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.
ABOUT THE BLOG
I am writing this blog for a number of different audiences and purposes.
To communicate with friends and family. A lot of people who I have told about my plans seem interested in hearing about my life in Japan so rather than sending out a lot of individual emails to different people, I could put everything in a nice convenient blog with pictures and updates and maybe even video so that people could see what I am up to.
To force myself to write more. For the past twenty seven years I have been teaching writing, but other than a few review articles, textbooks, academic papers and presentations, I have not done much writing myself on a regular basis. Sometimes I feel like the pudgy football coach who follows his players around in a golf cart during intense practice sessions.
To promote Japanese culture: As a twenty eight year resident of Chicago, I have always been a bit aggravated by the differences between the way that the city is presented in the media and to tourists and what is it like to actually live here. I constantly hear the same thing from people I know who live in Japan. So my blog is not going to focus on things like “Wow aren’t those Japanese people wacky with their vending machines, robot restaurants and monkey waiters.” It is going to focus on what it is like to actually live here as an expat. Although I have to admit that it is hard to resist a good monkey waiter story.
To give people hope: I am part of a group on Facebook for widows and widowers and one of the things which has struck me about the experience of grief is a profound sense of hopelessness that many people feel. In the first few weeks after my wife’s death I can remember seriously thinking to myself “Why should I eat, I am just going to be hungry again in a few hours anyway.” I see a lot of people with a similar reaction in our group. Although I do not expect other people to change careers or move to another a continent, I am hoping that people will see some of my blog posts and think “wow if that idiot can move to Japan, I can move on with my life too.”
People who know me know that I have a tendency to geek out about certain things. However, my interests are not of the same type as the usual otaku (Japanese nerds). I have a PhD in modern literature, so my interests tend more towards literature, philosophy, sociology and linguistics and while some blog posts may be of interest to certain people; they will probably bore others to death. So as a consumer service,I will warn people about this by tagging the post with an alert which may look something like this :
WARNING: the follow contains graphic scenes of Japanese prepositions and other linguistic references.
In the fall of 2012 I was married and living in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago and teaching English at a university downtown. However, this changed in the next few months. In November my wife died from complications of diabetes, stomach flu and Addison’s disease and then in July of 2013 I was laid off from what I had assumed was a pretty secure teaching job. Although I found work as an adjunct English professor and textbook writer, I did not really have much of an idea of what to do with my life until I began thinking about the original Plan B I had when I moved to Chicago in 1985 which was to go to Japan to teach English if I did not get into graduate school. I had abandoned this idea when I was accepted to the University of Chicago where I met my wife and started a family and eventually completed a PhD in English.
After talking to some friends in Japan I discovered that due to some changes in Japanese education policy, now is one of the best times to go to Japan to teach English. So now I am giving away nearly all of my possessions and moving to Tokyo to start a new life teaching English in Japan. The famous pessimist and misanthrope F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. I want to prove him wrong.