New Flophouse Address:

You will find all the posts, comments, and reading lists (old and some new ones I just published) here:

Friday, January 30, 2015

Culture Shock: Hankos, Bank Accounts, and Automated Car Parks

First of all, many MANY thank to Nezumi-san who saw the previous post about my struggle with my appliances and left translations of the controls in the comments section.  Thanks to him I was able to set my water heater to a more reasonable 45 degrees (down from a scalding 48 degrees).

Another reader left a comment asking about bank accounts.  As many of you already know U.S. citizens the world over are seeing their local bank accounts closed.  Banks in many countries have declared US citizens (and US Persons) persona non grata because of the American Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) which obliges them to report these accounts to the United States.

Alas, I cannot speak to that personally.  My spouse opened an account with a local Japanese bank about a month ago - a process that meant that he had to get a hanko.  This a personal stamp/seal that is used in lieu of a written signature and it looks like this:

Photo from
When he asked about making it a joint account, they were reluctant to do so.  Why?  Well, they said that normally the only name on the account is that of the person earning a salary (usually the man) but the spouse (usually the wife) holds the passbook.  I have no idea if this is true or not - can anyone confirm or disprove this?
Nezumi-san left this response in the previous post.  Very interesting. Thank you!
"As for the bank account thing, joint accounts are not common here -- in fact, I'm not sure they're even allowed. Husband and wife will usually both have their own accounts; you should be able to open one of your own. 
As far as the wife controlling the purse strings, that is the traditional model: husband brings home the paycheck, wife controls access to the money, giving husband small allowance each month. But that is by no means universal, and in any case does not preclude the wife having her own account. Most do, I think, even in the traditional mold, for "rainy day" savings (hesokuri)."
The result is that my name is not on our local Japanese bank account and so FATCA is not an issue for me or the Japanese bank since my spouse is French and FATCA only applies to US citizens.  Can I still use the account?  Absolutely.  I brought the passbook and the hanko down to the cellphone store and was able to get a phone and bill the charges to that local account. And all this leads to a very important question:  Do I have to report this account on my FBAR (FinCEN Report 114)?  My name is not on the account but I can, using a debit card or the hanko/passbook, access those funds. Is there someone at Treasury  in Washington D.C. I can annoy with this question? :-)

Some readers expressed surprised that Japan is so high-tech.  I find that to be a very reasonable reaction.  Consider the images of France that diffused all over the world: bucolic pictures of happy French farmers, wine, cheese and little local stores. Go to France and the reality is something else.  It's not that the images are entirely false, they are just not the whole story.  French farmers are not always happy (imagine that),  not every French knows or cares about wine, and many people buy their cheese (and bread) from the hypermarket chain store.  Yes, the French countryside is beautiful but there is also that monstrosity called La Defense with its skyscrapers and concrete jungles.

Same applies to Japan (or any other country).  There are the images that appear in magazines and on TV;  there is our interpretation of those images and the emotions they evoke;  and then there is the more complicated reality.  Japan is a modern country with a lot of high-tech products and services that make daily life much easier.

For an example of very practical tech here in Japan, have a look at the automated car parks.  Our building has one and it's wonderful.  Drive the car onto a turnstile, insert card, push button and the car gets parked automatically.  No driving deep into the bowels of the earth with its tight turns and low ceilings only to arrive at the parking space and having to get out in the cold (or the heat) and then taking the elevator (and the day's shopping) back up to the apartment.

Here is a video of a very fancy system in a high-end condo (our apartment has a simpler one but the principle is the same).  Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Culture Shock: High Tech Doesn't Help When You are Illiterate

I landed in Osaka this weekend and so far it's been a lesson in humility.  Got off the airplane so jet-lagged I was ill and entered a world where I am both mute and illiterate.

Hello culture shock...

Well, not entirely mute since I possess some survival Japanese (good morning, please, thank you, excuse me).  However, even basic conversations are completely beyond me.  Nevertheless I was able to purchase curtains and lights for the apartment at a local department store over the weekend.  Not due to my efforts, mind you, but solely because the saleswoman at Tokyu Hands took the time and effort to help me find what I needed.  Tonight, the hunt is on for a coffee machine, place mats, and another light for the living room.  

 Illiteracy bothers me much more than my inability to communicate effectively. It is a humbling experience to not be able to read.  This one hits me right where my most flagrant character defect - intellectual pride - lives.

The inability to read is a real problem for daily living.  I need look no farther than my apartment to see how limiting illiteracy is.

