“Oh,” he replied, embarrassed, “I was sure that you were Argentine.”

I have also been mistaken for Italian, Spanish, and Brazilian, and others simply can’t identify my origin.  “But you don’t look, dress, talk, or act like an American,” they tell me. “Thanks,” I always reply, flattered.  Being asked to vote was asking me to take interest in something that I had long since written off – the American public.

Nevertheless, a few days ago, I agreed to go with friends to a Vice Presidential debates viewing party hosted by democrats abroad.  “I’m drowning in a sea of Americans,” I remarked upon arrival. While people were playing Palin Bingo, I was busy inventing my own game – count the North Face fleeces, baseball hats, and button-up shirts. 

When the debates started, the room went quiet.  The only sounds were those of active listening – laughing, cheering, clapping, and jeering.  I looked around the room and found myself surrounded by educated, passionate, socially aware, culturally curious, and adventurous Americans.  We were hardly fit the description of “dirty, American tourists,” and yet we were all made in the U.S.A.

Maybe I would have turned out exactly the same if I had been born in a different place. I can credit much of my willingness and ability to live and travel abroad to having grown up in a country that promotes independence and freedom, appreciates diversity, advocates women’s rights, is financially stable, and is respected internationally, or at least used to be.  I may consider myself a citizen of the world, but this is in large part thanks to the fact that I am first and foremost a citizen of the United States.

I understand now that this election does directly affect me. Especially because everywhere I go, I become a representative of my country and the image of America is projected onto me, even if it doesn’t represent me.  U.S. politics are world politics, and as an avid traveler, I have a particular interest in the number of stable countries that welcome Americans.  And the reality is, no matter how far from home I travel, my permanent mailing address is still my parent’s house in Michigan.  I may be an expat, but I’m not disenfranchised.  So the answer is yes, mom, I’m going to vote.

*If you are a registered voter living in Buenos Aires, Argentina and have not yet received your absentee ballot, there will be a voting party at the US Embassy on October 8, 2008, 9am to noon.

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