My return to America came after five years in Tokyo, a drop in the bucket next to many of my “lifer” expat colleagues who had accrued wives, kids and mortgages. Their lives weren’t fully checked into either Japanese or American existence, and I was somewhere in the middle myself. To a young Tokyoite whose salary qualified almost laughably for the U.S. foreign income tax exclusion, what was the participatory aspect of American citizenship?
In a word, it was voting. For five years I never missed a chance to cast an absentee ballot, doing my small part to further blue an already blue state. The expat’s windows to home, social media, were as political as they were personal: friends’ baby photos intermingled with tirades about the U.S. Supreme Court. I was a political news junkie who had only ever voted for candidates of one party, so with two years in Tokyo under my belt, I voted to reelect President Barack Obama and my state’s incumbent Democrats without a second thought. I’ll be clear: I do not regret those votes in the slightest, but they were cast very, very far from home.
In the first week after I moved into my new apartment stateside, I met an undocumented immigrant, a Desert Storm veteran living with untreated mental illness, and a homeless woman with terminal cancer who left an impression. She flagged me down on the street to jabber about the relentless late-summer jackhammering on a nearby construction site and how age had finally caught up with her. Five minutes later, I was dumbstruck when she bid me goodbye without asking for money — content, I suppose, with the ready acknowledgement of a stranger as she set off toward nowhere in particular.
That same week, a local man celebrating his 58th birthday was killed when a stray bullet entered his living room, days after the community buried a 15-year-old boy fatally shot in his brother’s car. “If it’s troubles you missed,” the local news seemed to lament, “we’ve got ’em.”
My new neighborhood is like many others, but not nearly enough for me to accurately project its woes onto the rest of America. Its distance from Tokyo, in miles and atmosphere, threw into sharp relief the echo chamber I’d been inhabiting all those years spent thinking I was out of my comfort zone. Most American colleagues in Tokyo had matching dossiers: white, male, educated. By law, our residency in Japan required us to have jobs, housing and health insurance. Homelessness was more easily ignored than litter, and homicide was a national news event, not a local tragedy.
Even if we were the slightest bit interested in Japanese local politics, there was never much to discuss. No, we kept our eyes fixed on the fights raging at home. Could it have been compensation for the impotence we felt, sidelined in the foreign political world around us? Every political rant on Facebook, yelling ourselves hoarse into the void, could be more charitably characterized as homesickness.
It isn’t as though there weren’t chances to do good nearby. I’ve never known a nonprofit to turn away foreign volunteers, but something in our blood deems Japanese problems not ours to solve. We see the outcomes, though — new Tokyo ordinances stung more than any in my hometown. But keeping to our own battles is easier, brandishing cynicism and sanctimony as vigilant watchdogs. Actually voting is incidental for some; rather, it’s the mudslinging and argument that we hold dearest.
When we as expats do vote — or willfully abstain — it’s with a high-minded integrity we cling to but others pay for. Many expatriates pride themselves on being informed, openly disdaining the rubes back home who lack perspective on the issues that matter. Living overseas, though, we become susceptible to the echo chamber’s allure without the daily, countervailing slap that comes with life in America. Protest votes are harder to make when you hear a single mother wonder aloud what things will be like when the food stamps are gone. These are the people who show how compromised America is, and how badly we need compromise and open minds to fix it.
The reminder I received on my return was that for years, I hardly ever felt the consequences of my votes from Tokyo, but multitudes of disenfranchised people with real skin in the game did. We can often forget that lifetime residents of Washington, D.C., or Puerto Rico, for instance, have less representation in American government than a U.S. citizen celebrating 30 years in rural Kyushu.
How absolutist, and how ambitious, are we willing to be with the franchise we enjoy in the place of less fortunate others? Voting from abroad invites us to ask what our citizenship means to us and how best to engage with a home country still familiar in concept, but grown foreign in being.
Colin Moreshead is a graduate student fellow of East Asian Studies at Yale University and a resident of New Haven, Connecticut. Your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org