On restless Americans, living in a foreign country and settling down

If I had read this New York Times article before I had thought of teaching English in a foreign country (circa late 2007), I would have found the premise implausible at best. Americans voluntarily leaving their soil indefinitely? Americans don’t do that. Maybe they go off for a holiday in Australia, or they backpack their way across Europe. We get a little jealous of people taking a ‘working holiday’ It’s a rite of passage, or perhaps a way to postpone Master’s degrees and starting families. They always come back to the states however… don’t they?

From the aforementioned article:

Driving from central Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, for example, you see an American heartland slowly emptying of opportunity: roads and bridges crumbling even without the recent spending cuts, once-confident businesses shuttered, “now hiring” signs eerily absent.

It is hard to escape the feeling of bygone opportunity when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that half of the 20 fastest-growing occupations in the nation involve caring for the sick, because of the surge of baby boomers into old age.

…if Americans ever became willing to leave en masse, one could imagine them owning foreign Burger King franchises or opening small restaurants to take their cuisine to the world, bringing sorely needed upgrades to the authenticity of barbecue ribs and coleslaw from Mumbai to Buenos Aires.

I’m not in a position where I’ll be opening a burger place or caring for sick people, but teaching English in Korea has certainly been a gateway. To what, I couldn’t tell you. Give me a few years and I’ll let you know.

I can definitively say I share a lot more in common with a guy named Matt Landau. From a usnews.com article:

Part owner of this lovely boutique hotel in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo, he is also a travel writer (99 Things to Do in Costa Rica), a real estate marketing consultant, and editor of The Panama Report, an online news and opinion monthly. Between fielding occasional calls and text messages, the New Jersey native is explaining what drew him here, by way of Costa Rica, after he graduated from college in 2005. In addition to having great weather, pristine beaches, a rich melting-pot culture, a reliable infrastructure, and a clean-enough legal system, “what Panama is all about,” he says, “is the chance to get into some kind of market first.” Landau cites other attractions: “There is more room for error here,” he says. “You can make mistakes without being put under. That, to me, as an entrepreneur, is the biggest draw.”

These Yankees, it turns out, are part of a larger American phenomenon: a wave of native-born citizens who are going abroad in search of new challenges, opportunities, and more congenial ways of life.

This will sound rather harsh, especially as an American – The country has lost its claim to most of the power it once had – and that will never be regained. Sure, the country’s businesses can still innovate – but it’s China making those goods. It’s a software programmer or call center in India creating those websites and serving customers. There are entire industries throughout Asia that seemingly exist to copy the products the rest of the world creates. Even assuming domestic demand ever spikes up, foreign demand is at least as important – woe to the business that doesn’t put thinking outside the US on the long-term plan.

So what’s next? The rise of the creative class? Taking a chance and a cheap plane flight to another part of the world? Mass migration from the US to elsewhere in the world? That’s never happened before – and would probably be harder than most people think. The closest thing to mass emigration from the USA, when more people left the country than entered. When your ancestors did it, they faced religious or social persecution, a famine, or firmly held the belief of a better life elsewhere. Cracked recently put together 6 reasons moving abroad might not work out so well – the first two being the people won’t want you, and neither will the governments. Hell, Americans haven’t always been the most welcoming of neighbors, no matter how many reruns of ‘Leave it to Beaver’ you watch. Sure, some poorer / less-developed countries will let you in because of the wealth you have, but elsewhere? Yeah, good luck.

Americans are inherently immigrants (or at least, our ancestors were), and the question seem logical: are Americans today as willing to chance it and move when the moving’s a better option than staying put? There’s no one country that everyone’s going to – in fact, I dare say you’ll run across an American in virtually every country of the world if you’re looking for them. America’s cost of living (relative to income in most places) is way too high – there’s no reason to go back when too many can barely afford to live there. Combine that with the many battles to go back to America – getting insured, staying insured, finding a job, buying or renting a car, and getting or keeping a good credit score. Compared to that, Korea and elsewhere is relatively easy.

If you’ve already made your money (or aren’t looking to take a job in the new country), things likely get a little easier. One suggestion for moving to Costa Rica led to an interesting website, and was certainly an idea I hadn’t considered before. Uruguay is probably more likely an answer on some geography quiz, but the country’s relative stability makes the US look like it’s ready to crumble. There’s plenty more options out there.

Websites like Escape Artist have been around for a long time, but have mainly served the market of people willing to leave and never look back. The lifestyle of an expat is glorified and defended on websites such as Escape from America, although the biggest question remains: What are you trying to ‘escape’ from, and what will you do once you go elsewhere?

The rewards for playing the field

Before coming to Korea, I felt pretty helpless when it came to my job situation. I wasn’t completely helpless – I could’ve packed up a post-college life and moved across the country. That the jobs in the next city – or state – over didn’t look any better left me wondering where to go. As a twentysomething with more debts and questions,

It wasn’t until coming to Korea – and seriously considering what would come next – that quite a few of the world’s 200 or so countries came to mind. Uruguay and Chile come to mind if South America is appealing, while some places in India or southeast Asia might offer you an uber cheap place to live. Places in Eastern Europe offer quite a bit of opportunity with the time and interest to see it through; if not, the country of Georgia apparently has enough teaching English jobs to handle anyone needing a break from Korea. Tropical climates abound, especially in the Pacific Ocean (do your own research), while places like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan keep even the biggest technophile connected to the latest and greatest.

That millions of Americans are currently doing it means I can too – and so can you. It’s not rocket science, but it requires perseverance – one trait many Americans have in abundance – and being flexible / open to the opportunities around you.

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