Three Lessons for Living in America from an Almost Ex-Pat

Three Lessons for Living in America from an Almost Ex-Pat July 7, 2016


By Andrea Folds

It’s not an easy time to be an American abroad. We have a reputation that tops even the un-toppable “W.” days, and that is not a record any of us were trying to beat.

Talking with a good friend of mine from Ireland last week, I asked how the public across the pond was reacting to the Orlando tragedy. “Not to sound callous,” he said, “but it’s kind of like typical America at this point…”

Our “typical” is political gridlock in the face of mass murder. Add to that the screaming train wreck of Donald Trump, and you find yourself sheepishly palming your navy passport with as much embarrassment over current events as you already feel over certain landmines of history.

If at this point you are rolling your eyes at yet another self-hating, unpatriotic liberal, let me be clear. I believe all countries have problems. All perpetrate crimes against humanity, big or small, and all have the potential to stop. The U.S. just executes its successes and failures on a much larger stage, and as a democracy, it does so with the support, whether active or passive, of its citizens. Now is not an easy time to define our roles as citizens in the intricate tangle of U.S. policy and culture, regardless of what we believe.

I am not claiming that the moral question of how to live in Empire while subverting it is a new one. I am merely stating that the answer to the question has become more complicated, as has everything in the world. And to pretend otherwise, instead of asking anew how U.S. citizens can live in accord with their beliefs, is to commit a greater sin than hubris.

I hate questions like this. They are cumbersome and time-consuming, and they never yield straight answers. Believe me, I didn’t even want to be asking it in the first place. I thought that as long as you kept your head down and worked for a non-profit or volunteered a lot, your hands were pretty clean. It’s not like you’re the one administrating civilian drone strikes, right?

Then some nosy Quaker picked a fight with me during bible study, and my comfortable answers went out the window.

But let me back up a bit. The mid-20th century was today’s familial foreshadowing in terms of geopolitical insanity. More specifically, civil rights and nuclear weapons were colliding with postcolonial eruptions, and the U.S. was having a war. U.S. citizens who refused their summons to Vietnam of course had another option. They could go to jail, and many did. When they got out, they didn’t feel much like sticking around.

One cohort from Alabama had been imprisoned for six months as conscientious objectors during the days of Vietnam. After being released, they decided that to play it safe and avoid further unplanned vacations at the government’s invitation, they should choose a country that didn’t even have a military.

In November of 1950, 44 Quakers from 11 families headed south, heeding the general invitation from then Costa Rican president Pepe Figueres to foreigners to come help develop his newly demilitarized country. This was not some neo-colonialist field trip or juvenile jaunt before settling down to real life. It was an earnest attempt to create a community where nonviolence, and the Quaker values of community premised on nonviolence, could be lived out.

Sometimes seemingly crazy ideas work amazingly well, usually through a combination of great luck and great human effort. Monteverde had both, and it continues to defy odds today as an incredibly diverse, dynamic community committed to the Quaker values in a world that considers them about as realistic as equal opportunity economy and a pacifist foreign policy. Thus, a handful of kids who didn’t want to go back to jail 50 years ago succeeded in creating what several visitors, still in awe of their own great fortune at being there, called “the Quaker Mecca.”

Mecca it may be, but I certainly didn’t head there as a faithful pilgrim on hajj. I made my way to Costa Rica as a result of God’s speaking to me through his favorite medium for my life, Google. I found the job opening for English teacher at the Monteverde Friends School one day at work, and in what I still consider to be the greatest fortune of my life thus far, I was given the job, and thus began my year of education in how to be a human.

All the lessons I learned from my time in Monteverde, and more specifically my time teaching, could fill a book. That is partly because of how much the place has to teach, and partly because of the staggering number of lessons I had somehow not yet learned by age 25.

And in the middle of this great year, a well-meaning Quaker had to come and ruin everything. One Sunday in February, we were at bible study before meeting (an optional hour for those who are still learning how to learn from silence, and rely heavily on words for communication). The conversation was about an interview we had just watched with Walter Brueggeman about the relevance of the Hebrew Prophets to the U.S. today. Brueggeman accurately cited and lamented the great number of problems with the country, and predicted a terrible fate for its people if we didn’t change our ways.

The comments afterwards were understandably in line with that message, coming mostly from U.S. ex-pats who’d left the country for just those reasons, or who left and then stayed away after realizing what they had gotten away from. I agreed with their points. All of them. But I couldn’t say so. It was just too depressing to think that there was nothing anyone could do to improve the state of things. Or to say that somehow the few people who could were the ones who would never do so. So I chimed in with my personal plan to save the country and dared anyone to challenge me.

I chose climate change as my point of entry — the most overwhelming and depressing problem of all — and declared with obnoxious certainty that I’d be starting law school in the fall, after which I’d become an environmental lawyer, reform the food and agriculture policies of the country, and end global warming through an economic domino effect just in time to save the planet. Crisis averted, everyone please calm down.

One woman somehow felt moved to take issue with the simple and self-important optimism of my plan. But she didn’t just argue with me. She laughed. She laughed at the idea that I’d ever be able to influence the corporately dominated policies of the U.S. She laughed, more importantly, at the idea that anyone could live in the U.S. and be able to do anything other than support it through passive compliance. I was furious.

Although she wouldn’t have guessed it at the time from my frozen, artificial smile as I refused to further engage in conversation with her, this woman made me think. What if she was right? What if I couldn’t just march into the heart of Empire and claim freedom from guilt, lack of association, simply by virtue of participating in fossil fuel protests and calling for a national carbon tax? This made things annoyingly complicated.

