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Monday, April 24, 2017

The Diversity of Americans Abroad

In the Greater Journey: Americans In Paris the author David McCullough described the epiphany experienced by Charles Sumner in 1838 at a lecture at the Sorbonne on the Greek philosopher Heraclites.    Sumner was startled to see young, well-dressed people of African origin in the audience. He was even more intrigued because their presence did not cause any comment and they were simply students like any other student at this prestigious institution of learning.  Sumner wrote:
  • "They were standing in the midst of a knot of young men and their color seemed no objection to them.  I was glad to see this, though with American impressions, it seemed very strange.  It must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things."
In 2017 we need something like Sumner's enlightenment with regards to Americans abroad.  The United States (and many other nation-states) are multi-racial and multi-cultural and the Americans who go abroad reflect that diversity.  This should not be a surprise to anyone and it certainly isn't to the American community in France.  The presence of African and other Americans of all creeds and colors is well documented and among them were many internationally known artists, writers, scholars and scientists who came to Paris for a time or to stay.  If you have any doubts about whether or not this is still true read Black Paris Profiles by Monique Wells which reveals the stories of contemporary African-American writers, journalists, teachers, businessmen and women, and entrepreneurs in France.

Oddly enough, Americans at home and abroad are often surprised by this.  What they have to say goes something like this: "African-Americans (and other non-white Americans) are so oppressed at home and are so poor that they can't possibly travel or go abroad like white Americans."  Really.  And so how would they explain the presence of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, native Americans and Hispanic Americans in places like Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, Berlin?

That kind of thinking just makes me crazy.  I'm not sure what offends me more, the vision of African-Americans as so lacking in resources that they are stuck in the US, or the idea that all Americans of European origin are rich and thus they are the only Americans able to go abroad.  African-Americans were going abroad before slavery was abolished in the US and one of the reasons many left was because of racism and lack of opportunity in the US.  Whatever progress has been made in America,  it is still an argument that resonates.  In an article on the Fly Brother website, Ernest White II writes:
  • "We have options. There are places in this world where our presence isn’t viewed as a menace, as a problem, or even as an inconvenience. There are places where we are welcomed, listened to, appreciated, and even loved. These places can and do challenge us in ways we could have never imagined, but our very existence isn’t challenged...In the end, the tangible investment in passport fees, airline tickets, and lodging expenses pay off in that they remove the yoke of low expectations. They can release us from the snares of a society that thinks it’s got us all figured out. Most importantly, these investments pay off in options."
That's a sentiment that many Americans abroad can relate to.  We are in an era of increasing income inequality and mass travel.  It should not surprise anyone that some Americans might find other countries to be a better deal for the average person:  better jobs, comprehensive social welfare programs, and a higher chance of social mobility.   Now there is no guarantee that these things will be had by all American emigrants, but Americans in the homeland read about lives in other lands in books, blogs, and social media, and can envision something else, somewhere else.

As explained in The Age of Migration (Castles, Haas & Miller 5th edition, p. 29) the problem with classic economic models of migration is that while extreme poverty can slow or stop some migration, "Improved education and media exposure may increase feeling of relative deprivation, and may give rise to higher aspirations and, therefore, increased migration, without any change in local opportunities."

In my study of Anglophones in Japan the American survey and interview participants had very diverse socio-economic statuses in the United States. Many were the children of police officers, teachers, nurses, truck drivers, factory workers, or domestic workers.  The majority did not have degrees from elite institutions. And many were from rural areas, small towns or small regional cities as opposed to connected global metropolises like New York or Los Angeles.

Add to this mix the Great Recession and the decline of the middle-class, and worsening conditions for the working classes and I am amazed that so many of the 62% of Americans making less than 50,000 USD actually stay in the US. And what stops them from migrating, I suspect, has more to do with the myth that America is a place people immigrate to and not a place people emigrate from, debt, problems with certificates and other professional credentials being recognized abroad, and nation-state emigration and immigration bureaucracy than extreme poverty.  I could be entirely off base about this, and please challenge me if you have a different opinion.

Because the fact is that Americans do leave and have always left America.  Today, there are African-Americans in Tokyo, Chinese-Americans in Paris,  and Native Americans in Berlin. And let us not forget that a sizable number of Americans abroad are military personnel (about 200,000) living in over 150 countries. The US Army and Navy are even more diverse than the general US population (see page 34 of the Population Representation in the Military Services).  Civilian Americans abroad frequently overlook them because US foreign policy is often criticized by our host countries and there is a distancing from it.  And, to be brutally honest, I think there are generational, class and racial issues here as well.  Not all American military go home to the US as the wide network of VFW posts around the world will attest. In my travels I have met veterans of World War II, Vietnam, and both Iraq wars living in France, Japan, and Belgium.

