Confessions of a Failed Expat

In the aftershock of the 1980 election, when Ronald Reagan won big, I went job-hunting in Toronto. I wasn’t sure I wanted to launch my journalism career in a country whose chief executive believed that trees cause pollution and poor people use food stamps mostly to buy vodka.

Now we are up against another hard-line Republican administration, this one even more radical than Reagan’s, and I hear more people talk about fleeing the USA. (See “A Loyal American Ponders Leaving the Country,” page 58). My own attempt to expatriate didn’t work out. I was a graduate student with limited professional experience, and Canadian immigration laws made it almost impossible for any magazine to hire me. So I took the train back home to set forth in the world on my native soil.

Do I have any regrets?

Not at all. I am glad for the chance to work for several feisty independent magazines and to enjoy a satisfying life with my American friends, American wife, and very American son — a boy who was shocked a few years ago when we were watching Olympic ice hockey on TV and I did not immediately answer “USA” to his question of which team I was rooting for to win the gold. I began trying to explain how some of the other teams — Canada and Sweden and Finland — represented countries with social ideals I admire. Then I thought better of it and started cheering for the Americans right alongside my son.

I still count myself as a patriotic citizen, even if I am also loyal to my concerns about the misuse of American power in the world and the wrongheadedness of economic policies at home. By staying in the United States, I have been able to pitch in on political campaigns, activist causes, and community efforts that have made a difference in my neighborhood, city, and maybe the country as a whole. Sure, my side has probably lost on more issues than we’ve won, but I shudder to think what things would look like now if we hadn’t raised our voices at all.

I’ve also enjoyed the best of what America offers on trips to the California redwoods, Texas hill country, New England villages, Milwaukee taverns, the North End of Boston, the South Shore of Lake Superior. This is a great nation full of wonder and vitality, and I’m proud to say it’s my land.

But, as a journalist, I’ve been lucky to travel outside the United States, where I’ve seen other sights that thrill my imagination. I vividly recall the cafés of Paris, the ruins of Mexico, the beaches of the Caribbean, and the medieval cities of Spain. My imagination, however, also gets thrilled by everyday things I see abroad — the comfortable pace of life, the cultural richness, and the enlightened social policies.

The Netherlands, I discovered, has a remarkably sustainable transportation network. Copenhagen pioneered an innovative program to help senior citizens live at home. Cuba, whatever its shortcomings, has nearly wiped out centuries of vicious racial prejudice. Finnish villagers launched a successful movement to keep rural areas vital. Italian cities are banding together to make sure the traditional pleasures of life survive the modern era.

All of this, and much more of what happens across the globe, goes almost unnoticed in the American media. But don’t take my word for it. Flip on the news or scan the newspaper for foreign coverage that is not about wars, natural disasters, diplomatic maneuvers, scandals, or economic indicators. I’ll bet you find precious little about the actual life that goes on in other lands — how people, other than royalty and celebrities, lead their lives.

Most of the editors and producers whose job it is to show us the world assume that no one really cares about life beyond our borders. That’s an American tragedy of larger proportions than you might think. Not only do we get a shallow view of our fellow global citizens, which fuels old stereotypes (Africa is a hopeless basket case) and new fallacies (Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks) but we also miss out on inspiring examples on how to improve things here in the USA.

I came home from Toronto many years ago without a job, but I did bring back an idea that has shaped my career as a writer and editor. Impressed by the city’s rich and harmonious ethnic diversity, lively and well-preserved neighborhoods, world-class public transit, and general mood of orderly joyousness, I began trumpeting Toronto, and later Montreal and Vancouver, as places from which Americans could learn a lot about revitalizing our cities. I touted Canada’s national health care policies and multicultural sensibilities at a time when these were not major issues in the United States. I tried my best to stay on top of Canadian politics and culture (not an easy task when you rely on American media) and wrote about what was happening north of the border whenever I could convince an editor it was newsworthy (not very often).

Then, I landed at Utne Reader, published in Minneapolis (which Spy magazine once insisted is actually part of Canada). The Utne library was brimming with independent press publications from all over the universe, including Canada, and many of them delighted in reporting news and telling stories from around the world. I saw my chance, and made it my journalistic mission to shine light on bright ideas, bold initiatives, and practical projects from all over the globe that could help us solve problems and create opportunities here at home.

I began traveling overseas in search of examples of positive social change that could fire people’s imagination about what’s possible. I went to Germany and the Netherlands to look at their ambitious plans to reverse environmental damage. I went to Denmark and Sweden to investigate the accomplishments (many) and pitfalls (a few) of their generous social policies. In writing up my findings in Utne, the English magazine Resurgence, and in a series for The Nation called “What Works,” I encountered steep skepticism — including many progressive thinkers who were convinced that we couldn’t learn anything from Europe or anywhere else. “That won’t work here,” they told me, because we’re not ethnically homogenous like France, or because, unlike the Germans, we love our cars. But travel instills me with optimism, in part because I’ve seen that French cities are surprisingly diverse and that Germans do love their cars, but not enough to destroy their environment.

As a loyal American, I’m not willing to write off my fellow citizens as too stubborn to embrace a good idea when they see one. We are an energetic, enterprising people, generally willing to try something new and happy at the chance to improve our lives. The problem, I think, is that we are seldom exposed to the truly important news from abroad. Foreign countries are places that we can learn from, not just targets for military or economic invasion. While I once looked for a way out of America, I now feel patriotic pride in trying to bring fresh ideas into the country. We need them now more than ever.

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