I thought back to Monteverde’s founders, and their decision to pack up and leave. Without something as concrete as a summons to war, what did I have to protest against? Not like I wanted to be drafted for war, but it certainly made things clearer about what one was choosing or refusing to support. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that not all of us could leave, even if sometimes we’d like to. Some of us- many of us, really- need to stay and work from inside the system to bring about change. So how to do so without lazily paying into it at the same time?

I have given up hope of finding one-size-fits-all answers to anything. I tried that with religion for a long time, and was left with anger, exhaustion, and no answers. Certain things work for certain people, and that’s fine. So for me, personally, individually, here are the 3 things I’m keeping with me from Monteverde as I transition back to the states and try to avoid completely succumbing to the comfortable zombifying effect of capitalist patriotism.

1. Taxes — that other thing besides death.

In one of the many great shots of Michael Moore’s latest analysis of America’s disasters, “Where to Invade Next,” he zooms in on the income tax receipt paid by U.S. citizens, where we are told nothing about how our taxes are used. He then zooms in on a French income tax receipt, where citizens are showed exactly how their dollars are spent. The distribution of U.S. income tax dollars is a contentious question, with percentage breakdowns provided by the government, by watchdog groups, and by market analysts, all with significantly different interpretations. The figure purportedly given to National Defense ranges from around 22%, according to the figures, and 80% according to groups like, who include spending on veterans of past wars and other war-related expenses.

If you’re committed to non-violence, the idea of funding U.S. military conquests may seem paradoxically in conflict with your beliefs, and in line with your legal obligations as a U.S. citizen. Groups like the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee ( can help you figure out ways to navigate your concurrent personal beliefs and financial burdens with a menu of suggestions for protest, both monetary and non. Whatever you do, just acknowledging that you’re paying into the military arm of the world’s superpower is a good first step to being a conscientious U.S. citizen. And it makes you feel less like a chump, even if you are still paying up.

2. Buying — or more specifically not buying — things.

There are a few key ways to tell the difference between a Tico (Costa Rican) and a gringo (anyone from North America, or just a particularly clueless kind of white person) in Monteverde, aside from the amount of intense rain gear they’re wearing. One dead giveaway is that gringos love to buy things. If a large fundraising dinner is coming up, and we’re going to sell pizza, the gringos immediately ask where we can order the pizza from. The ticos are already rolling their eyes and on the phone with their neighbor’s sister, who makes the best pizza dough on the mountain. It’s not just food, either. When I realized I needed to boil water for coffee every morning if I wanted to continue my ritual of mindless instant Nestle while listening to NPR and wondering why mornings exist, I went to the store and bought an electric kettle. Fast. Plastic. So easy.

My neighbor was appalled. She has a metal kettle that I could have used instead. Same result — boiled water. It’s not just a matter of thrift — it’s a matter of stuff. Americans don’t seem to have a concept of how much stuff we have. We just assume it accumulates over your life and you dread the day you ever have to move. Ticos — or more specifically, Monteverdans — seriously question each new thing they acquire before doing so. Do they need it? Will they be able to give it someone else who does when they’re done? Is it really necessary? Those are questions I have a hard time remembering to ask when I find myself in the dollar section of Super Target. But the embarrassment I can feel at the thought of my neighbor seeing my Hello Kitty Band-Aid impulse buy certainly helps.

3. And finally — separation between church and state, or between church life and real life.

I like going to church. I have always liked it, because it’s a free intellectual exercise. Like going to a movie or a play without having to buy a ticket. Someone stands up and states their belief, vaguely challenges you to question yours, and leads you in singing some tunes you may or may not have heard. Then out the door to lunch to mull over what you just heard and pick it apart as you live. Beautiful.

Quaker meeting is not like that. Not just because there is no sermon to dissect afterwards, nor order of worship to comment on. Quaker meeting doesn’t end when the preacher blesses you out the door.

Instead, it follows you with handshakes, greetings, and earnest questions about how you’re really doing. I spent the first 3 months of meetings wishing people would just leave me alone so I could run up to my classroom and start lesson planning. I spent the rest of the year dreading my impending transition back to American church, where a question deeper than whether you saw the game last night is severely uncomfortable.

I am still an introvert, 100%, even after the Quaker hospitality. But I am going to make a considerable effort at the next congregation I’m a part of to nurture and honor the communal part of church. I want the people I worship with to ask about my daily life, and I about theirs. I want as little separation as possible between what I believe and what I do. And I want as much socializing as possible with people who actually care about that sort of stuff.

Monteverde is too rich to sum up in a single article. American identity is too complex to analyze from a single vantage point. And these may seem like pathetically trivial ways in which to reconcile your citizenship and your beliefs — to solve your political identity crisis. Great, see what doesn’t work for you and find what does. This is all just to say that even those experiences that leave us speechless, wondering where to go, and knowing it has to be somewhere different than we were before — well even those, we must try clumsily and humanly to put into words.

13620706_3295048211350_6431993957355959976_nAndrea Folds is a cynic by nature, an idealist by force, and a wannabe Christian, as Auden put it, by some odd miracle. She has worked as an activist on too many issues for too little time in the South where she’s from, in New York where she studied, and most recently in Costa Rica, where she recommends everyone go but not really everyone or you’ll ruin it. Andrea is starting law school this fall with the sole intention of lovingly prosecuting certain deserving industries, and she will continue blogging her way through this life at

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