The past couple of days I've been slowly learning how to use my appliances.  All the controls are in Japanese and so through trial and many errors, instruction DVDs (in Japanese) and the Internet (thank God for Youtube) I've figured out how to work most of them (more or less).  To give you an idea how daunting this is, here are a few examples:

Here is my washing machine - a Hitachi BeatWash Slim.  So far I have figured out basic wash and dry.  At some point after I finish pushing buttons, it talks to me.  I have no idea what it's saying but the voice is soothing :

Here is my stove/oven.  Day 1 I figured out how to use the stovetop.  It was only on Day 2 that I figured out (with some help) how to use the oven. Who knew that it was the button with the fish on it?

 And finally here are the controls for my bathtub.  Yes, mes amis, there is no basic faucet setup - everything, including the water level in the tub, is set via this control panel.  This one has me stymied.  I can get it to fill 1/4 of the tub but I can't figure out how to lower the temperature or how to get it to fill 1/2 the bath.  My workaround is to run it twice to get the desired water level and then wait a few minutes for the water to cool down enough so I don't scald myself when I get in the tub.

What is frustrating (and let's face it, really funny) about all this is that all the information to make all these applicances work as I wish is right there.  I just lack the code.

It will come.  Patience, humbly asking for help, being grateful for small victories (I washed and dried the sheets today!) and taking it one day (and one appliance) at a time should see me through this.

A suivre...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Flophouse American Diaspora Reading List

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

Time for an update of the Flophouse American Diaspora Reading List - the best books and articles I've read recently about American people and communities abroad.  New books are in green.  As always, please feel free to add to the list.  

This list has three sections:  Upcoming titles - Books that have not been published yet but that I plan on reading; General books/articles - the larger view.  Some talk about specific issues (like citizenship), others are studies, portraits or serious research about Americans abroad;  Expat autobiographies:  Accounts of Americans in different countries.  These are not books that tell a potential American migrant how to live abroad.   These are personal accounts that talk about what happens to American identity when it gets transplanted somewhere else for a year or two, or for a lifetime.  

Upcoming Titles:

The Citizenship of Americans Living Abroad: Democracy and Those Who Leave by Katya C. Long.  Expected publication date is December 1, 2014 but I haven't received an alert that says it's available.  If anyone knows when it will come out, let me know as I am eagerly awaiting this one.

General books:

The Other Side of the Fence:  American Migrants in Mexico (2010) by Sheila Croucher.  A book that came out of a study that Ms. Croucher conducted on US citizens residing in Mexico.  This is not a definitive book about Americans in Mexico in the first decade of the 21st century. It's a sketch that leaves out a lot and once we have that firmly in our minds, we can look more closely at some of her arguments and the questions she asks about the meaning of this group in the larger picture of regional migration on the North American continent. Flophouse review here.

Round-Trip to America:  The Immigrants Return to Europe (1996) by Mark Wyman.  Fascinating look at the immigrants who came to America and then turned around and went back home.  How many?  Hard to know but in the brief period where the US government tried to track it (1908-1923) the inflow to America was nearly 10 million and the outflow was 3.5 million of which 88% were Europeans. Wyman notes that these remigrants represented an important connection to the United States and were viewed as "americani" and "Yanks" when they resettled in their countries of origin.  Worth reading to remind us all that migration is not an aller simple.

The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (2014) by Nancy L. Green. I was really looking forward to this one and it did not disappoint (gave it four stars on Goodreads).  The American community/colony in Paris has always been far more diverse than one might think:  businessmen (and women), lawyers, doctors, dentists as well as students and artists and writers. Green does an excellent job of broadening our perspective about this community which has existed since before the American Revolution.  I highly recommend this book and all of Nancy Green's work.

Civic Myths: A Law-And-Literature Approach to Citizenship (2007) by Brook Thomas.  There is citizenship as the law of the land which defines who is legally "in" (or "out") but there is also the social context around it which influences how we feel about that citizenship.  Thomas shows how the "good citizen" or the "immigrant citizen" were portrayed in popular American literature.  The most interesting for me was his discussion about the very famous essay The Man Without a Country which may still be influencing how Americans feel about expatriation (renouncing or losing US citizenship).

Citizenship Without Consent: Illegal Aliens in the American Polity (1985) by Peter H. Schuck and Rogers Smith.  My review is here.  This is a book that argues against the rather broad application of US jus soli citizenship laws.  I think it reads very differently for an American living outside the US who is aware that these laws have created something that is being referred to now as an "Accidental American." 

What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (2013) by Mary Louise Roberts.  Well-researched and has so much information in it that I was in awe as I was reading it.  However, I'm not so sure about the conclusions she drew from that research.  I think I need to read it again before I can give it a fair review.   If you have read it, let me know in the comments section what you thought. 

Migrants or Expatriates?  Americans in Europe by Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels. This one came in 2014 and is THE book to read right now if you are interested in knowing something concrete about just who those absent Americans (7 million or so of them) are:  socioeconomic status, political affiliations, host country, integration, identity and so much more.  Short Flophouse review here and an interview she gave about the book here.  

