Exploring ups and downs of the expat life
Not since the days of the Vietnam War have so many progressive-minded citizens considered leaving the country. Part of this, of course, is due to the militarism and civil liberties abuses of the Bush administration, but the increasing greed and incivility of daily life in the United States also feeds the drive to get away. And while there are plenty of good reasons to explore living abroad, there are plenty of pitfalls as well -- not the least of which is the notion that leaving home will somehow solve the issues that persuaded us to flee in the first place.
-- The Editors
See editor Jay Walljasper's "Confessions of a Failed Expat."
The Canadian Consulate General in Minneapolis is housed on the ninth floor of one of those modern downtown skyscrapers that call into question the whole idea of architecture. All blue and orange steel, marble, and glass, it seems an uninspiring gateway to the dream that I am harboring. Still, the distinctive maple leaf flag is flying outside next to Old Glory, and as I shuffle through the lobby toward the elevators I find myself oddly buoyed in its presence.
Upstairs, the consulate shares a beige hallway with some corporate law firm, but the bronze coat of arms (A MARI USQUE AD MARE) on the door is impressive, and, inside, a beatific Queen Elizabeth smiles from the wall. But when I ask the guy behind the bulletproof glass about immigration information, he slides a cheesy-looking flyer through the slot and informs me I've come to the wrong place. There's now a Web site for that (www.cic.gc.ca).
"You can't just move up there," says Jerry Foley, public affairs officer for the consulate. "That was more easily the case 30 years ago, when a lot of people did it."
I'm no 18-year-old draft dodger. Indeed, I spent four years in the Air Force during the early 1970s -- the only time in my life that I've lived away from the Twin Cities. My roots in this place run deep. My siblings all live within a 45-minute drive; my mom's less than a half-hour away. I've got a nice home in a decent part of town, a good job, a wife and two kids -- a package of implausible good fortune I could not have imagined 10 years ago. And yet, last spring, my wife, Sharon, and I began talking seriously about leaving it all behind.
This wasn't newfound desire for the simple life in the South Pacific. Like most families, we operate under a certain level of stress, but not enough to get us to pitch everything and start over in an exotic locale with large insects. Nor were we hungering for the cosmopolitan charm of a spot like Paris or Buenos Aires. We can't take advantage of even a fraction of the cultural opportunities right here in Minneapolis. It had little to do, in fact, with the realities of our personal life. We were just pissed off about being Americans.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq last year we took to the streets with millions of other Americans in a futile effort to convince President George Bush and the other chickenhawks in his administration to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to do their job. Our inability to counter the deceit and arrogance at the heart of the Bush administration's Iraq campaign left me and Sharon -- and a lot of our friends -- feeling bitter, angry, and hopeless.
Sharon, a normally optimistic sort, suggested that we might be entering a "new Middle Ages" -- a move backwards as a culture to a sort of pre-Renaissance world fueled by fear, superstition, and naked military power. Did we want to support the government that was championing that vision? This was more than a theoretical question. In five short years, our son, Martin, would be obligated to register for the draft.
None of this made much sense from a purely rational point of view, but we figured rational people don't invade sovereign countries without provocation or recruit meter readers to spy on their fellow citizens. So we talked about the south of France ("a little stone farmhouse" was Sharon's ideal), or maybe Vancouver or Salt Spring Island in British Columbia. Iceland even seemed an attractive alternative. I began scouring Web sites for immigration insights as we boldly allowed our fantasies full rein.
At work, I stumbled upon the story of a Los Angeles couple and their two kids who pulled up stakes and moved to a small island in the South Pacific called Raratonga to "escape our overscheduled Los Angeles existence." I discovered a utopian ecovillage in Ecuador run by an expat Californian basking in a rural paradise far from the "pit of consumerism" that America has become. And I tracked down an old Minneapolis radical who had chucked it all for the good life in Mexico.
Stan Gotlieb told me he first visited Oaxaca in 1973. He returned briefly in 1992 before settling there for good two years later. "I came down here to study Spanish in preparation for a 'new life' somewhere unspecified, but south of the border," he says. "I was sick of my job and had some savings."
