Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Next Frontier for Restless Americans? [New York Times]


Could it be? From Chinatowns to Americatowns dotting the global landscape; finally signalling a paradigm shift in the status quo? A hypothetical report from the New York Times that may hold some water – ‘So could America, that great nation of immigrants, become in harder times a nation of emigrants? Could the metropolises of China one day have Americatowns?’ Whatever it is, one thing’s for sure – we’re all getting closer, across time/space and soon national boundaries.

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Next Frontier for Restless Americans?
By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
Source – New York Times, published August 12, 2011

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — The American jobs that vanished don’t appear to be returning. The stock market is plunging. Seemingly everyone, from the guy at the corner bar to the U.S. Treasury Department, is in debt. The country’s credit rating just got knocked. Smart people on television are speaking of a looming “lost decade.”

Throughout history, for millions of people in less prosperous societies, the solution to such circumstances has been obvious: You sail away.

So could America, that great nation of immigrants, become in harder times a nation of emigrants? Could the metropolises of China one day have Americatowns?

Imagine a bustling one in the heart of Beijing. Local Chinese stream past, scratching their heads at those Americans who come just for money, never learning China’s language or customs, living in their own little world. The signs are all spelled out in Roman letters — even for local outfits like Zhongguo Jianshe Yinhang (China Construction Bank) and Hong Gao Liang (Red Sorghum, a fast food joint).

These American immigrants have strange manners, as the Chinese see it. They never share food, and they finish everything on their plates. They always ask locals they meet, “How many children do you have?” — even though the answer is always “one.” They are always inquiring about politics.

But they thrive. They put their energy, skills and family networks to work; they reap great success. They run burgers-and-fries joints, English-language academies, fitness centers and even an intercity transport service known as the Americatown bus.

In “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the author Isabel Wilkerson has written feelingly of “what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable — what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them.”

Yes, she says, “They left.”

A considerable number of Americans already live and work around the world. But to meet them in Bangkok or Bogotá or Sydney is to encounter, for the most part, an educated elite that has emigrated out of choice — or members of the diaspora who straddle two lands. They usually had good options in America, but still chose to leave for the thrill, or a higher paycheck, or the chops of investing in a hot new market or renewal after divorce or other failure.

What has not happened is a pattern of working-class emigration out of America, as one sees out of Mexico or Ghana or Cambodia.

Until lately, the reasons for this were obvious enough.

“The calculation that most emigrants make is that they can do better in another country,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a scholar of human migration. “For most Americans this is unimaginable. Most only speak English, rates of home ownership are high, and most do not have close ties to others in another country.”

And yet some variables in that calculation are changing. 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.

And yet it is true: It is hard to imagine Americans emulating, in reverse, those peasants from Sichuan Province in China who came and made restaurants in middle-of-nowhere American towns.

But 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.

American emigrants might possess a special talent for salesmanship, working as real estate agents or car dealers to sell to the world products so closely associated with American liberty. Laid-off American factory workers might make terrific foremen in China and India, where entry-level labor is plentiful but the pool of potential managers is woefully thin.

To be sure, many developing countries are not easy to navigate. They can be corrupt. There is no modern history of people “becoming Chinese,” in the way that so many millions of people have become American. The wages, though rising, are lower than what most Americans would expect. Above all, in the American psyche, leaving has never meant overseas — in part because the United States offered many new frontiers of its own.

“This is such a big country that, for most of our history, emigrating has meant leaving one pressed-down section for another with more chances to get ahead,” said Ms. Wilkerson, whose book chronicles the northward migration of African-Americans in the 20th century.

“Emigrating out of one’s country is often a last-chance act of near desperation for poor and working people and takes a great deal of forethought and a near-total break from all that one has known,” she added. “I don’t see mass emigration on the basis of the current recession. It would take a great deal more than that.”

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Chinese Model, Culture, Domestic Growth, Economics, Finance, Foreign aid, Greater China, Influence, International Relations, Lifestyle, Mapping Feelings, Media, Migrant Workers, Nationalism, Politics, Population, Public Diplomacy, Social, Soft Power, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, U.S.

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