The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774-1804 by Douglas Bradburn.  This came out in 2009 and it examines the development of US citizenship in the post-Revolutionary War period.  Fighting over citizenship in this newly independent state was influenced by what was going on in Europe (the French Revolution), the arrival of yet more immigrants and the naturalization question, and expatriation (how to give up US citizenship).  For the last look no further then the fascinating case of one Gideon Henfield, an American who, when accused of privateering, invoked his "right to expatriate" and informed the court that he was no longer an American, but a Frenchman.  He was acquitted in 1793 and allowed to leave and go about his business. 

Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization by Peter Spiro (2008).  This one is already on the Flophouse Diaspora and International Migration Reading List but it definitely should go here as well.  What has happened, in his view, to US citizenship in a globalized world?  I am planning on re-reading it with my American abroad eye taking into account what has happened in the world to US citizenship since 2010.

Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept by Nancy L. Green.  This article (available on-line) was published in 2009 in the The American Historical Review. Great essay about American expatriation in the legal and cultural senses.  How did the right to expatriate (the right to leave) go from a mechanism for "nation-building" to one of excluding Americans from the nation?

Americans Abroad: A Comparative Study of Emigrants from the United States by A. Dashefsky et al.
Published in 1992 this is a study of Americans migrants in Australia and Israel (Canada is briefly mentioned as well).  It asks provocative questions about motives for leaving, adaptation in these countries, and why the migrants stayed, returned to the US, or decided to move on to a third country.  In the final chapter are some interesting conclusions and proposals for policies around this emigration one of which is: "Deter efforts to force migrants to change citizenship or otherwise make a permanent, formal commitment to one society or another."

Published in 2007, a very interesting book that re-examines the "American Dream" in the light of American emigration.  Talks about Americans in Canada, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.  It's one of the few I've found that includes African-American emigration and women migrants.  Some good statistics (or at least estimates) at the end of the book.

The Unknown Ambassadors: A Saga of Citizenship by Phyllis Michaux.
Published in 1996, this is the story of how Americans abroad organized around issues of particular importance to Americans living outside the US:  citizenship for the children of Americans who were born abroad, voting rights, and many other issues like Medicare from the 1970's to the 1990's.  This is the diaspora going to the homeland government for recognition as a distinct group with particular interests.  It's a battle that is still ongoing but this book is important because it's the only one I know of that gives the the history and the context behind today's efforts.

"Gilded Prostitution": Status, Money, And Transatlantic Marriages, 1870-1914 by Maureen E. Montgomery.   The title is a bit off-putting but if you are an American woman married to a foreign national this is a good one.  The marriages examined here are between elites (U.S. and U.K.) over a century ago and yet some of the negative (and positive) attitudes about women who marry foreigners and leave America are all too familiar.  Under it all, of course, were questions of citizenship (should women lose their citizenship because they marry "out") and taxation where money followed these women abroad.

Americans Abroad, How Can We Count Them? This book which came out in 2010  is the transcript of a hearing held in 2001 by the U.S. Congress House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Sub-committee on the Census,  on the feasibility of including Americans civilians abroad in the census.  This is the diaspora meeting the homeland government directly and the interplay between homeland interests and the interests of Americans abroad is fascinating.  In particular the testimony of the representative from the U.S. State Department shines a light on the relationship between the US Embassies/Consulates and the American communities in the host countries.  

Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad by Gabriel Sheffer. This is a general book about diaspora politics but I include it here for two reasons: 1.  It will put the efforts for recognition in the three previous books on this list in a much larger context.  There are patterns, general strategies that all diasporas use or try to use as they attempt to manage the relationship with the homeland over different issues and 2.  He examines the question of whether or not the American communities abroad (some of which have a history that goes back to the American Revolution in the 18th century) constitute a true diaspora. 

A Gathering of Fugitives:  American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (2002) by Diana Anhalt. a fascinating portrait of American political expatriates, a "small group of controversial Americans who found refuge in Mexico during the late 40's and throughout the '50's..." Flophouse review here.

This book focuses on one of the largest and most visible group of Americans who live and work abroad: teachers. Zimmerman talks about the distinct differences between those who went abroad in the first half of the 20th century and those who left in the latter half. Though the social, historical and political frameworks changed over time, he notes that there has always been a diversity of opinion and a debate about just what these Americans were doing (or supposed to be doing) abroad. There are things in here that will make Americans wince - not just how some Americans viewed the countries where they worked (especially those that were a part of the American empire like Puerto Rico or the Philippines) in the first part of the 20th century, but also how this continued with a different twist in the second half of the century.

