Sunday, May 8, 2011

Points of View

This week, we look at being an expat and how, as an expat, you relate to your home country.


This coming August will be the ten-year anniversary of my first trip abroad. I became an expat (not to mention an ex-bachelor) six months after that, so I have a lot of milestones to reflect on over the next few months.

These ten years have gone quickly, yet my life in America seems distant and surreal now, and when I think back on those early days, I can see how my attitudes and opinions have changed. Exposure to another culture provides the opportunity to embrace a broader world view, and I like to think I am a more rounded individual for having taken advantage of it. But does this necessarily make me less of an American? After all, if I am pointing out America’s foibles and not automatically taking their side in every argument, does this mean I am no longer, as the song goes, “a real, live nephew of my Uncle Sam”?

I bring this up because an old and dear friend of mine wrote to me this week to tell me she was not going to follow my blog any longer because I had turned into an “American Basher.” The letter went on to point out that I had not lived in the US for some time, but she did, and she still loved her country. Is that to imply, as an expat, I do not?

I find that a bit harsh, especially as an American. You may do many things to us, but do not question our patriotism.

I find this a bit ironic because, if you ask an American what they are, the majority of them will say they are something else: “I’m Italian,” they’ll say, or “My family is from Poland,” or something similar, even if their family has been in the US for generations. Is it okay to like another country only while you are living in the US? Once you actually move to one, should you stop being “German” and become “American” instead?

And is this a typically American trait? (Here comes that American bashing again.) There were many Irish immigrants in my area; real immigrants who were born in Ireland and came to the US. If they called home and said, “You know, it’s really nice here. The cost of living is cheap, I make good money and it doesn’t rain as much,” I can’t imagine their mothers saying back to them, “Faith and begorrah, you’re a traitor to the Mother Country, you are!”

I can’t imagine that mostly because Irish people don’t really talk like that, but I also think the people left behind would be happy that their friends and family had found a good life and wouldn’t be so pre-occupied with how well they were, in their perception, supporting the home team.

And this is just the ten-year mark. What should I expect when I hit the 20th anniversary?


Perfect timing – this month marks my 21st year in the USA. (I married and emigrated as a child bride of 14!) It’s very sobering to realise that I have lived in Chicago (20 years) longer than I lived anywhere else in my life. Who would have thunk it?

So am I more American now? Have I deserted my “home”? Not at all, but as Mike pointed out, I do embrace a broader world view and I don’t just back everything the UK does, like I may have done initially. Nor does it mean I automatically defend all things American, - although you have to be a lot more careful when you’re bashing your “host” country. I was able to poke gentle fun at my fellow Brits in “Rules, Britannia”, but I am much more reticent in the book I’m currently writing (about the USA). Americans don’t like being made fun of, especially by interlopers. On the whole, they take themselves and their country quite seriously (which is not to say Brits don’t, they just wouldn’t be caught dead admitting it).

So Mike, I would just say that your friend is wrong. You don’t bash the USA either here or on the Postcards blog. What you do, (and very well I might add) is hold a mirror up from time to time, and point out the anomalies here and there. OK, maybe we do take the mickey just a tad but, hey, how can you not laugh at a country that produces Sarah Palin as a serious political candidate, not to mention Donald Trump?

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  1. I have the same problem as you Mike, I have been called "Un-American" because I have pointed out what I see as flaws in the USA, and I have only been here 2 1/2 years!

  2. I find that the real sticking point for most Brits is the deep fear that my kids will develop American accents (they have, of course). It's talked about almost like some kind of abuse. "Don't worry. They'll lose them as soon as you come back." I suppose if I'm honest, early on, I was comforted by that thought, and didn't like the accents either. But now, I've come to see that they're just part of my kids, like their eye colour or hair cut. It now annoys me when people sympathise as if they have some kind of disability. I think I realise how very insular we all are deep down - unless you're an expat, in which case circumstances have forced you not to be.

    A bit off-topic, I'm afraid. But related.

