Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Emigrant Myths

During our sojourn at the farm, we had a lot of time to talk over a roaring evening fire and many glasses of wine. One very interesting discussion was sparked when I pointed out there are over 5 million American living abroad, a figure that raised a few eyebrows.  So many?  Yes, I replied.  After mulling it over for a few minutes one family member asked me, "Why would anyone want to leave America?"

Now, you might be thinking at this point that this is another example of an insular American who can't imagine why anyone would leave the land of milk and honey that is the United States.  I would strongly disagree with that assumption because I have heard this question asked by natives in all the countries I've lived in.  I have heard Frenchmen and women ask, "Why?" when they see young French students leaving for Canada or French workers holding down jobs in Japan.  It is a real enigma for those who stay and the statistics, once they are revealed, seem to provoke a real sense of uneasiness .  If people leave, does this mean that there is something wrong with our country? Or, more perversely, is there something deeply wrong with emigrants themselves that caused them to pack up and leave?   On the emigrants side, confronted by questions from their home country natives, they feel uncomfortable having to defend their personal choices and their right to still be considered French or American or Japanese. 

What makes these conversations so difficult and so emotional is how hard it is for each side to empathize with the other.  An emigrate has had an experience that changes him in ways that are very hard for his compatriots who have never lived anywhere else to relate to.  The natives who remain also have an experience  - one of continuous residence in the country of origin - that emigrants find equally difficult to understand.  To the question "Why did you leave?" an emigrant could just as well retort, "So, why did you stay?"

In my humble opinion, both questions merit serious reflection and both sides in this debate need to start "assuming goodwill." If we stopped stopped bickering (or idealizing in some cases) and opened ourselves to the idea that we could learn something from an honest exchange, we might all be better off and more comfortable in our national skins. Here is my take on some of the myths about emigrants that I personally find silly or destructive. If you have another view or you disagree with my thoughts, please feel free to say so:

Emigration says something negative about the country of origin:  Nonsense.  Even countries of immigration are countries of emigration.  There are flows in and flows out. This has always been true.  According to John Wennersten in his book, Leaving America, during the golden age of immigration in the U.S. (1880-1920) 17.6 million people arrived and 6 million people left

Emigrants are rejecting their country of origin:  This is one that deserves to be confronted head on.  Nothing I have ever seen or heard from emigrants (be they French or American or English....) lends credence to this idea.  On the contrary, many find that they feel more American or more French in a foreign country.  Looking at their culture from the outside makes them appreciate the things they like about home and their fellow citizens.  Many remain politically active - the debate over Sarko versus Segolene comes to my mind - and even those who do not actually vote in their home country elections still take a lively interest in home country life and politics.  Certainly there are critics (American Bush-haters, for example, or French entrepreneurs complaining about the bureaucracy involved in starting a business in Paris or the Moroccan who criticizes gender discrimination at home) but the vast majority of folks I have encountered overseas are excellent ambassadors for their home countries. They love where they are from.

Emigrants are rich tax cheats:  This one is particularly funny.  Anyone who thinks that Americans move to the EU, for example, to escape taxes is insane.  Taxes can be very high in the destination country. They can also be lower.   It all depends.  As for emigrants being rich, well, I'm sure some of them are but a quick overview of the expatriate communities in Tokyo and Paris reveal lots of managers, taxi drivers, waiters/waitresses, IT people, language teachers, professors, entrepreneurs and part and full-time regular workers. Among my friends and acquaintances there are many who are struggling - living in studio apartments and teaching their native  language part-time or driving taxis or trying to make a go of a small bookstore or desperately searching for consulting jobs. Some emigrants are comfortably middle or upper income, a few are wild successes, but most are just trying to make a living.  Just like people at home.

So, if emigrants are not rejecting their home countries and they are not escaping taxes to live the good life in a chateau in the French countryside or a beach house in the Caribbean, why do they leave? 

More tomorrow.....

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