A beautiful book about American women abroad - the photography is stunning.  These are ordinary women who have done (and are still doing) extraordinary things outside the US: Jean Darling (Ireland), Yuzana Khin (Thailand), Gillian McGuire (Italy), Kim Powell, (France), Lucy Laederich (France), Marcia Brittain (Uruguay), and Jane Cabanyes (Spain) to name just a few. The book came out of a FAWCO (Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas) project and is the work of two members: My-Linh Kunst (photography) and Charlotte Fox Zabusky.  A longer Flophouse review of the book can be found here.

The Transplanted Woman by Gabrielle Varro
Gabrielle Varro is a CNRS researcher in anthropology and sociology who has studied bi-lingualism, immigration and the sociology of mixed-marriages. This book came out of a study that she conducted with AAWE of French-American marriages and families over generations.  Some of it is about the dynamics of cross-cultural marriages but it also looks at American identity as it is transmitted through the American wives of French men.  A Flophouse discussion of Varro's work can be found here.


Foreigner in My Own Backyard (2014) by Travis Casey.  I found this when when I was looking for a copy of Bill Bryson's book.  The author is an American who has been living in the UK for 20 years (he's a dual US/UK citizen) and who has had to come back to the US for a short time to care for family.   These are his first impressions of life back in the homeland.  It's funny (and sad sometimes).  Some of his stories show just how ambivalent Americans in the US are about Americans who leave.  If you are an American abroad and have ever toyed with the idea of going "home" for an extended visit, I think you will enjoy this one.

The American (2007) by Franz-Olivier Giesbert.  A rather dark book but with a unique perspective.  The author is an Accidental American in France who wrote about his relationship with his American father.  Flophouse review here.

Second Skin (2012) by Diana Anhalt.  Some stunning poetry from the author of A Gathering of Fugitives. She writes about her host country (Mexico), languages (English/Spanish) and much more.  One of my favorite lines from her work:

"Today I speak Spanish to survive,
but I write in English for its punch,
for the way it slices through excess, draws blood,
attracts sharks. (They know this voice and come to me.)"
All about the trauma of losing identity and forming a new one in a new language and country.  Very honest account of how she felt during the process.  A longer Flophouse review of the book is here.

The musings of a "redneck socialist" which are mostly about homeland politics but there are some excellent essays in this book about his time in Belize. His political views are pretty clear:  "Capitalism is dead," he said, "but we still dance with the corpse." Really engaging writer and his expat perspective is one you don't come across everyday.  Just have a look at his bio.  

Tales of Mogadiscio by Iris Kapil
This is a series of essays written by an American woman in a cross-cultural marriage (her husband is Indian and they got married in the 1950's).  She was a serial expat but this book is about the two years the family spent "on the economy" in the capital city of Somalia in the 1960's.  Beautiful descriptions of what that city was like before the country descended into chaos and became the epitome of a "failed state."  Kapil has a fine blog called Iris sans frontières.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

My personal reaction to the events that rocked the Hexagon recently has been to avoid the media reports domestic (France) or foreign (the US and others).  Alas, the media reached out for me which was a huge surprise.  I came home one day and a Seattle (my hometown) news radio station  had sent mail and a tweet asking me to give a live report from Paris on their morning show.  I declined.  And then they called me on my cell phone and I found myself talking to a reporter who said she just wanted a few comments.  That seemed doable (and harder to refuse with an actual human being on the line) and so we chatted for a few minutes.

In that interview I committed the great sin - I was boring.   She wanted stories of a city paralyzed by terrorism whose denizens were living in fear.  What she got was: Well, things are actually pretty normal.  The only exceptions to that that I experienced were the announcements or at the train station asking us to be extra vigilant and the locked doors at the American Cathedral in Paris which meant that you had to ask to be let in.  That was it.  Really.

And then the conversation took a dark turn with talk of 911 and an attempt to link what happened to Charlie Hebdo to US efforts against terrorism and the "Islamofacists."  That left a very bad taste in my mouth to the point where I lost my serenity and asked if she thought that Seattle was a hotbed of terrorism as well.  "They are everywhere," she replied.

After that my resolve to avoid the media doubled and I stopped even reading the headlines.  I have an instinctive distrust of any "analysis" that is made in the heat of the moment.  I am even more dubious of foreign (US) news reports that attempt to tie what happened in Paris to past events (and present efforts) in that country.  If anyone would like to make that case then I would like to see it done with humility and sober reflection and not as part of a media frenzy.  But that's not my call, is it?

Enough said on the subject.  Arun has run several nice pieces on his blog with links to other good articles and so I will again send you over to Arun with a View and his latest blog post:  Understanding Charlie Hebdo.

And this was kindly passed along by Leila on Facebook.  Here is a French news program poking fun at Fox News - it's pretty good.  Enjoy.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

IRS Closes International Tax Offices

From Bloomberg:  IRS Will Shut Last Overseas Taxpayer-Assistance Center.

