The Case Against Expatriation: Not Cutting the Mustard

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In items here and with previous links, I argued that about the best thing young Americans could do for themselves and their country is to spend serious time in other parts of the world.

A reader who has done just that writes to offer a warning. This is a long message and may not interest those who have not spent time looking at American culture from afar. But I think those who have, will find it very insightful. The phenomena the reader describes did not directly affect our family -- we were out of the US for most of four school years during our sons' childhood, starting when they were ages 6 and 9. Before and after that they were in (public) schools in the US. For our family, those years in different parts of Asia were almost all plus. But this note is about something real:

You are correct, of course, to urge foreign travel for young Americans. It may help.

The other side of the story is less felicitous--from the American point of view.

HenryJames.jpgGiven the right set of circumstances, such as my own (or possibly those of your kids, I do not know), if you leave at the right time, return at the wrong time (age 10 and 14, in my case), you may very well find yourself leaving again. Then again. And again. And finally you are out altogether. The American Expatriate. You have met them. [Yes, I definitely have.] Henry James made a career out of them. Hemingway only went back to shoot himself. However, you don't have to be a literatus to find yourself unable to cut the mustard back in the States after extended time abroad.

I believe 'cut the mustard' is the correct metaphor--for many of us. It can be more a question of square peg/round hole back in the USA than sheer attraction to the other, foreign environment. The foreign environment merely seems Normal at some point. It is the increasingly 'foreign' nature of America itself that is most apparent to the returnee. After only a few short years abroad, his/her terms of reference are near-meaningless back home because these are increasingly insular--TV, reinventing the health care wheel, anagrams that make no sense but are apparently vital, neologisms. I believe you have always made regular return trips [JF note: yes], which will help fend this unfortunate social vertigo off. If you are out long enough, however, you will find yourself at sea "back home." [also yes] Over the years, given the ever-increasing speed of change in America, this becomes a self-reinforcing spiral--upwards or downwards depends upon your point of view.
I do not know the number of American expatriates out there. Presumably it is small. In the case of some of these, it is farewell, don't let the door hit you in the ass. In other cases, this may be less so. (Naturally, I hope I am one of the latter but you never know....) We are not clannish but we congregate from time to time (Waiter!). It is always an interesting discussion. Political opinion is surprisingly diverse in my experience. But even in this catholic political setting--to the extent it is political, which is admittedly not much--it is apparent that few of this small subset of Americans would wish to exchange their existing set of circumstances for those pertaining to the returnee.

I sent you an e-mail shortly after your return from China, inquiring as to whether you were suffering from RR--Repat Remorse. You kindly replied that you were not, really--you had always considered yourself an American in (fill in the blank). ...

As for us non mustard-cutters. Ah well, it happens. But even in the e-mails you quoted here, there is a sense of forlorn loss amongst the former travellers that is nearly palpable.

So I find myself wondering if Mr MIT doesn't have a point after all. Perhaps he rightly senses a certain susceptibility and has covered his tracks with the argument presented in his e-mail?

Still. As a general rule, travel after graduation, yes, good idea almost always. Beyond that, a person of a certain nature may want to think it over. Employment overseas is a yellow light--journalism possibly excepted, that racket seems to have some built-in 'protections.' Employment abroad prepares one for...further employment abroad; and may not be considered advantageous at home. You know the syndrome. A number of my fellow alumni (we are all doddering now) have 'lost' children just in this way.

Again, expatriates are numerically insignificant. But we are out there and it may be slightly sad that it came to a pass where some of America's offspring finally decided at some point that Out, for them, was preferable to In.

The number of variables at work here must be infinite and of huge variety, so I am not making a value judgment here. It worked for me and others, making the break. Just noting that possibly there may be a downside--from a certain point of view. We are still Americans. We just don't live there anymore.

In the words of Mark Twain: "Moderation in all things. Including moderation."

Again, this pattern is very recognizable, at least among overseas Americans I've known through the years. FWIW, this note made me think immediately of a collection of stories from an Atlantic writer in the early 1970s: The Slightest Distance, by Henry Bromell, about American kids deracinated by their time overseas. (Not much info available on line, but I think I am remembering it accurately.) The reader spells out well the goods and bads.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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