Experiencing the 2016 US Presidential Election From Abroad

Naomi was studying abroad in Japan on November 8, 2016, so she had to watch the election results unfold from afar--while surrounded by people who couldn't really understand what she was going through. This is what it was like.

The 2016 US presidential election was the first major election I could participate in, as I am a 20-year-old. I would not describe myself as a particularly political person, but going to a liberal arts school has definitely influenced how I engage in critical discourse and approach certain social policies. This article will probably give away some of my political views and hint at who I voted for, but its main purpose is to not debate politics but rather share what it was like to experience November 8, 2016, while living in a foreign culture, since I was studying abroad at the time. This election will no doubt be considered one of the most emotionally exhausting in American history, and I definitely had a lot of feelings after hearing the results.

As usual, the results of the election were given after all the polls closed, state-by-state. But although it takes a few minutes for news reports to declare that a candidate officially won, once a candidate reaches 270 electoral college votes, that person basically wins the presidency.

I am from California, and as the western-most state, its election results weren’t announced until late at night. My parents decided to go to bed before they found out who would be president. I, on the other hand, was at work at my Japanese internship, which I have been participating in throughout my time abroad this fall semester. On Election Day I remember constantly checking online, from the other side of the world, to see who was winning while anxiously awaiting the results.

Because the company I am interning at is a domestic company that mostly deals with Japanese clients, I was curious if anyone in my company was also following the election. I turned to my boss and quickly mentioned to him that the US election results were happening, and he and another team member laughed and started checking their browsers throughout the workday. Other than that exchange with my coworkers, the US election appeared to not be of much concern to anyone other than myself, as I was the only American in the company.

When the election results did come, I stared at my computer with disbelief and sighed loudly. I mentioned again to my supervisor who won the presidency, and the people around me laughed again and kept saying, “Seriously?” or “I cannot believe it!” and then went back to what they were working on. I felt a lot of anxiety and frustration, because no one around me could truly understand what the election results meant to me and I could not discuss my feelings. My parents were asleep at home, my friends from home were all awake and posting online from afar, and all of my study abroad friends were either in class or at their own internships. I was distraught that no one seemed to care about this major event that can affect international relations drastically for years to come. I could not wait to go home at 5:00 pm and read all of my friends’ social media posts and their reactions to witnessing history be made in front of their eyes.

When I finally got a chance to discuss the US election results with some of my other study abroad friends in Japan, we all seemed to feel the same sort of frustration that the people around us could not empathize with what we were going through. Although we did not expect them to fully understand, as the United States is not their country or priority, we wished we were in an environment where we could look at others and they would simply understand. We also were frustrated with the fact that even if we were given the opportunity to discuss our emotions, we wouldn’t be able to do so easily due to the language barrier.

That being said, some of my study abroad friends also said a few of their Japanese coworkers came up to them after the election results and hugged them or tried to console them, which was a big shock considering Japanese people tend to not make physical contact with anyone other than their close family members. No one at my internship attempted to console me, and I am not even sure if many of them knew I am American, due to the fact that I am Asian American and my Japanese language proficiency is high. And while I am in no way angry or disappointed about their treatment, it highlighted what I think might be a different experience many Asian Americans face while navigating a foreign country while still physically appearing like a native of that country.

Another takeaway of experiencing the election abroad is realizing that America in many ways is not the center of the world. I believe that as young American college students, we sometimes forget that our problems are not entirely unique and that people in other countries have their own issues to worry about. We feel like everyone should be educated on American politics, culture, and language when in reality many others around the world do not have the luxury to be engaged in our world. I remember feeling slightly annoyed when one of my Japanese friends commented on my status, asking why I was sad about the election results. I didn’t want to explain to her and I assumed that she was ignorant by not understanding where I was coming from. Then, after calming down, I was eventually able to discuss with her in person what the election meant to me. While she may not have understood everything I said, we were able to communicate cross-culturally.

Witnessing the 2016 US presidential election from abroad was a time filled with discomfort, frustration, and stress. But by going through the emotional hurdles, I was able to reflect on why I felt that way and how I could more effectively reach out to other people who were not American to explain what I was going through. Although I can’t personally say I am happy about the election results, nor will I ever be for a variety of reasons, this experience has truly humbled me, and I feel like I will be able to look back on this moment and see my personal growth.

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campus politics election election 2016 international students polisci political science politics study abroad

About Naomi Hong

Naomi Hong graduated from Occidental College in 2018 with a degree in International Relations and Japanese and a minor in Economics. She currently works as a concierge/front desk agent at a luxury hotel in Southern California. She's passionate about hospitality and travel and hope to continue my career within the hotel industry. She also enjoys writing articles about career advice, studying abroad, and learning new languages. 


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