They report that IRS offices in Beijing have already been closed down and the Paris, London and Frankfurt offices will be closed soon.  These offices were located at the US Embassies in those cities.  All the staff will be sent back to the US and all international taxpayer assistance will now be done from the US.

Great timing.  As more and more US Persons abroad are being FATCAed, they are desperately in need of reasonably priced assistance and reliable information.  Now as they try to make sense of US tax rules and reporting requirements that they never heard of and don't understand, they have fewer resources to make good decisions and get compliant.

That just doesn't make any sense, folks.  Before there was a Compliance Gap, there was a Communication Gap.  Keeping those IRS offices open and giving the staff the autonomy and resources to craft information campaigns to reach US Persons abroad would have been a damn good idea.  This would have sent an important signal to America's population overseas - yes, you have to file but we are here to help.

Before I get too worked up about this, I would like confirmation that these closures will indeed take place.  I checked and could not find an official IRS statement about it.

If the Bloomberg article is indeed correct then I would very much like to know what the IRS' Plan B is.  Assuming that they won't simply give up providing taxpayer assistance to US Persons abroad, how might they deliver those services from the US?  Is there any possibility that Americans abroad organizations and even citizens abroad panels could participate in the design of service delivery solutions?

All good questions to ask the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service and you can do so right here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Human Rights and Taxation

Good link was posted up on Allison Christian's blog (Tax, Society and Culture) today:   Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.  Twenty or so pages about tax systems, tax evasion, and international cooperation on fiscal matters and she tries to demonstrate how these things are also human rights issues.  An interesting read.

I was very pleased to see that she adressed one issue that is close to my heart:  transparency and representation in the making of tax policy.  Here is what Ms. Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona has to say:
"22. Decision-making processes regarding tax and public revenues must therefore be based on full transparency and the broadest possible national dialogue, with effective and meaningful participation of civil society and those who will be directly affected by such policies, including people living in poverty. Fiscal policies should be subjected to the scrutiny of the population during design, implementation and evaluation stages, with the various interests transparently identified. This will require capacity-building and fostering fiscal literacy in the population. The population should have access to all relevant information in an accessible and understandable format, and inclusive mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that they are actively engaged in devising the most appropriate policy options. Owing to the asymmetries of power, expertise and interests in this debate, specific measures should be taken to ensure equal access and opportunities to participate, particularly for people living in poverty."
Not only is this true on a national level (the US, for example) but it is triply true on the international level.  I know from hard experience that when such things are discussed in international forums like the OECD, or in regional ones like the European Parliament, it is a fairly limited circle:  banks and other financial institutions, academics, and representatives of national tax authorities.  Yes, there were also reps from human rights groups committed to tax justice, but did adding them to the group of well-dressed bankers and bureaucrats who flew in from different countries mean that all the stakeholders in such policy were represented?  Of course not.    Way down at the end of the line - far from the exalted forums where such policy was debated and decided - are human beings who must bear the brunt of any unintended consequences.

One of the most glaring omissions in the debates about international taxation and information exchange is the impact all this will have on global mobility.  And I'm not talking here about the global rich - I am talking about migrants whether they are engineers, teachers or musicians or those who drive taxis or work in restaurants.   These are the people who have to sign the forms that come from the local or home country banks or who see their access to financial services (like basic bank accounts) limited or denied.  In the worst case these migrants could end up caught between the taxation systems of the host country where they live and work and that of the home country which has different and sometimes conflicting requirements.

I think we will see more of this as financial information begins to flow between countries of immigration and emigration.  The taxation of French living abroad has been proposed and will surely be proposed again as the French state looks for more sources of revenue.  Developing countries surely have an interest in doing this as well - a migrant from such a country may not be particularly well-paid according to the standards of his host country but what he earns may represent a great deal of money to people back in his home country. Should such people be taxed by their home countries? Should an immigrant taxi driver in New York be required to contribute something to his home country above and beyond what  voluntary remittances he may already be sending back?  Should a visiting university professor in Europe be required to pay some portion of his income back to his country of citizenship?

These are serious questions that are at the intersection of international migration and international tax/information exchange policy.  On one side are millions of people on the move, the vast majority who are not rich.  On the other are high-level regional and international forums where migrants have no voice and where policy is made pretty much by stealth.

The ability to leave one's home country is enshrined in international human rights law. If global mobility is made more difficult (or even impossible for some) because of conflicts between home and host country tax policies, or where tax policies might be used to discourage people from emigrating, are these not human rights issues?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Attack in Paris

Late this morning I was at the American church and as I and a friend were walking out on the way to lunch, the staff at the church gave us the news that there had been a shooting in the 11th district and that the church was closed down - standard, they said, when this happens.  The friend I was with lives in that part of town and was on his cellphone immediately.  Quite a relief to him to hear his family on the phone.

