In an article that draws on research first presented at The IAFOR International Conference on Social Sciences – Dubai 2017, Dr Kellina Craig-Henderson, a former professor of psychology who currently serves as the Deputy Assistant Director for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate of the United States National Science Foundation (NSF), explores the social psychology of expatriation for Americans who have left the United States in the light of their group status and personal identity resulting from formative experiences within the United States.
There are multiple trends currently underway that provide a rationale for looking closely at the experience of expatriates or “expats”. These trends reflect changes in the global distribution of wealth, the increase in the standard of living that has occurred in many developing countries, and the growth in information communication technologies and engineering infrastructure. Within the United States there is also the matter of increasing polarization in the wake of the most recent presidential election. Reactions in its aftermath continue to be contentious, and a subgroup of unhappy Americans boast of intentions to expatriate. Finally, the increasing global interconnectedness that began in the second half of the twentieth century heralds an even greater importance for global connections in the twenty-first century and beyond. Thus, for a variety of economic, social and political reasons, the topic of expatriation is of shared popular and academic interest, and represents a topic for public commentary and polemical debate.
This article focuses on the experience of expatriation for Americans and is based on an ongoing study examining the behavioral, psychological and social factors involved in American decisions to expatriate. The project on which this is based was initiated more than five years ago and includes analysis of in-depth interview responses and surveys. In that project, I sought to identify trends among Americans who decided to the leave the United States, as well as determine whether there were group differences (e.g. majority or minority status) that were associated with the ease of transition among expatriates. By talking with expats about their decisions leading up to their move away from the United States, and culling accounts of their personal experiences in foreign countries, I learned a great deal about the process of settling into a new country and obtained answers to a myriad of questions about expatriation. For example, what are some of the challenges to doing so? Are there specific and common reactions that those living in their host countries have towards them?
How one’s identity may affect expatriation
A close look at the process of expatriation for Americans highlights the unique ways that one’s majority or minority status and corresponding identity might mediate this process. Very little scholarship has focused attention on minority emigrants from the United States. Yet, race-based minority status continues to matter within the United States and in many places in the world. Its significance does not lay in any objective meaning associated with racial status. Instead, its significance lies within the social meaning associated with that particular racial status. Race is used as a variable to categorize people into groups and ascribe certain values associated with those categories. It remains a contentious variable about which many people in the United States feel deeply and differently.
“When people leave the United States to live elsewhere, they take their identity with them. If they are a “hyphenated” American, they take that identity as well.”
When people leave the United States to live elsewhere, they take their identity with them. If they are a “hyphenated” American, they take that identity as well. Because there continue to be differences in the ways that Americans interact with one another because of their ethnicity and racial status (and their socioeconomic status, and their level of physical attractiveness, and more), it is quite possible that the experience of the hyphenated American expat and the expat of color (e.g. the African American) will differ in some fundamental way from that of a White American expatriate because of their unique experience as a minority in the United States. What these differences are and how they are likely to be manifested is worth a closer look.
Findings from my work tell us about the specific experiences of American expats, and also answer questions about the current global context for Americans. How are Americans abroad treated? Are there certain regional identities prevalent in specific countries that are more accommodating (or more hostile) to American expats? I examined the expatriate experiences of Black and White Americans who left the United States by conducting systematic interviews with a convenience sample of individuals.
What have I learned so far from the 38 people I interviewed? First and foremost, I learned that there are many common experiences that expatriates share. These range from the everyday, mundane challenges associated with navigating a new country and not getting lost to the more philosophical considerations about what it means to be a newcomer or in some cases a perpetual outsider. Chances are that almost all expatriates have wrestled with these questions at one time or another. At a very basic level, American expats across the globe share these experiences.
In this vein, recent research by Alba and Foner (2017) compared the integration outcomes and well-being of immigrants and their descendants in the United States, Canada, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and France. While their focus was on low-status immigrants, their analysis revealed that there are similar barriers to housing, employment and political representation that immigrants face. At the same time, they identified specific differences in experience for immigrants in Europe in comparison to those in the United States and in Canada. Thus, while the adjustment and resettlement process for American expats may share some common features with that of others, the fact of their “Americanness” is likely to be a distinguishing factor.
“The specific experiences American expats report having are associated with their status in the United States as a member of the majority (or minority) group as well as with the extent to which the host country is a Western or non-Western country.”
