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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Something New : What's Up with American Identity Abroad?

Something Olde,
Something New,
Something Borrowed,
Something Blue,
A Sixpence in your Shoe.

Old English rhyme

A few short years ago I could sit and chat with fellow Americans in almost any part of the world and we would all agree that "Americans never give up their citizenship."

It was a statement so obviously true, so self-evident, that it was never questioned.  Sure, there might have been one or two American citizens who did, but they were the exceptions that proved the rule.  And almost no one who actually did it ever talked about it.

Today, renunciations of American citizenship have hit the headlines all over the world.  It's a big story because it was so rare in times past. And right now what everyone wants to know is: 
"What the hell is going on here?"

A lot more than you might think.

That renunciations of U.S. citizenship are rising is a fact.  In 2013 nearly 3000 Americans abroad navigated the rather byzantine, costly and cumbersome process to cast off their formal ties to the United States of America.  

But here's what many haven't cast aside:  An American identity.  Just listen to these words from a series of articles on CNN:

"I still feel American -- it's where I grew up. If someone asks me what I am, well, hey, I'm an American! I can't say I'm a Kiwi, a New Zealander. I sound like an American, and I really am one. I just don't have the passport anymore."  Laurie Lautmann, 58 - Gisborne, New Zealand.

"Ultimately, I don't know what I'm going to do as time goes on, but I do know that I will always feel and be American, regardless of my passport."  Ezra Goldman, 28 - Dongguan, China.

"I've been in Switzerland since 1990, and became a citizen in 2005, because I wanted the right to vote where I was living. The Swiss can tell I have an American accent, and I'm often explaining that I grew up in the U.S. and have a daughter who still lives in the Boston area."  Donna-Lane Nelson, 71 - Geneva, Switzerland.

And here is what I wrote back in 2013  On Being an American:

"I had an epiphany the other day. I may have spent most of my adult life outside the U.S. but I was born and raised in Seattle. No one can take away the first 20 years or so of my life. I am an American and will always be one even if I decide to forgo the pretty blue passport." Victoria Ferauge, 48 - Versailles, France.

In the past, U.S. citizenship (and the accoutrements that go along with it, like the flag the passport and other visible symbols) were practically synonymous with an American identity.  To be an American meant being a citizen. End of story.

What we are seeing right now (and it is becoming more and more prevalent) is a decoupling of American identity and citizenship.  

 Americans abroad are literally redefining what it means to be an American in a global world.  They are making a distinction between ties to the country, the nation, the people, and a relationship to the U.S. government and political community.   Being an American abroad today is no longer completely contigent on having a formal tie to the U.S.  Those renunciants may have lost the blue but many are maintaining important ties to the nation and continuing to think of themselves as Americans.  

At this point I can almost hear the roars of outrage from the American homeland:  "They can't do that!  They aren't Americans any more!  They renounced and good riddance!"

Well, guess what?  It's not up to them.  The homeland government and people only control American citizenship.  

American identity is personal.  If someone still feels American, self-identifies as American, is treated by the people in the host country as an American, and is accepted as an American in the American communities on and off-line all over the world, then, frankly, that person is an American.   
And let's face it, homelanders, if you come across a fellow American in your travels abroad, how exactly are you going to tell if that person is a U.S. citizen or not?   Citizenship is invisible and no child is born with a tattoo on his forehead that says, "Made in the USA."  No, you are going to identify that person as a compatriot based on shared language, customs, inclinations, and experiences.  "Where are you from?"  "Chicago."  Now, are you really going to ask the person to prove that he still has a connection to the US?    As in, "Show me your papers, please!" 


These American renunciants are changing the way people view American citizenship outside the United States, and it is inevitable that those changes will have repercussions for Americans living in the U.S. as well.  

For that reason, Americans in the homeland must start talking to their diaspora.  


patricia said...

what you are describing is the same pride US resident citizens maintain for the their ancestral
homelands. Many people take pride and identify with where they were born, this has little to do with national as opposed to ethnic pride. There are places where the national government has changed several times since WW2.
I am US born, my birth place still exists but the country of my birth does not.