It was a horrendous attack. I will not say more here about it because I think Arun's post is perfect and he is updating it with links and commentary as more information comes in.  I invite you to head over there and read about what happened:

I am Charlie

After I posted this I had an urge to pick up St. Augustine and find this passage.  Not sure why it inspires me but I thought I would share parts of it with you.  Eternal questions that we still struggle to with :
"Where then is evil, and what is its source, and how has it crept into the Creation?  What is its root, what is its seed?  Can it be that it is wholly without being?  But why should we fear and be on guard against what is not?  Or if our fear of it is groundless, then our very fear is itself an evil thing...Whence then is evil, since God who is good made all things good?"  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The United States and You: A New Americans Abroad Survey

This survey comes from  Dr. Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels of the University of Kent in Brussels and is meant for Americans and former Americans abroad. (Yes, she wants to hear from the renunciants as well.) 

Dr. von Koppenfels is the author of some of the best research that I have read about Americans abroad (American immigrants to other countries). I highly recommend her book:  Migrants or Expatriates? Americans in Europe.

I hope that many of you participate and please spread the word by passing along the link:  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Citizens and Their Foreign Spouses

This post appeared in April of 2012 and still generates comments.  I went back and reread them (and answered a new one) and realized that a repost/update was in order.  

I have migrated once and am about to be expatriated for the third time for my French spouse.  As happy as I am to be global and mobile, Osaka represents yet another sacrifice on my part and a set of challenges for us to face as a couple - a loss of friends, family, my parish, my house and garden, my oncologist and the clinic where I am still under treatment for breast cancer.  As much as I love Japan and find the Kansai region to be fascinating, this city was not my choice of destinations and a move at this time not so simple.  It has been emotionally wrenching to leave so much and from time to time I find myself asking if this move (which is definitely a good deal for my citizen spouse) is, in fact, a good deal for me.  Much of the past few months has been spent trying to find ways to equalize the situation which makes a reread of this post particularly apt at this moment. In my search I also found some new information that I would like to pass along.  May it be of benefit.


Marriage is a topic on which I am very hesitant to give advice.  There are too many variables and it's impossible to pin down what makes a marriage or long-term relationship work even when both parties share a language and a culture.  There is no magic formula that guarantees success.  Call it one of the cosmic crapshoots of life.

There are special challenges, however, when two people from two different countries decide to make a go of it.  For one thing, there is a choice to be made:  In which country do you plan to live?  Unless you are very rich, it's not possible to maintain residences and jobs in two very geographically distant places.  There is a choice to make and, to be brutally honest, one party is going to have to leave his or her country of residence. This move can be temporary or permanent but it has to be made at some point.  Some couples have resolved this by choosing a Third Place: a country where neither is a citizen.  That way no one has the upper hand (the "home court advantage") since both are foreigners.

It usually doesn't happen that way for obvious reasons.  It's just a lot easier to choose one of the countries of citizenship and benefit from immigration policies that favor family reunification.  25 years ago I had no trouble getting a French residency permit and that is still true today though some countries in Europe are making noises about limiting this.

But that's just the beginning of a long journey for the foreign spouse and most of us discover that getting the residency permit is the least of our challenges.  Once married and installed in another country, this is not an easy decision to reverse for either party if things go terribly wrong.  There is no way to know for sure how things will work out but I thought I would throw out a few thoughts that might be helpful to those foreign brides and grooms contemplating a move:

The Empathy Gap:  Even before the decision is made, I think its important that both parties recognize that the citizen and the foreign spouse are starting from very different places, may have very different implicit expectations and are going to experience life in the citizen's country very differently.  Every marriage requires love and empathy but bi-cultural couples in one country of citizenship, I contend, have to make an extra effort because one person is "home" and the other is not.

One good sign of trouble is a lack of appreciation on the part of the citizen spouse for just how hard it's going to be for the foreign spouse.  When I say this I am not calling into question his or her goodwill -  I'm just saying that there are some important barriers to understanding here.  The citizen spouse who wants to stay in his home country clearly finds his country desirable and wants to live there.  It may not occur to him that it has never been his spouse's deepest desire to migrate.  

For the foreign spouse, it can be hard to talk about this honestly with the citizen spouse because the conversation can quickly disintegrate into a debate about what is and isn't attractive about the potential country of residence. This can be greatly exacerbated when, in the citizen spouse's head, the foreign spouse's country has a perceived lower economic or political position relative to the host country.  Why wouldn't someone want to move to the U.S. or to France or to the U.K. ?  Shouldn't the foreign spouse be grateful to have the chance at a Green Card or a 10-year EU residency permit?   Not necessarily.  The trite saying, "home is where the heart is," applies here.  Doesn't matter what country we are talking about, how poor/rich it is, how politically corrupt/sane, how many/few opportunities.  We all have a very human tendency to love where we are from regardless of how outsiders perceive its lacks. 