It is fair to say that the desire that propels one to leave the United States is not unique to any one nationality, gender, age or racial group. However, responses from the research I have conducted suggest that the specific experiences American expats report having are associated with their status in the United States as a member of the majority (or minority) group as well as with the extent to which the host country is a Western or non-Western country.
Personal identity and group status
Collectively, White Americans have historically enjoyed a superior status relative to American ethnic and racial minority group members. This status is inevitably associated with personal identity, and for White Americans this is typically manifested in a sense of control, and of being in a numerical majority. Leaving the United States for another country, particularly a non-Western country, means forfeiting existence within a proverbial comfort zone. It also means that there is a considerable adjustment in identity that occurs regardless of the country to which they emigrate. Countries like Australia or many of those in Europe provide a somewhat less challenging environment for adjustment for majority group Americans. Those places share common cultural elements and reference points, making the expatriation process easier than that which is required in expatriating to non-Western countries.
“White Americans in Asia are forced to don the “outsider” identity, and this represents a challenge for which they have had little preparation.”
For example, White Americans in Asia are forced to don the “outsider” identity, and this represents a challenge for which they have had little preparation. Making the transition to live abroad and in Asia is a heady enough experience, and for Whites from the United States it is also compounded by the requisite psychological transition to “outsider”. Consider the experiences of several White Americans I interviewed in Asia who each reported finding it necessary to “stretch” in ways that they had not anticipated. It required giving up their identity as members of the majority and stepping into a place where they became visible minority group persons. They were not Asians, nor were they able to speak the language of their adopted country. As such, they stood out. It was a vexing experience for many. As a social scientist, I was intrigued by the processes they reported using to navigate unfamiliar terrain and adjust to living outside of the United States.
“In some ways, it is this fact of being a perpetually marginal citizen in the United States for minority Americans […] that actually prepares them for the “outsider” status to which they are conscripted in foreign countries.”
In contrast, for African Americans who left the United States, there was less difference in reported experience for those who had expatriated to a Western country compared to those who now lived in non-Western countries. For example, two African American women I spoke with in Europe who described their experiences similarly both indicated feeling different (and better) “in their skin” in Europe (the United Kingdom and Prague) compared to in the United States. Importantly, this was similar to the reports of two other African Americans I interviewed who were living in Asia (Taiwan and Japan). Among both pairs, there was an explicit recognition that Europeans and Asians responded to them and engaged with them as “Americans” rather than as “African Americans” or “Black Americans.” This is very uniquely an aspect of the expatriation experience for minority Americans. In some ways, it is this fact of being a perpetually marginal citizen in the United States for minority Americans, despite one’s accomplishments, societal contributions and ancestral lineage, that actually prepares them for the “outsider” status to which they are conscripted in foreign countries.
Conversely, what matters for majority group Americans (i.e. Whites) is the experience of being a “newly-minted outsider” – an identity that comes with the experience of being an expat in non-Western parts of the world like Asia. Not having had any experience as minorities while living in the United States makes it difficult to step into this new status in an adopted host country. This observation underscores the way that the expatriation process and ensuing adjustment in a host country is associated with one’s status in America.
“Personal identities resulting from formative experiences within the United States influence the experience one has in settling into an adopted country.”
My point here is that personal identities resulting from formative experiences within the United States influence the experience one has in settling into an adopted country. This is likely to be most apparent for American expats who happen to be members of ethnic and racial minority groups, but it is relevant to the experiences of majority group American expats as well. Among those I interviewed, there were common experiences as well as differences that were associated with group status within the United States in addition to the similarity in cultural orientation of the United States with the host country.
More analysis is warranted, but based on the data I continue to collect for this study it appears that racial minority status at home in the United States can inoculate a person against some of the challenges to settling into life abroad. White Americans typically lack comparative experience with the challenges of being a minority person.
It is not possible to answer questions about the actual numbers of Americans who expatriate. Indeed, apart from information about passports issued, which is available through the United States Department of State, there is no easy way to gather this information. However, if recent trends in the surge of travel sites and blogs, as well as the numbers of growing numbers of international relocation services reflect actual increases in rates of emigration, it makes sense to assume that the number of Americans emigrating is on the rise.
Image | Mike Wilson, Unsplash
Dr Kellina Craig-Henderson first presented this research, in greater detail, at The IAFOR International Conference on Social Sciences – Dubai 2017.
Alba, R. & Foner, N. (2017). Strangers no more: Immigration and the challenges of integration in North America and Western Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.