Blaze said...

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Actually, during the 1960s and 1970s, those who disagreed with what the US was doing in Vietnam and elsewhere were told "America: Love It Or Leave It.

So many of us did. About 50,000 young Americans moved to Canada and became Canadian citizens with the full knowledge we were "permanently and irrevocably" relinquishing US citizenship. Most of us have never questioned or regretted that decision.

Even then the US didn't stand for all those values pounded into our heads as kids. I'm not sure it ever did. Many of the founding fathers owned slaves. So did many of the early Presidents.

I never learned that in American history. I wonder now what else they didn't teach us. Yet they taught us about Soviet propoganda. Hmm.

Donna said...

During my 15 years in the UK, I clung to my American identity in any way that occurred to me: accent, food, spelling, you name it. But after I returned to the US, it hit me: in my perceptions and views, I was now more European than American--"American by birth, European by training and inclination" was my self-description. Despite my best efforts, one of the most valuable results of living abroad was the "myth-busting", realizing the disconnect between what we're taught to think about America, as Blaze references above, and the reality, which is painfully evident after six years back in the US.

We're making preparations to return permanently to Europe this year; I'm not sure that safeguarding my American identity will be high on my priority list this time around. My accent may stay American, but my heart is a different matter.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

That is a good point, Patricia, and I think some of it is indeed feeling a certain pride or attachment to where was was born.

And then there are folks like Blaze who really have cast of an American identity long ago (and please tell me if I'm misrepresenting your position, Lynne).

Donna, I think I'm a lot like you. I go back to the US and it's a weird place.

But oddly enough there are quite a few folks who have renounced or want to who stubbornly insist that they will always be Americans by culture, language and inclination and the US gov can go to hell. That is interesting.

Another thing I find interesting: what surprises me in many of the forums and articles I read is how most of the ire is directed against the IRS/Treasury/US lawmakers and relatively little against the homelanders. It happens but for the most part I've seen Americans abroad be incredibly patient with some of more misinformed homelanders.

And yet...

Most don't understand all of the ins and outs of how this effect Americans abroad but they do support this "war" against tax evasion. Fundamentally they do not agree with us and don't see why we shouldn't be paying US taxes. That puts us at odds: homelanders versus Americans abroad. Is it because these homelanders all too often are our friends or our families? And we don't want to hate them or reject them even when they refuse to listen to us or tell us things like "just file the damn forms already!"

What do you think?

Anonymous said...


Some of us are here of practical reasons, or are here not of explainable reasons.

My new passport is for practical reasons---to be able to get work in a wider region.

Prior to this crap, I wanted to rejoin the culture that I had left, but it really looks impossible now (it had previously been impractical)

I learned through this that my US congresspersons are of no help, or actually, of negative help. Hence, I've lost all respect for the US govt. I probably also will have to get rid of this blue boat anchor.

So, one sits with what one has, not what one really wants.

Oh well, I think I know which country I might like to try next.

from Scandanoovia

Sally said...

Let's face it. FATCA proves that the US simply does not want us to remain citizens. We are being KICKED OUT, nothing less.

That hurts, but it's the truth.

I'm still somehow American, but I've become very German too. The German sees that giving up US citizenship was the only logical choice, but the residual American is sad.

When I was a teenager, I defiantly decided to stop reciting the Declaration of Allegiance in homeroom, because all of those things weren't true. (Pretty obvious in the '70s, what with Watergate, Kent State, My Lai etc.) But apparently before that the child believed what she recited. Now I'm over 50 and so disappointed that "liberty and justice for all" did not apply to me.

Blaze said...

@Victoria: I know there's a a lot of venom among some in the US on this issue.

However, whenever I have discussed it with any American of any age, right wing, left wing, turkey wing, Republican, Democrat, executive, laborer, student, retiree, etc, I almost always get the same response-even in a conversation with my high school history teacher about a year ago who is now in his 80s.

That reaction is "Why do we wonder why everyone hates us so much?"

Maybe I get that reaction because everyone I know in the US realizes I "cast off" my American citizenship and identity decades ago. Maybe it's different for people who are still US citizens.

