Trouble with distance in times of turmoil

By Michelle Borok

While many families in Mongolia made plans for putting Thanksgiving dinners on tables more than 6,000 miles away from Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts (where Thanksgiving’s first pilgrims touched down), they also received news of the tumultuous outcome of this fall’s deeply divisive lethal shooting of Michael Brown by Missouri police officer Darren Wilson.
America’s response to the August 9th shooting made international headlines, and Tuesday’s news of protests following the grand jury verdict not to indict Officer Wilson for the death of Brown did the same.
This summer, as news of the shooting and the public outrage on all sides – for the killing of the unarmed teenager, and for the vilification of the uniformed police officer on duty – spread around the globe, some of the biggest detractors of the U.S. pointed fingers at what was happening in the small Midwestern town of Ferguson.
China, Iran, Cuba, Egypt and North Korea were some of the most vocal critics of how American law enforcement responded to protests that took place after the shooting. In an August press conference, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “We here in the United States will put our record for confronting our problems transparently and honestly and openly up against any other countries in the world… When we have problems and issues in this country, we deal with them openly and honestly. We think that’s important, and I would encourage the countries you named particularly to do the same thing.”
..The criticism flared again this week, as international headlines read “Protests spread across the U.S.” Protesters in London even gathered around the U.S. Embassy.
Those of us who read the headlines from abroad could do little but absorb the information.
For me, knowing that as some of us were basting our hard-to-find turkeys with care, business owners and peaceful protesters were standing vigilant watch over their communities, protecting them from opportunistic looters and sweeping up the broken glass and garbage accumulated over two days of civil unrest, put the holiday in perspective.
On Tuesday morning, I first watched live coverage of the sidewalk outside the grand jury proceedings on Australia’s ABC, available from my cable provider in Darkhan. I switched back and forth between all the other foreign channels with English news broadcasts and soaked in the tension of the grand jury verdict the world was waiting to hear. Having easy access to international perspectives is one of the perks of being an American citizen living abroad, but we are left with only being able to consume information from a distance.
My day was spent reading stories, scanning memes, engaging in fruitless online debate, and trying to sit comfortably with a feeling of helplessness. As far as I was from Ferguson, Missouri, the same feelings were echoed by people just a few states away. On all sides of the conflict- to different degrees and with different agendas- people wanted to know where they could go to “do something” about what was happening across the country.
Many of us share our social media universe with friends and family who stand on opposite sides of a debate, and we navigate those differences in our own ways. With so much physical distance between many of my friends and family, I navigate with caution, trying never to take the fragile hold on those connections for granted.
Now, living abroad, I’ve also learned not to take my freedoms and privileges as a U.S. citizen for granted. But in times like this, I wonder how useful those freedoms can be.
As a guest in Mongolia, I don’t have the right to vote, and my participation in protest is strongly discouraged by the governments of Mongolia and the U.S. Most of the foreign embassies in Mongolia have systems in place to warn citizens of their countries about civil unrest or potentially dangerous places to avoid to help protect the people in their care. Multinational corporations have policies in place to extract their people when situations become threatening (provided the local government hasn’t issued travel bans keeping foreign nationals from leaving). The situation in Ferguson didn’t pose a danger to Americans abroad, but when we hear of turmoil in our home countries, we are on our own with ways to cope.
On this Thanksgiving holiday, although it wasn’t celebrated with a turkey and pumpkin pie, I still found myself observing the tradition of giving thanks for what I have.
I am thankful that I live in Mongolia, where gun violence (on the part of the public and the police) is not prevalent. I’m thankful that technology keeps me connected to what’s happening in the world. I’m thankful that I have a community of expat friends who understand what it’s like to be far from “home” in moments like these. I’m thankful for my passionate and dedicated activist friends who let me live vicariously through their on-the-ground involvement in community responses to the Ferguson decision this week. But most of all, this Thanksgiving I’m thankful for the safety, health and security of the people I love – here and abroad.

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Posted by on Nov 29 2014. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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