The other barrier to understanding is that whatever the citizen spouse's life experience I can guarantee to you that he/she has never been an immigrant of the opposite sex in his or her home country.  He may have the best of intentions, he may even think it won't be a big deal, but he or she is starting from a position of complete ignorance - he doesn't even know what he doesn't know because he hasn't lived it.  If things start to go badly with the foreign spouse (difficulty finding work, integrating or learning the language) he/she may be genuinely surprised and might even call into question the foreign spouse's competence, intelligence and goodwill. 

The Information Gap:  On the foreign spouse's side the move is a leap into the unknown.  Sometimes the adventure is welcome and the spouse is eager to go.  In other cases, it takes a lot of persuasion (and a lot of trust) before the spouse agrees to sell everything, quit the job and give up the old life. 

Intellectually we all understand that moving to another country things will be different but no migrant can judge the depth of the differences until he/she actually arrives and starts living.  Describing what it's like to be a permanent resident in France is a little like trying to explain how a rose smells.  Nothing I could possibly tell you (assuming I could even find the right vocabulary) would do it justice.  It's just something you have to experience.

But most foreign spouses come to a new country with the idea that they do know what it will really be like "over there."  Their views are informed by the media, the Internet, books, travelers and the citizen spouse.  That is an illusion of knowledge and it's very dangerous.  It is not and will never be enough and I will even go so far as to say that all these sources are unreliable for different reasons.  I personally have a special loathing for the endless parade of very silly books written about France for Americans.  Generally these fairy tales do little harm unless they are taken even semi-seriously by men and women who actually do choose to follow a spouse to a foreign land.  Then they can become very destructive indeed.  Why?  Because the reality almost never resembles the fantasy and the citizen spouse (who may have been very flattered in the beginning by his foreign spouse's pre-move good opinion of his country) may find himself in the unenviable position of being held  responsible when the foreign spouse has a series of bad days or when the dream comes crashing down. This is not fair, I grant you, but it is very very human.

I've seen these two scenarios played out in many places by couples of many different nationalities.  Was it ever inevitable or necessary?  No, and here are a few suggestions I offer up based on hard experience.
  • Citizen spouses need to take their foreign spouses very seriously when they talk about the problems they may be experiencing. For every fairy tale about moving to a foreign country and living a wonderful romantic exotic life filled with opportunity, I can give you others that more closely resemble horror novels: loneliness, isolation, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, marital problems, and suicide. Having a spouse who, from his or her lofty position as a native, laughs off the foreign spouse's problems off as minor or who criticizes the immigrant spouse for his or her inability to get a job right away or who makes incessant jokes about the spouse's accent or grammatical errors in the second language or who denigrates the foreign spouse's home country or culture, may be genuinely unaware of how destructive these things are. But they are. Of the bi-cultural couples I know who have divorced, I most often hear that it was a lack of empathy and an unwillingness to listen or negotiate that was the final straw.
  • Before moving, the foreign spouse should take everything he/she reads about the future country of residence with a grain of salt. The best approach might be to cultivate a Beginner's Mind - a mind that doesn't have preconceived notions about what will happen and what it will really be like. Hard to be disillusioned if one doesn't start with too many assumptions. Once in the host country the foreign spouse can seek out many sources of information and help - never rely entirely on the citizen spouse for information nor cast him or her in the role of being the sole support or sounding-board for all the difficulties encountered. Cast a wide net and listen to true stories by people who have lived, survived and thrived though the good and the bad - those who have recently arrived and those who have been around for years. A foreign spouse should never feel embarrassed or depressed if things don't click right away -  don't let anyone push you around or make you feel guilty because you haven't yet mastered the language or the customs. Integration/assimilation comes in its own time and, like love, it is not worth anything if it is forced. 
  • And finally I would strongly suggest that the foreign spouse take some measures against the precariousness of his/her situation.  Bi-national marriages are complex from a legal standpoint - there can be uncertainty about which country's laws will apply in the case of a dispute or a divorce.  For example, a bi-national married couple living in one of the citizen spouse's countries or living in a Third Place might find that the marital regime under which he/she was married under in one country may not be valid or applicable in another country.  Yep, it happens and the repercussions of getting it wrong are pretty horrendous.  This is something to clarify as soon as possible, mes amis, because what marital regime (community property, asset separation and so on) you think you are married under may not actually be the one that will be enforced.  So as unpleasant as this may sound, you (the foreign spouse) should find a lawyer (or in France a notaire) well versed in international family law and get this clarified.  What the notaire I saw in France advised was that we both sign and have witnessed a declaration of matrimonial regime that says that we agree that we are married under community property in France and that French law applies wherever we happen to be in the world in the case of divorce/separation.  Not a terribly complex document but very helpful for one's peace of mind.  A good lawyer (or notaire) can also advise on other matters that the foreign spouse might be concerned about (questions about children, for example, are ones I hear often) and so I think it is well worth the trouble to make the trip and ask - assumptions in this case just won't cut it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

Bonne année 2015 à toutes et à tous! (And please note that the ladies come first always in such salutations :-).

