HONG KONG - Finally, after eight years of insult, embarrassment and shame - it
is once again cool to be an American living abroad. The George W Bush debacle
is mercifully over, and it doesn't matter if you are black, white or otherwise.
Suddenly, you're cool. Your accent is cool, your mixed heritage is even cooler
and your willingness to embrace that larger world outside the borders of the
United States is cooler still.
What a difference a presidential election can make.
Thanks to Barack Obama's predicted but nevertheless stunning victory over John
McCain, American expatriates may be receiving more handshakes, hugs and
compliments than ever before. The last US election that stirred the world as
this one has saw the youthful John F Kennedy, the country's first Catholic
president, edge out Richard Nixon in 1960. But the media were relatively
primitive then, and Obama's triumph as the first African American to win the
presidency - in no small measure due to his campaign's mastery of the Internet
and cable television - has made a far bigger international splash.
From Europe to Asia to the Middle East and Africa, Obama's two-year chase for
the White House has captured the imagination of the world and, even before his
victory, raised America's image. Opinion polls consistently demonstrated
overwhelming support for the Illinois senator, often as high as 80% to 85%, in
countries all around the world.
His week-long summer tour of the Middle East and Europe - which took him to
Afghanistan and Iraq and culminated in a Kennedy-esque speech before a
rapturous audience of more than 200,000 in Germanyís capital city of Berlin -
was ample proof of that. The presidential race was very close then, however,
and the question was whether America would finally listen to the world. The
answer at the time was uncertain.
Ironically, now that the verdict is so convincingly in, most non-Americans look
on in admiration and wonder because they know that their countries are not
capable of a political and social feat of this magnitude: electing a member of
what had been an enslaved minority to the highest office in the land.
The Obama victory parties are now sweeping over Asia and spanning the world -
and the interesting thing is that it's not just overseas Americans who are
celebrating. Indeed, in many places it is non-Americans who are leading out.
Arguably, for the first time, we have a president of the world.
That is certainly the case at the international school where I teach in Hong
Kong. In the school's mock presidential election, 86% of the students voted for
Obama and only 14% for McCain. And my educated guess is that McCain got most of
his meager support from Americans at the school, who make up about 50% of the
student population; among non-Americans, Obama was the almost unanimous choice.
No surprise there. Obama's childhood profile - which the McCain campaign tried
to portray as foreign and un-American - sounds familiar enough to them. The
Kenyan father, the white American mother, the Indonesian stepdad and
half-sister - this mixed-race story is similar to many of their own, right down
to the Columbia and Harvard degrees they aspire to earn. Obama is one of them.
Skeptics already wonder how long this sentiment may last, however, given the
enduring provincialism of the average American, to whom Obama will be pitching
his administration. Indeed, even during the epic presidential campaign, China -
which is laying claim to the 21st century just as America did to the 20th -
hardly figured in the conversation except as an infrequently mentioned bogeyman
guilty of currency manipulation, exportation of tainted products and - of
course - communism, communism and more communism.
Neither McCain nor Obama mentioned that while the once-inimical communists of
China are still a party, they are no longer the embodiment of a Marxist
ideology. To the contrary, naked capitalism - of the sort that the US
experienced in the days of the robber barons of the 19th and early 20th
centuries - rules the day. That explains the attractive price - as well as the
sometimes unattractive taint - of Chinese goods.
The two candidates also failed to explain that China, currently holding US$1.33
trillion in foreign reserves, a significant portion of which is tied up in US
Treasury bonds, basically underwrote the sustained boom of the US economy and
could now be a key player in managing the recent bust.
While in the US China has merited only rare mention in the race for the White
House - and, even then, usually in a distorted, essentially dishonest way - on
this side of the world the prolonged, nasty battle for the presidency has been
duly noted and taken in stride. Leaders in China and the rest of Asia have had
a lot of time to get ready for Obama. They just hope he is ready for them.
And he is, if you listen to Hong Kong's last colonial governor, Chris Patten,
who is currently passing through the mainland and Hong Kong on a tour promoting
his latest book, What Next? Surviving the 21st Century. In Beijing over
the weekend, Patten - now a member of Britainís House of Lords and chancellor
of Oxford University - said China would be "gobsmacked" by Obama's election
because so many Chinese people continue to believe that racial discrimination
remains rampant in the US.
"I think that the election of Senator Obama would send an extraordinary signal
to the rest of the world," the former head of Britain's Conservative Party
said, describing an Obama victory as "the most powerful declaration of what
America at its best has stood for - the most globalized country in the world -
because America is made up of the rest of the world."
During his 1992 to 1997 tenure as Hong Kong's governor, Patten had a rocky
relationship with the Chinese leadership as he tried his best to bring further
democracy to the city. Ultimately, the rushed Patten reforms were largely
jettisoned by Beijing at the handover, but a grudging respect has since
developed between the two. Patten's words have weight here, but probably not
enough to convince Asian leaders that Obama's promise of change means an
enlightened understanding of the Asian - and, in particular, the Chinese -
relationship with the US.
Considering America's extreme vulnerability in the current financial crisis,
however, it could be the perfect time for the world's favorite president to
reach out to China and for the American people to nod in approval. In the end,
he - and they - may not have much choice.
The next time the China National Oil Corp launches a $18.5 billion takeover
fight for a major US corporation - as it did three years ago with a bid to buy
Union Oil of California - perhaps it will not be forced to drop that effort
because of a wall of political opposition in Washington built on the knee-jerk
paranoia that such deals threaten US national security. Unocal then merged with
the American Chevron Corp in a $17.5 billion cash-and-stock offer, cooling
Chinese interest in any future deals with US companies.
Similar paranoia surrounds the business activities of the richest ethnic
Chinese person in the world, Li Ka-shing, chairman of Hong Kong-based Cheung
Kong (Holdings) Ltd. Instead of cooking up crackpot conspiracy theories that
have Li using his company's control of some of the biggest seaports in the
world as a cover for espionage for the Chinese government, maybe an Obama
administration will invite him to Washington and encourage the tycoon to invest
some of his billions in the broken US economy.
Obama has made it cool again to be American in Asia. But let's hope that it
will also soon be cool to be Asian in America as the US needs Asia more than
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at [email protected]