Ten years later, he's still there, a fact that even surprises him ("Inertia, I guess"). He met a woman from California with whom he now shares a home, and he says he has few complaints. "It's cheaper," he says of Oaxacan life, then lists the other advantages: "The food is fresher, the weather is good, the architecture is colonial, the art is first-rate, the crafts also."
The only downside, he says, is a lack of "good international cuisines" and a serious dearth of blues clubs.
When I ask him whether moving away has insulated him at all from the insanity of the current political climate, Gotlieb is quick to note that it's not that much different across the border. "We find ourselves having to respond to the attitudes of Mexicans, which range from hilarity to anger -- but almost never impolite."
If there is a difference, it's about the need to respond. "We don't feel the immediacy, the need to do something," he says. "That, I confess, is a great relief to me."
I'd be lying if I didn't admit that Gotlieb's "retired radical" model is an attractive one. Part of the fantasy, I suppose, is to imagine reading about the sins of America from afar and being able to say I refuse to support that with my tax dollars. But I imagine that particular fantasy would be accompanied by an equally powerful sense that I've betrayed those who stuck around to fight. Still, at a certain point, banging your head against that wall becomes less than satisfying, says Jack Ames. A Korean War veteran who left the country in 1965 after many years of antiwar work in New York and elsewhere, Ames expatriated to Australia, where he married and went to work for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He's never looked back.
"My decision came in stages. I decided to move to Australia for a couple of years," he recalls, to remove himself (and what small amount of taxes he paid) from a country whose military policies he could not support.
He says he knew at the time that the gesture was mostly symbolic ("and naive"), but it became life changing. "The Vietnam fiasco got worse, and I began thinking about shucking off all ties with the United States," he says. "My premise was that if I were going to stay here, I should take an active part through voting and otherwise being involved in the Australian ethos."
So Ames dumped his American citizenship, signed on as a full-fledged Aussie, and went on with his life. He's been back to the States twice since then, and now, at 72, does not expect to return again.
"I have never placed much value in patriotism," he says, adding, "I love the United States of America. Always have -- the people, not the various administrations."
To hear Robin Pascoe tell it, there's probably no worse reason for fleeing the homeland than a political one. The Vancouver-based "expat expert," the author of five books, including A Moveable Marriage (Expatriate Press), and a highly sought speaker and consultant on the expat life, argues that political issues at home may seem trivial when compared with those abroad.
In many countries, for instance, attitudes toward women range from bizarre to terrifying. Pascoe recalls cocktail parties her husband, a Canadian diplomat, hosted in South Korea during which she was expected to vanish from the premises. And, beyond the personal politics that provide a large dose of the culture shock new expats experience, she says there are few governments abroad that are worth much adulation.
"Utopia doesn't exist," she declares.
And forget about escaping America's soulless consumer culture. You'll run into Starbucks and McDonald's pretty much everywhere on the globe these days -- whether you want to or not. "There is no running away," she says. The politically motivated expat is really no different from the folks who move abroad to straighten out their marriage or to boost their careers or inject some excitement into their lives. The issues at the core of their discontent don't stay home, Pascoe says. They travel as comfortably to your new address as any other piece of baggage. "There is a terribly romantic view of moving abroad," she says. "But all the issues are the same as living at home -- except magnified."
You've got to carefully examine your motivations for moving, she tells me. Don't flee the United States simply because you oppose the policies of the current administration. Don't run away in the hope that you can find the simple life in an ashram in India (it's not as cheap as you may think, Pascoe warns) or a rundown Budapest hotel. Some people have managed to pull it off, she says, but it's not easy.
That's certainly the message I get from Diana Johnstone, a journalist who was European editor for the progressive newsweekly In These Times for many years. Living in Paris, she managed to ply her trade (her new book, Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions, has recently been published by Plato Press), raise a family, and successfully navigate French culture for more than 30 years. Johnstone, by all accounts, seems to be living the expat dream, yet she ferociously resists the stereotype. "I hate the term expat and certainly don't think of myself under that or any other label," she says.