It is with both joy and trepidation that the Flophouse is ringing in the new year.  What a wild (and emotionally difficult) month it has been filled with sorting, packing and attending the usual end of the year pots (cocktails) and dinners.

After a bit of trouble with the Japanese landlord in Osaka which was ably managed by the Japanese team at my spouse's new office, we were finally granted a lease for that small but lovely apartment on the 14th floor in the heart of the city.  That accomplished we went about the business of getting a minimum of things ordered and ready for delivery - important things like a refrigerator and a washing machine.  Yep, the apartment is entirely without appliances (like most French apartments).

And then there were the usual formalities at the Japanese embassy;  the Certificate of Eligibility was applied for and granted which meant that we could go down to Avenue Hoche and apply for our visas.   Turnaround time was a mere 3 days.  Very efficient and gracious service.

Lastly, there has been the entire business of deciding what to take and what to leave at the house in Porchefontaine.  While we were at it it seemed a propitious moment to do a bit of sorting and throwing out.  As I pulled things out of forgotten boxes in the basement, I simply asked myself if I could live without the items for three years and if I would care (or need them) when we came back.  The result of that exercise was many many bags of junk thrown out in the trash (and thanks goodness Versailles has garbage pickup 4 times a week) and a large load that went to the local dump just a few days ago.

As we went about this business of closing out one life in one country and starting another on another continent 13 hours away by plane, I thought a great deal about the differences between migration and expatriation. 

The commonality is, of course, that one is physically picking up, packing up, and moving to another place.  The differences start, I propose, with one's mentality and intentions.  When I left the US for France so long ago as a young bride, I left only my family and friends behind me and my intention was to arrive and to build a new life in a new land with no definitive date of return - just the possibility which one might think of as a  kind of personal myth of return - not entirely magical thinking but very very close to it.  

This is absolutely not the case with our expatriation to Japan.  This departure and arrival has boundaries:  around three years which is the term of the contract.  So return is almost certain and the question of course is how much to invest personally in that new place, that new life, knowing that it has an expiration date.  How much of the language to learn?  To what extent do I wish to integrate?  And what are the limits to integration in this new place since this process always involves a delicate dance between the foreigner and the native?   From my experience (and I have that in spades), it takes me about two years to become acclimated and from that point that leaves only one short year to enjoy being bien dans mes baskets in Japan and then....

Back to Versailles and my house, my garden, and a basement filled with the things I truly care about and have kept for years?    An old painting by a Scottish water colourist given to me by my mother that hung on the wall of the Thackeray Street Hotel, my daughters' baby clothes, the quilts I made for them and for my spouse, and an entire box of beautiful love letters that were sent to me by my spouse long ago when I was still in Seattle and he was living in Paris in the 1980's.  (And as we sorted, it turns out that he kept the letters I sent him as well from that time.)  These are the precious irreplaceable things and they will stay here in Versailles.

Like my move to France from the US so many years ago I will be leaving friends and family behind and that is a great sadness.  More than that, it is psychologically destabilizing. While I am gone for those three years, the river and rhythm of life will continue to flow in France and when I come back perhaps some things will be the same but it is dead certain that many many more things will change. 

That, mes amis, is the price to being global and mobile. And I find that this bothers me much more at 50 than it did at 20.  It also raises another question in my mind:  since we are already leaving this life for another, why stop there?  This has been a topic of discussion at the Flophouse these past few weeks provoked by the presence of the Frenchlings who flew in from Seattle and Montreal for Christmas.  It is hard to live oceans away from one's children (and future grandchildren) and so where my children choose to settle becomes a factor in the old old question that we have been asking and answering for over 25 years: "Where shall we live?"  

A question that will not be answered today or tomorrow, but there is some consolation and much wisdom, I think, in the words of Boethius:
"My wings are swift, able to soar beyond the heavens.  The quick mind which wears them scorns the hateful earth and climbs beyond the globe of the immense sky, leaving the clouds below.  It soars beyond the point of fire caused by the swift motion of the upper air until it reaches the house of stars...  There the Lord of Kings holds his scepter, governing the reins of the world.  With sure control He drives the swift chariot, the shining judge of all things.  If the road which you have forgotten, but now search for, brings you here, you will cry out: 'This I remember, this is my own country, here I was born and here I shall hold my place.'  Then if you wish to look down upon the night of earthly things which you have left, you will see those much feared tyrants dwelling in exile here."