But, anyone I talk to sees just how plain wrong all of this is.

kermitzii said...

I moved to Canada in 1985. I go to the USA every year to visit family, friends or go to meetings. I think the USA has changed much, it is now a far different country than 1985. The politics are polarized, the infrastructure is not maintained, there is practically no support for public transportation, they have fought two unneeded wars for a cost of several trillion dollars... the list goes on. Canada has not changed that much except Harper has mucked things up and I hope Justin can fix things. I am even unsure of my American identity, as USA has changed so much but I have not changed. OK, I have a 1985 American identity. Got to fill out my 8854 in a week or two. (I renounced last September.

Tim said...

There are a couple of outstanding issues in my mind
1. For many years the majority of US expats(excluding those such as Lynne who cut all ties years ago) saw themselves politically through the lens of Democrats Abroad and the Democratic Party. For better or worse though this has been a very poor decision politically as there is a very long track record of the Democratic Party being anti expat on tax issues(This goes well before FATCA although perhaps FATCA is simply icing on the cake). I suppose for some Democratic party positions on issues "other" than tax made up for this but I have to wonder if many are not questioning their past support of DA.
2. Within the United States there are huge regional differences. It is a come refrain that the US is a rundown country with rundown infrastructure. That is true in many places but some parts of America have done dramatically well in the past 30 years. I would say though that what you might call the old midwest rustbelt has done quite poorly while states like Massachusetts and Connecticut have done quite well.
3. An interesting personal story. A relative of mine is a teacher in Lincoln, MA the third wealthiest town in Massachusetts(The second wealthiest US state after CT). Lincoln is also home to Hanscom Air Force Base one of the last major US military bases in the entire Northeast US. The nature of the military being what it is miltary families are subject to frequent relocation. This becomes a significant issues when military families are relocated often from the South and West of the US to Hanscom in Lincoln often when military kids are in or about to go into High School.
Due to the large differences in educational differences in the US from state to state arriving military students from other US states often can be years behind their lifelong Massachusetts classmates. The fact that Lincoln is such a wealthy and high achieving school district only pours gasoline on this fire. I have hears stories of military students being brought to tears on their first day of classes in Lincoln, MA. Many military students have huge difficulty if they arrived late in high school even passing the Massachusetts high school exit exam and graduating.

4. To points 2 and 3 the US is not France with a single national cultural identity and educational system/traditions. The US on paper has a national mass media but spend a few hours in the school were my relative works in Lincoln and will quickly discover the US is a very divided country. (Note: this has nothing to do with universal healthcare, military families get very good health benefits nor is it an issue of race or class at least in the idea they are commonly thought of it).
5. As to all the points above there are volatile emotions in the US right now.

Tim said...

I will also add that even in a state like Massachusetts there still many "hurting" communities. Some of my family comes from a place called Gardner, MA. I bring this up in full disclosure because I think their is an IBS renunciant who was born in Gardner(Patricia perhaps ??).

Gardner today is not the place my Mom grew up in the 1960s. It has gone significantly backward in the intervening decades. The large furniture manufacturing industry that was once the largest employer in town is all but gone.

Unfortunately for Gardner, the city is just outside the belt of prosperity that surrounds Boston. On the outside looking in basically. It is really too far to be in commuting distance to Worcester too. I am not sure what the solution is for the Gardner's of America or Massachusetts and I don't think anyone else does.

P. Moore said...

I left the US in the 1970s, the era Blaze apparently did as well. Having lived near the border with Canada and then experiencing life at school in Canada, I did not hesitate to 'check out' of the US and embrace Canada. Those were the Vietnam War days, and while I dutifully registered for the draft (was not selected), I was supportive of those who chose to avoid that war by coming to Canada. The entire situation looked very ugly from the North.

In the end, I don't believe my life would have been better in the US and frankly I feel little if anything in terms of an American identity. I do feel like many people in many countries. That is, for the most part I have no real animosity towards the 'Average Joe' in the US, but don't get me started when it comes time to consider its government, foreign policy, military excesses and now tax policy.