  3. I think the British can be similar, albeit in a more insidious way. I recently came across an online debate (on a forum dedicated to a certain Saturday tea time science fiction show - yes, I'm a nerd) about the voting rights of British citizens living abroad. Currently the law stands that if you're out of the UK for 15 years you lose our franchise. I was taken aback by the nber of posters who felt that if you were out of the country you had no right to vote in the UK whatsoever. You had somehow turned your back on your home. So even though people may have saving or property in the UK that is being taxed on, and are obviously have a great self-interest in British foreign policy should have no vote whatsoever. Every American I've had a discussion on this topic with has been surprised that after a certain length of time I'd be disenfranchised from general elections despite holding a UK passport.

  4. Culturally - I am shocked by that revelation as well. I wonder if that holds true for UK military members serving overseas for that length of time? Or maybe that happens so rarely it's not an issue. Still, it does sound like disenfranchising a citizen of their right to vote.

    Mike, I'm really sorry to hear that happened to you. I had someone email me recently as well. I guess I'm wondering why one would take the time to send an email and in some cases, insult or hurt the feelings of the blogger. Why not stop following and just move on. Why say anything about it?

  5. @Smitten As they've not emmigrated but are in service, I'd like to assume military personnel overseas are not classed under this.

    I actually wouldn't be opposed to the UK taxing it's citizens on worldwide income like the US does if that's what the reasons behind taxing away the vote from expats (assuming that it's done equitably. There's a tax treaty between tge US and Uk so I don't see why it wouldn't be).

  6. Nice to hear that I am not the only one. Thanks, all.

    Culturally: I, too, am shocked. Retaining my right to vote in the US elections is one of the things I really appreciate about the US. To lose that right just because you live somewhere else seems a bit off.

  7. Smitten: That's what I thought: if she didn't like my blogs any more, she could just stop following them; she didn't need to write to me. Making a point, I guess.

  8. Actually, I don't feel I should have a right to vote in the UK since I haven't lived there for over 20 years now and own no property. I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking I was sticking my nose in.

  9. I am pretty sure that a few years ago (at least when my parents were expats in the 70s) you weren't allowed to vote in UK elections at all if you lived abroad - no matter how few/many years it had been. So things have changed. But clearly they need to change further - if you retain British citizenship and pay any kind of UK tax you should retain the right to vote.

    I find the longer I spend in the US, the more positive I become about the UK. I can criticize it for certain things, but can see what's good about it more clearly. Eg. the NHS.

  10. I must admit, if I didn't live in the UK I'm not sure I'd vote there anyway, as I wouldn't feel I knew what was going on enough to vote. So I can understand people's attitude - but that's not to say that I agree with removing people's right to vote in the country of their birth or citizenship.

  11. Interesting point about the voting; and I would like to point out that it's not only Brits abroad who don't get the right to do so in the UK, but non-Brits in the UK, too.

    My husband lived in the UK for 11 years, and as an EU but non-British citizen he was not allowed to vote in general elections. Local government ones, yes, but general elections, no. Never mind that he paid taxes (a LOT of taxes), was married to a Brit, owned a British home (and not one one anywhere else) had British passport-holding children, worked in the UK, paid National Insurance, road tax, etc etc. Not allowed to vote, after all that time. Which seems to me - although I might be a little biased, I suppose - to be just as bad if not even more unfair than the situation those who left the UK for more than 15 years find themselves in.

    And, breathe...

  12. Yes, I wasn't allowed to vote here (despite the taxes, American children etc.) until I becamse a citizen, but by golly they tried to make me do jury duty all the same. (Ineligible until you're a citizen, so now I'm doing it in a few bloody weeks.)

  13. Really interesting and really interesting comments! I think, Mike, that your friend is representing a lot of Americans (I avoided saying 'a typical American'!) in not understanding that you can love something and still be critical of it. That all or nothing patriotism is silly.

    I find it much easier to have a pro/con discussion about ANYthing in the UK than in the States, to be honest. What a shame about your friend.

  14. Totally agree, its so interesting how everyone here is very keen for the old country wherever that might be. Also the houses here are either Fresh country or Italianate or Englishy. Whereas in NZ everyone is very modern in design, yet both are new countries.


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