Johnstone visited Europe several times before deciding to move there in 1971. There really wasn't any articulated decision-making process involved, she recalls, just a series of leaps into the unknown. "Each time I made the move it was like jumping from one trapeze to another without a safety net." And she doesn't accept the notion that fleeing America is necessarily a good thing for the progressive-minded -- or anyone else. She admits that her decision to emigrate had some political overtones (the opportunities to study Vietnamese history, a project linked to her antiwar views in the '60s, were more plentiful in Europe than in the United States), but she's not at all sure that the "political" decision was the right one. "Politically, I tend to think I might have been more useful had I stayed in the United States," she says. "I've tried to compensate by writing about European politics for people back in the USA, but I'm not particularly satisfied with the results."
Mostly she was looking for a better academic environment for her daughter. "She's the one who rose to the crucial challenge," Johnstone recalls. "She learned French so fast that within a year she was top of her class." Her daughter went on to marry a Frenchman and is raising four children and teaching history in a bilingual Paris lycée. She's published two books in French.
"If that hadn't worked," Johnstone says. "I'd surely be back in the United States."
Even after all her years integrating into French culture, raising a family, and earning a living, Johnstone's still not really sure how she's managed. "I have been extraordinarily lucky -- enough to make up for my occasional foolhardiness," she says. "I think that a successful transfer into another country requires a lot of imagination and a mixture of will power and fatalism. You need to love the place you're going, even if it doesn't initially love you."
I'd like to be able to say I've gotten some clarity about whether to leave the country or not in the months that have passed since the United States annexed Baghdad, but I'm still swinging on that trapeze Johnstone mentions, balancing the allure of adventure with the comfort of the known. To be honest, there are wickedly difficult issues yet to be sorted out: How do Sharon and I balance our own dreams and motivations against those of our kids, for instance? Or against the needs of our extended families? At what point does this become an exercise in narcissism and selfishness?
We can argue, of course, that it's our concern for Martin's future that's the most energizing force behind this thinking about expatriating; if the draft and possible military service weren't looming so large we wouldn't even be talking about it. And, yet, I wonder whether even that bit of motivation isn't somehow skewed. Though he's made it abundantly clear that he has no interest in being coerced into military service (or forced against his will to do anything), he is only 13 years old. He could wind up enlisting in the Marines. It's his decision, after all.
Meanwhile, our daughter, Nora, is dreaming of college, hanging out with her soccer pals, and embarking on an ambitious career as a horse trainer/novelist/veterinarian. Can she do that in Canada? In France?
These are not questions I can take to the Canadian consulate. So I ask Robin Pascoe, who chuckles knowingly. "It all sounds cool when you're sitting around your kitchen table," she says. "But, then, you're sitting around your kitchen table."
The alternative to leaping blindly off that trapeze, she says, is to volunteer for one of the dozens of humanitarian programs abroad. Get a small dose of the expat life in a way that also helps you feel you're doing something good in the world. You don't have to sell the house and say good-bye to a grieving network of friends and family. You're just going away for a while -- an experience, a lark, whatever.
And after that, who knows? Like Johnstone says, this isn't something you can completely plan out. Besides, maybe Bush will lose in November, and we can forget about the whole thing.
Useful resources to help you make your decision and prepare for living abroad
Specifically for expat spouses, this site includes columns, books, and other writings by Robin Pascoe, who has written widely on culture shock and successful living abroad.
A great resource for finding work abroad and connecting with other people on the move.
A literary and practical site about family life abroad.
The bible for finding work and study abroad. They also publish a useful magazine.
Discussion boards, classified ads (including jobs), and a resource directory for expatriates.
Figuring Foreigners Out: A Practical Guide
By Craig Storti (Intercultural Press)
A cross-cultural instruction manual for expats struggling to understand people different from themselves.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
By Mary Bosrock (International Education Systems)
A series of fun and easy-to-read country guides tailored for Americans moving abroad.
Culture Shock! Guides
(Graphic Arts Center)
These fact-filled guides cover a multitude of countries and provide a foreigner's perspective on each culture. Includes a guide for parents living abroad with children.
-- Leif Utne and Cilla Utne
Craig Cox is executive editor of Utne.