Northerndar said...

I can't help still having my American identity. I have a strong American accent even after 44 years in Canada. I still love remembering the NJ boardwalk and NYC. The sights, sounds and food. I made my decision decades ago that my heart and soul is Canadian. My family hated me for being Canadian. Now I have no reason to visit My mother country considers me to be a traitor, at lease some senators do So be it. There is a big Canada to explore and the rest of the world. I love my country, Canada. The USA, where I was born, has memories of my youth. I have no desire to ever go back.

Donna said...

Victoria, about the Americans who have renounced--perhaps they realize, intuitively or not, that yes, they always will be Americans to some extent: born here, shaped here, absorbed the culture into their bones. And even if they have lived for 50 years in another country, they will never be fully of that other country. They may never fully understand the jokes, the cultural references, trains of thought, the language. And in truth, the American ideals are powerful ones--yes, who would not love to live in a place where "justice for all" and "land of opportunity" were realities? Perhaps that's what they mean--that they will always believe in those ideals, and that is what it means to be "American"? It's a short step to feeling that the US government has completely betrayed those ideals, and is thus deserving of venom.

Interesting: I have not once yet had a homelander, with whom I've discussed expat issues, taxation, living abroad, etc., give me a hard time about my choices, patriotism or lack thereof, or the privilege of American citizenship being worth the hassle...have no idea why?

LarryC said...

I've never felt part of America, from watching TV in the late 50's thru the 'Nam episodes hosted by Walter Cronkite. There was always an attraction to other coutnries - during my business career, I've always been much more successful working with colleagues from the Far East and Europe. Not so with Americans. I attend UFE socials and the French ex-pats are shocked to learn of my need (urgency!) to leave America. Why France - many reasons, another topic. I no longer have any pride in America and thigns America. I'm ashamed and embarassed to be an American.

Sauve said...

I find it odd that anyone should think they are of another nationality once they have moved permanently to country other than their birth but then again, I don't make it a rule to associate with only Americans abroad. I was born, raised, educated, and spent my job career in America. During that time I was American. I never thought I would marry again, having been single for over 20 years. Then I met a French man I had corresponded with and much more than my marital status changed. I still didn't think I would move from what I thought was the greatest nation on earth but we did. We married because his being in America was tied to his contractual job. After 911 there was so much hostility and rudeness directed towards him that I found many of the ideals and virtues I had held as gospel about Americans were actually a thin veneer of dusting.

Now when I return to America for a visit with my adult children I am saddened by what I see and experience there. I'm always glad and relieved to return home to France. I may not be French yet but someday I will be. I may not have been born, raised, educated, and careered here but I sincerely wish I had been and I have been wishing so since my 4th year here. That is something I can't change. I recall the experiences I had in America so there are times I miss the places I was in at the time or the people I was with at the time. But no, I don't feel I am American because what it is to be American now is not who I have ever been.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Fascinating comments and a wide range of feelings about it.

What I know is that even if I did renounce I would eternally be The American to my friends outside the US. And I have no desire to cut the ties so completely that I would no longer have contact with my family in the US and the few old friends I have over there (these are getting fewer as time goes by. I got a mail recently that someone I knew had died.)

@Blaze, I get the same thing when I am allowed to explain the situation (not everyone wants to hear it). Sympathy. But not action. No one I know personally in the US will do so much as lift a finger, write a letter or consider voting differently because of "your" tax issues.

Is that what others are experiencing as well or have people found homelanders who are willing to help?

bubblebustin said...

Americans might have continued almost never renouncing if the US government hadn't interfered with our natural migration with what is essentially an ultimatum. The biggest threat to Americans abroad is the US government itself, and the new normal for any American who really wishes to thrive while living abroad is to shed these artificial constraints imposed upon them by the US government. Your words give credence to the burgeoning irony that in order for the American spirit sustain itself in its diaspora, one must shed themselves of the constraint of US citizenship - or move back to the United States.
Don't expect much sympathy from homelanders - they don't like any news that makes them look bad. They are coming from a place of insecurity that they wish to disguise as patriotism, but as Mark Twain once said: loyalty to country always, loyalty to government when it deserves it. Those who accuse us of disloyalty to the US need to know that the renunciations are evidence of our disloyalty to government only, not to country. The US government does not deserve our loyalty as they no longer represent Freedom and Liberty - let the renunciations bring them shame, as they should.

