On Emigrating



The US is a nation of immigrants but why do people look at me funny when I tell them that I am emigrating?

In the US we pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, if you ask almost any American they will go through their entire lineage listing the various countries that their ancestors came from complete with their dates of arrival and reasons for coming. Even people who want to close the borders can play this game. Americans like this idea because it appeals to the idea that we have of ourselves as a tolerant, open nation that a lot of people want to come to. In fact so many people want to come here that we have had to build a wall between the US and Mexico and create a complex beauracracy called ICE to keep people out. The US is such a desirable place to immigrate to that we are the prom queen of nations and despite our negative birthrate we can still be relatively picky about who we decide to let in.

But how accurate is this picture? While we are still a desirable place for new immigrants things have changed a bit since the economic meltdown of 2008. According to a recent article in The Atlantic “Why So Many Americans are Emigrating from the US” we are currently running an immigration deficit with a number of nations including Mexico. So it seems that Mitt Romney may have gotten his wish. All joking aside, this change is due to a number of factors including relatively slow US economic growth compared to a number of Latin American countries and higher living and medical costs for the elderly which have made countries like Belize and Costa Rica attractive destinations for retirees. In many ways this is good news since it means people are less likely to immigrate because things in their home countries have improved relative to the US.

Also the world is becoming more inter-nationalized (in the sense of “inter-connected” or “inter-related”) which means that the US is not longer a center which simply absorbs people from other countries but the movement of people now goes both ways. While this may be a blow to our national ego or ideas about American exceptionalism, it is simply an indication that the US is becoming more like other countries (or perhaps that more countries are becoming more like the US). In fact, according to the State Department, there are currently over 6.3 million American citizens living abroad which is about 5% of the total population and this statistic does not include military personnel.

However, despite this trend, emigrating still seems strange to people. When my daughter told one of her friends that I was moving to Japan her response was “Japan? Who does that?” To which my daughter responded “My dad” as if this is just another personal eccentricity like my fondness for iced coffee and fruit smoothies for breakfast, or the fact that I spent my 49th birthday at a Kendrick Lamar’s Lollapalooza aftershow. But I think people’s objections go a bit deeper than that. Emigrating seems almost disloyal or ungrateful, it is like an insult to your country of origin and America’s sense of self. So many people go through so much to come to this country why would someone want to leave? My own reasons are very complex and I will not go into all of them. Part of it is a desire for a relatively comfortable adventure and a desire to experience another culture by actually living there rather than breezing through as a tourist. But much of it is my own sense of the US as an inter-national country and the opportunities that it has opened up for me as an English teacher. Although the US may be less central to the world, the English language has certainly become more central to it. English teachers are now more in demand than ever in countries like Japan, India, China and South Korea and the EU because English is now the lingua franca of international science and business. This has meant that my unique skill set is now more in demand abroad than it is in my own country where I often feel like an overeducated loser. Also it is my feeling that in the next few years most of the interesting things politically, culturally and economically are going to be happening in Asia and moving to Japan will provide me with a front row seat for these events.

So in reality there is nothing as American as emigrating. It is simply an extension of the same spirit which motivated my ancestors to come to Pennsylvania from Germany in the early eighteen century and motivated my parents to move from Pennsylvania to California in the nineteen sixties. As more opportunities open up for Americans abroad, emigration has become the newest expression of this spirit.





6 thoughts on “On Emigrating

  1. David Kendall

    If you go back to when notions of American exceptionalism developed, the difference in lifestyle between the US and the rest of the world was rather extreme. You are right, the world has caught. We have often talked about finding another situation outside the US, but it is difficult to find something appropriate with two young kids. It is also hard to find someplace with natural beauty anywhere close to the US (and Canada to be fair.) Chile perhaps? Something else for our chronically behind the times politicians to ponder.

    Of course, while Chicago is a beautiful city, it doesn’t inspire much natural awe (except Lake Michigan which is wonderful.) One more mark on the Japan-side of the balance sheet!

    • Yes, I definitely would not be leaving if I had small children. Being single and relatively unencumbered has made moving much easier, especially since Japanese employers require that you put your marital stautus on resumes. Very few countries can match America’s natural beauty, in fact in the 19th century America’s natural beauty was seen as a sign of America’s exceptional nature (just think of “America the Beautiful”) although you can see Mount Fuji from our condo building and we have the ruins of a 16th century castle in our neighborhood too.

  2. Jonathan, this is a thoughtful, important piece. It boggles the mind why people would think it strange for an American to move to another country, especially considering the inter-globalness (not sure if that’s a word) of our world. The bottom line is that we need to make decisions that are right for us, and this decision sounds so right for you.

    I look forward to reading about your adventures.

  3. eak13

    congratulations and what timing I might add. My son is also moving to Japan. He will be taking a Japanese immersion course for approx 18 months then going to a design school Keeping fingers crossed…. I have also been to Japan and it is a beautiful and friendly country oh and all those vending machines incredible!!
    I wish you all the best in your coming adventure……

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