So for me there is no doubt that the diversity of Americans in the homeland is reflected in the population of Americans living abroad.  And that leads us back to Sumner's epiphany. In some ways Americans in the homeland and abroad are just as clueless as he was. African-Americans abroad? How ever did they manage to do that?  Well, drop the condescending attitude, learn something about Americans abroad, and you'll find out, folks.

The diversity is there, we just don't acknowledge and value it as much as we should.  At our worst we actually perpetuate harmful stereotypes about our compatriots and acquiesce to the racism in our host societies.  I have had some very troubling conversations over the years where Americans have stood by and watched (or even colluded with) the racism, classism, and sexism in their host societies against their fellow Americans.

The ugliest Americans, I suggest to you, my dear readers, are not those who struggle with a foreign language and the culture, but those "consummate asses" who elevate themselves at the expense of other migrants and their own compatriots.   Pretend to be the only American in Paris, Buenos Aires, Brussels, Tokyo, Shanghai or Singapore, if you must, but do get a reality check from time to time. There are 75,000 other Americans in Paris with tales to tell and you are hardly living in a "ghetto" if you acknowledge them in the streets and have coffee and a chat once in a while. Broadening your horizons in a foreign country can be as much about meeting Americans you would never have encountered at home as it is about integrating in the host society.  Before I moved to France I had never spent time with anyone from New York Arizona or Michigan.

Above all, do no harm by word or deed to other settlers and sojourners.  We have all rolled the dice in the Cosmic Crapshoot of Life.  We have all crossed borders.  We are all migrants.  And for those of us with pretty blue passports, we are all Americans.


Ellen Lebelle said...

Again, thank you. A comment on my post on Facebook, yesterday, left me speechless. I preferred not to reply immediately, so as not to get into a useless discussion. (Also, between my knitting and then going back to the polling station to count the votes, I didn't have time for an argument.)

Maria said...

Perhaps one of the reasons economically strapped Americans don't bother to leave to better their lives is also the language barrier. While the perception of the US being the country EVERYONE wants to get into for a decent life is overwhelming, someone who might know about opportunities in another country that would help him move his life forward, will be hindered by the fact that he doesn't know the language.

Too many Americans feel that by knowing English, they have the keys to the world. Yes, they do, but to the temporary world of travel or professionalism where they contact others in their field elsewhere. But they can't function on a daily basis in a foreign country without knowing the language. The Spanish, also with a bad system of learning languages, understand this. Many soon-to-be expatriates go to intensive language classes to learn German, French, or English. Offers of good jobs in other countries require fluency in the local language.

It's no surprise that the immigrant community in Spain with the most job placement is that from Latin America. We share the same language. Those with the most problems are those who do not speak Spanish. An American who would want to work here needs to speak Spanish, or be on a par with the lowliest migrant who just crossed over on a boat. Of course, there are those who move first and learn the language later, but they go through rough times before they can communicate well.

That would be another instance of an ugly American - one who feels that they are superior to the locals simply because he speaks English.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Ellen, Yeah, I saw it. Not the first time I have heard that and that it was time I thought to say something.

Maria, Good point. The state of foreign language training in a lot of countries leaves much to be desired. My spouse had a very high level of English grammar but he couldn't speak English when he came to the US. I had a similar problem. 5 years of French at the high school and university level and I had trouble ordering a baguette.

It would be interesting to see how many migrants learn the language before they leave the home country. A lot of information about jobs in other countries comes through migrant networks. They know because they have a cousin or a neighbor or a friend who has been there. And, of course, there is social media and stuff like that. English takes you some places and locks you out of others. I'd say (and I've seen) that really high level professionals and executives can get by, do their jobs and such in foreign countries without ever learning a word of the local language. If you are not in that class with special skills/experience and you have to compete in the job market with the natives, you either have to find a niche (often an occupational ghetto with precarious employment) or you have to learn enough fast to find a decent job. Most of us learn. :-)

About Beauford Delaney said...

"Broadening your horizons in a foreign country can be as much about meeting Americans you would never have encountered at home as it is about integrating in the host society."

Victoria, this statement is one of the most powerful I have read in the context of this topic of conversation. Brava!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Monique, Thank you so much for reading here at the Flophouse. I am very glad that what I said resonates with you. This has been for me one of the great joys of living abroad. I have met so many other Americans abroad who have enriched my life. Gave me a whole new vision of my own country and compatriots. And I hope my own stories and experiences have done the same for others.