Allou said...

I think Bubblebustin hits the nail on the head here:
"Americans might have continued almost never renouncing if the US government hadn't interfered with our natural migration with what is essentially an ultimatum." I was a dual US/EU citizen until I realised the ultimate consequences of retaining the US passport. I thought I had done my born in the EU children a favour, given them an opportunity, by registering them as duals from birth. Then within the past year we realised that in order to live freer lives, with better world-wide job opportunities, it was best to not have the blue passport. Sad, but unavoidable, as we are not wealthy enough to live lives of ongoing dual compliance.

bubblebustin said...


It's natural to fall I love with a person from another country and want to express that love by joining him in that country, as it's normal to move to another country if your parent chooses to return to their native country, as it's normal to want to provide to our families and to ourselves in another country what our country could not provide to us, as it is normal to want to bestow in our children a citizenship that we ourselves cherished. What's not normal is the belief that the unreasonable demands of a government should take precedent over those things.

Pacifica said...

Relinquishing my US citizenship 35 years ago was emotionless for me. It was just part of my life unfolding and moving on. I always felt that citizenship was like being a member of a community. So, why would I want to be a citizen of a country that isn’t part of my life? That’s how I saw it. Kept all the great memories and actually liked the US very much until 2011, but it has not been “my” country since 1979 – by my free personal choice.

I personally would never want to be a dual citizen (of any two countries) and since 2011 (learning of FATCA, possible retroactive citizenship, etc) I really dislike the US. Yet reading about Donna’s emotions upon renouncing made me feel very sad for her and others who wish to remain USCs but are unable to do so if they wish to continue living their normal life.

As the US clearly allows dual citizenship, it’s a farce if they then make it effectively impossible for one subgroup – in this case USCs who live outside the US. I went to excellent schools in the US, but I never learned anything about “subgroups of citizens.” Nor that tax was the key concept of citizenship, as US politicians make so clear today. I picked up that citizenship was membership in a community and shared values, stuff like that. Of course, I went to school in the 50s and 60s, not in the New US.

For me, terminating my US citizenship in 1979 was a day in the life, non-emotional, as I said. Fast forward to receiving my now-required CLN in 2012 – I was ecstatic!!!

Pacifica said...

Clarification --I was referring to the Donna quoted in the CNN article mentioned in in the main post (don't know that that's the same Donna who's in the comment thread.)

Pacifica said...

@ Victoria,
You wrote:
“… I get the same thing …. Sympathy. But not action. No one I know personally in the US will do so much as lift a finger, write a letter or consider voting differently because of "your" tax issues.
Is that what others are experiencing as well or have people found homelanders who are willing to help?


I only know 3 people in the US. All 3 are cool and oppose FATCA, eg, are sympathetic about this.

One of them, though, when I told her about it in a phone conversation, asked me to send her some links about it. To my surprise, she e-mailed me a few hours later and said she had forwarded the links to her Congressman with a short note. To my greater surprise, a couple of days later one of his staffers phoned her about it. Her congressman, Paul Tonko, is on the Northern Border Committee.

Patricia said...

actually I was born in Worcester basically bi-lingual and bi-cultural from birth although not with dual-citizenship. Mother and paternal grandparents born in Quebec. searching out the family tree I discovered aboriginal ancestors and the first French family member arrived in Tadoussac in 1619. a "bonus" of the research; a world famous Franco-American blogger is a distant relative

Tim said...


I know Worcester well. Worcester has the advantage unlike of Gardner of being a much BIGGER city and being located on the main highway route out of Boston to the south and west(I-90 running all the way to Seattle). The city itself still has some significant problems but it has some major universities located in town and a major Hospital/Medical School(UMASS Medical).

