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America, the gift ...

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Of the many foreign foes that President Trump has amassed in his first year, do not count among his foes the leaders of Taiwan.

Five months into his term, Trump signed off on a routine sale of military arms to Taiwan. That deal, to the plucky country of 23 million people, assures its population in its uneasy relationship with China. They sleep better.

By contrast, President Obama did not sign off on that arms deal until 12 months into his term.

That is the allegation of a Taiwan official who spoke to a group of us when I toured the country in November with 20 other world journalists.

That 12-month wait for arms, to us and more specifically to the Obama team, might have been rather benign. I do not know.

But I know that per this Taiwan official, the delay was teeth-gnashing to his people, leaving them to wonder, “Was this new American president for Taiwan?” “If there’s a delay for this, what does that say about Taiwan in future U.S. dealings with China?”

While the event was insight into Taiwan’s place in the world, it was also telling of America’s place.

America – for better and worse – stirs the drink that is global stability. We grow up thinking such and knowing it to be true to some great degree.

But when you get away from home, you see and hear about America with a different sense of measure and priority.

Here in America, our global role takes on a tone – at times heroic and at times indifferent – of “Yeah, that’s what we do ...”

Outside America, the tone is “Yeah, that’s what we need you to do.”

Girts Zvirbulis lives in Latvia with almost 2 million other countrymen.

The country is the size of Ohio – if Ohio’s southern border was a line from Columbiana through Canton, Wooster and Lima to the Indiana line.

In America, that is barely an area code. But it’s all of Latvia, and that’s not much – especially when your neighbor is an aggressor like Russia.

When Russia rolled in and over parts of Ukraine in 2013 and 2014, nearby countries such as Latvia feared the worst. They were Western-leaning such as Ukraine, but also historically connected to an embittered Russia.

Ultimately powerless, Latvia could do just one thing: Wonder what America would do if Russia rolled past Ukraine to them.

Here in the U.S., we see that tension as just a headline. For Girts and his wife and son, the tension is a daily look over your shoulder. Is bad coming today? Will good respond?

And that’s just Latvia. My trip to Taiwan included quality time with brilliant minds from about 18 countries. And more times than not, the America they see, expect and are mostly comfortable with is the America that responds.

I didn’t expect such. I expected American fatigue.

So much did I expect it that I tried to be the quiet guy. Speak some; listen a lot more; don’t necessarily jump to the mic. Just soak in the people and the opportunity. I wanted anything but to be the cliche American – or at least what I thought was the cliche.

I’m kind of fatigued by us – and that was even before President Trump. We’re just always on – whether in politics or culture or economy or something crazy in Florida. We are the world’s pink bunny battery. And I’m not always a fan.

Steffen Richter is from Germany and said that American fatigue is an issue in his country. But sometimes it’s misplaced, he said, and ultimately it’s dismissed.

“I think America learned some lessons after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were people thinking ‘This is too much America,’” he said.

Then he laughed.

“But when Crimea and Syria happened, people were then looking for America. Your country is in a tough position with that expectation.”

Culturally, Girts laughed that America gets the blame for their kids’ obsession with unhealthy foods, video games and laziness, but then brings that charge back to reality.

“But that’s because we don’t want to blame ourselves for bad parenting,” he said with a grin.

The American perception changes most with our politics. And right now, Trump is a world spectacle.

Our Taiwan trip was conveniently timed with Trump’s visit to neighboring China. The entire country of Taiwan wanted Trump to do just one thing during the trip and that was to say or tweet nothing about Taiwan.

Every morning of our stay, even before the check on the weather, was a check on what Trump did in China.

Over the course of my exploring America through others, it’s clear that America is not the world’s perfect niece with the perfect grades who went off to Harvard and always writes cards and leaves treats for the people who do good in her life.

Instead, America is that uncle at Christmas who often does the inappropriate thing and who could have been a bit more subtle about your weight gain – but who also has the ultimate toolshed that you can use and will always come over and fix your leaky faucet after he yells about it first.

As one of the world’s youngest countries, we are also one of its greatest gifts.

Sure, we are a gift to ourselves and what our forefathers crafted.

But we are a result of world involvement a few hundred years ago.

Many countries paid a price for us to be who we are. In return, we have paid a price for them as well – some paying more than others.

I get wary of us sometimes.

We can’t debate about Trump, Colin Kaepernick, race, our rich or our poor.

Alabama almost elected a guy who, 10 or 15 years ago, would never be considered. People there actually said, “It’s not about the person, but the party.”

We’re under attack by ourselves – and a world watches and wonders.

There will be plenty of gifts opened around the world the next 24 hours.

America is a gift from the world and to the world.

My gift was to see it through the eyes of people an ocean or two away.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.