When Trump’s America Doesn’t Feel Like Home Anymore

Photo: Mike Whitby / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

On November 9, the day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, Jamie Lypka said a quiet good-bye to the United States.

Lypka, 27, lives in South Korea, where she moved four years ago to work as an editor for educational materials. Though she’s since married a man born and raised in her adopted country, she says, the couple had planned, on a fuzzy, unspecific timeline, to someday move to the United States. “I want to have kids,” she says, “and I don’t want them to go through the school system” in Korea, where the typical education is high-pressure and brutally competitive. Recently, she had begun to research jobs back in the U.S., thinking she and her husband might move as early as the coming year.

“But now I’m not interested,” she says. Suddenly, the list of pros and cons felt much more weighted towards the latter. Already, there were issues to consider — they’d both be quitting jobs, for one thing, and Lypka, who is recovering from cancer, would be leaving behind a much more affordable health-care system. But now her husband was worried about racism back in the U.S., And Lypka, who grew up on Long Island, no longer felt the pull toward home that she had just 24 hours earlier: “I felt like, whoa, is that who we are? What’s tying me to that?”

It’s a question that plenty of people are now asking in their own ways, about their own places. To varying degrees, we all incorporate parts of our environments — the ones we’re born into, and the ones we adopt — into how we see ourselves: an American, a New Yorker, a Texan, a New Englander, a child of x or y hometown. We pride ourselves on Midwest niceness, or Southern hospitality, or West Coast chill. And when something happens that contradicts what we know about a place that we love, or a place where we have roots, it can feel like the loss of something fundamental.

In a 1996 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Columbia University psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove argued that people form connections to place through three different channels: familiarity, or simply having knowledge of a place; identity, in which they define themselves in part by where they live; and attachment, which she defined as “a mutual caretaking bond between a person and a beloved place” — residents work to maintain and improve their home, whether that’s something as small as a block or as large as a nation, and, in return, the institutions of that place work to improve the lives of its residents. Together, Fullilove wrote, these three elements create a bond similar to the one formed between two people.

In her book This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, author Melody Warnick laid out 11 principles for nurturing that place-person connection. Number one: “Our towns are what we think they are,” she wrote. In other words: Purposefully focusing on the good about your home can help you to love it, even when it’s also full of things that are unlovable.

The flip side of that, though, is that when it’s hard to look away from the bad, a home can start to feel like something unfamiliar. And as Fullilove argued in her paper, a broken bond between person and place, as with one between people, can lead to something like grief.

That’s how it felt for Margaret Smiley, a 24-year old analyst at a health-care start-up in Manhattan. After casting an absentee ballot for the state of Michigan, Smiley just this week changed her permanent address and voter registration to New York. “This election just moved me to support the fact that I will never be moving back,” she says.

It was a thought she had already been entertaining for some time, but still, Election Night felt like a punch to the gut: She expected Michigan, which had gone blue in every presidential election she’d been alive to witness, would do the same this time around. When news outlets began calling the state for Trump, “I can’t really describe the feeling, but it just felt like my identity had been taken out from under me — like this really steady rug of the values that I held and what I considered to be important as an American, as a Michigander, was just completely swept out from under my feet.”

There was also a more intimate sense of anger. “I feel personally hurt by my neighbors, by my friends, by my teachers, by my coaches,” Smiley says — all the people who defined her childhood in the “very, very conservative” town of Rockford, Michigan, a suburb of Grand Rapids with a population of around 6,000 people. “All the values of the Midwest — working hard and doing good and being kind — how can you turn your back on that … and vote for someone who has acted against and represents everything that is fundamentally against those values?”

Jeenie (she asked that her last name be withheld), a 27-year-old nonprofit worker who grew up in Colorado, has similar sentiments. “I’m of Korean descent, I identify as a woman of color, and I never thought something as macro as a presidential election could feel so deeply personal,” she says. “It felt like that uncle who voted for Trump, or that cousin or that friend of a friend, was voting against me as a woman and as a person of color.”

Now living in New York, she worried in the weeks leading up to the election about which way her home state would go: “For me, it wasn’t necessarily pride so much as relief” that Colorado voted for Hillary, she says, but that relief wasn’t enough to temper the fear that her parents, both immigrants, were still vulnerable to the racist sentiments that the election had brought to the surface. “A lot of people will hear their accents and assume that they’re stupid or they can’t speak English,” she says, which isn’t helped by the fact that her family is an anomaly in her hometown. “We grew up in a very middle or upper-middle class white suburban area, so oftentimes we were the only people of color, or some of the few people of color in the room.” The day after the election, “I called them, and I had to tell them to be careful.”

At that point, the “liberal bubble” of her current city — which she views “as both a blessing and a curse” — felt like a relief, and also like something more. “That morning after the election results had come in, there was a collective feeling of moroseness and disbelief, and I felt like a lot of the city felt very similar to the way I did,” she recalls. “I felt a little bit more connected to New York” — like that, rather than the place she’d grown up, was where she belonged. Here, she was the norm.

But for Xavier Torres de Janon, 22, surrounding himself with like-minded people in the days after the election wasn’t enough to shake the feeling that he no longer belonged where he was. Originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador, Torres de Janon moved to the U.S. to attend college in Massachusetts, and now works as a legal assistant in Atlanta. He likes his job, he says, and he likes the community he’s found through his social-activism work, but “seeing everyone so distraught has made me reconsider where I’m at, what I’m doing here, if I should even be here,” he says. Suddenly, “I felt that it just wasn’t my fight. The movements that are taking place — I feel strangely disconnected from them now.” The day after the election, he kicked into networking mode, messaging contacts back in Ecuador about any job opportunities they may know of.

His family has mixed feelings about a potential return. “[My mother] wants me to pursue the dream, find a job I love” in the U.S., where economic opportunities are greater. But at the same time, “for her, the best thing is if I’m just back home safe.”

Torres de Janon has since slowed down in his search, but if the right job opened up in Ecuador or anywhere in the world, he would have no qualms about leaving the U.S. “Here in Atlanta I was starting to carve out a home,” he says. “But now I’m realizing I may not want to.”

When Trump’s America Doesn’t Feel Like Home Anymore