American expatriates (part 1 of 2)

It was during my early travels overseas right after graduate school that I was first exposed to the many types and faces of American expatriates. Our company’s diversified business operations were sprinkled over four continents and my corporate responsibility would require much travel and interface with many of these expatriates. Some were voluntary exiles, managers or professional employees; others were just members of the “American colony” in the locales where we maintained subsidiaries.

Expatriates for the most part carry a sentimental torch for their countries of origin… even the poorest and humblest immigrants. But I soon came to the conclusion that American expatriates, much like their British counterparts, were different and held nostalgia at a much higher level. It mattered little that they represented the “ugly American,” the American “gone native,” or something in between.

But much has changed in the world, both in economic and political terms, since those early days three decades ago… not just in first world nations but in the developing countries as well. The profile of the American expatriate also has changed somewhat, or at least those I have come across, which I feel represent a good cross-section… of exiles gone native.

More and more Americans have moved overseas to live and work in multiple professions and for a variety of reasons. American interests, business and government, are no longer the monolithic employment source it used to be for expatriates, although they continue to play the key role, particularly in developing nations. Now you are likely to find transplanted Americans, doing any number of things, in every corner of the habitable planet. Not just adventure-seekers as in the past, but sedentary Americans raising families.

Of the four plus million expatriates, not counting another one-half million of military and government personnel, more than three-quarters are either retired, living the good life abroad; or derive their livelihood from some type of American payroll. Only a few of these people immerse themselves in the culture of the host country or even learn the language. More than expatriates, they should be classified solely as “Americans living temporarily abroad,” even if they stay in those countries for many years.

Among the approximate two million expatriates living their retirement overseas, well over half of them could more appropriately be classified as “returnees” than expatriates since they are returning to their countries of origin, although now brandishing American citizenship. Mexico and Canada probably account for three-quarters of these returnees.

My interest in expatriates, however, centers in that group of Americans overseas, and their families, perhaps fewer than one-quarter million, who have adapted to and adopted a non-English-speaking host country. They are not returnees. These are people who have learned the language and are well-versed in the culture and customs of the host country… Americans who have “gone native” while still fully connected to their homeland. How these Americans think, influenced by the environment in which they live, can provide critical linkage not only on how other people view America and Americans… but why they see us the way they do.

So when I refer to expatriates, I am speaking about this select group representing perhaps no more than 6 percent of the “expatriate population” but with incredible knowledge and insight about their host countries, cultures and peoples… in contrast to the ignorance and lack of instinct often exhibited by those who should be in the know, claiming expertise in many of our governmental agencies, including “the Agency” itself.

How do these expatriates feel about our foreign policy… or about our struggle with terrorism? What are their views on the upcoming November election? This week I will be taking the pulse of three dozen of them residing in Argentina , Brazil , France , Germany , India , Israel , Mexico , Morocco , Peru , Spain , Switzerland and Thailand .

Let’s have our expatriates give us their two cents worth. Tune in next week to this column. Hopefully, we’ll have some interesting results.