The towns immediately east of Worcester towards Boston like Westborough, Southborough, and Grafton are all fairly well off(This towns are all in commuting distance of Boston and have train service as does Worcester itself). I believe the French Construction materials company St Gobain still has a big plant/HQ in Worcester(This used to be called Norton). All of Central MA up into VT and NH all the way to the border has a very large Franco-Canadian tradition. Some of former Canadian PM Jean Chretien's relatives live in New Hampshire.

Anonymous said...

Good piece and reflections. Identity is both more fluid and fixed than citizenship.

Patrick said...

It's understandable that most people would want to retain some emotional identification with their place of birth. That's OK, but my own opinion is that if you are going to become a naturalised citizen then you should be prepared to psychologically identify with your adopted country. I assimilated very rapidly. I think this as partly because, instead of living in London, I was living in a remote coastal town on a far extreme of the UK. I didn't know any other Americans. Travelling to the US was very difficult, as I had to book a room overnight to make the flight. I was young, my accent changed, partly to be understood on a day-to-day basis and I also grew tired of having to talk about "American issues" every time I opened my mouth. I now live in England. Most English people assume I am from the nation within the United Kingdom that I naturalised in. In terms of identity, it's easier to assume a British identity, as my wife and children are British-born. It's just makes it simple. One of the reasons I have never travelled to the States with my family is that we would have to separate upon arrival at immigration, as I wouldn't be allowed to go with them in the queue for the Non-US with my British passport. Maybe some wouldn't have a problem with that, but I think separating families is bordering on barbaric. This has meant less contact with the US for me, the consequence being a natural erosion of US 'identity'.

bubblebustin said...

Patrick, I know from personal experience that US border agents don't care which line you go in, as we were in the US citizen line and they moved us to the non-citizen one when it emptied out. That said, if you came across an agent that wanted to make an issue of it, he probably could. I see your point - if it doesn't matter, why separate families?

LarryC said...

Victoria - when I express my desires to leave/migrate/emigrate, Americans inevitably yield a range of emotions from outrage to jealousy.

The outrage comes from my "abandonment" of America. I still haven't heard a good definition of "abandonment" except to remain and rescue a failing country.

The jealousy is natural...but the intense emotions that are portrayed are inescapable. I wonder, "Why are they reacting so?" It isn't about me, of course but about what I "am doing."

Would they lift a finger to help? No, and many walked away with the parting words, "You'll regret leaving."


Dunno. I will follow my heart, regardless of the lack of assistance from my "american" citizens. [lower class "a" deliberate]

bubblebustin said...

Victoria, you might find Shadow Raider's idea intriguing - allowing expats to become US nationals:

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Allou, Yes, Suzanne makes a very good point. In fact when I talk to migrants from ANY country most don't wish to lose their first citizenship. They have a genuine attachment to where they are from. That's why the trend toward allowing dual citizenship is good for migrants. It's also arguably a good thing for nation-states. It means that those folks or their children may return one day.

@Suzanne, I will check out Shadow Raider's idea.

@Pacifica, But there is the other side you talk about which is that it's complicated to be a dual. If one has no intention of returning than what is the point? I also have a sense that in my host country there would be no greater sign of loyalty to her than to drop the old citizenship for the new. People's perceptions of you, the migrant, would be more positive. You have made a visible sacrifice that citizens in the new country appreciate.

And it's good to hear that you know some homelanders taking action on our behalf. I've found exactly one and that's it.

@Patrick, Yes, the "unofficial mabassador" thing. Anything to do with the US and I get tapped as the spokesperson. It gets old. But these days what I say is that in all honesty, I haven't lived in the US for so long that I don't know anymore how Americans feel about things like the Affordable Care Act. I'm getting my news from the same sources as my French neighbors so I don't have a whole lot to add.

@Larry, I'm reading a book right now about US citizenship and civic myths. There is a chapter on the essay "A Man Without a Country" which was wildly popular and taught to American kids right up until the mid-twentiest century. I'm going to reread it and do a post on it because I really wonder if homelanders' attitudes now are an echo of Hale's old tale.

I remember reading it in middle or high school. I know a film about it came out in 1973. Anyone else remember the story or the movie?