After losing a lucrative job in 2001 in San Francisco, Ted decided, instead of moving home, to live in Hong Kong, where he fell in love.
“I come home, but not frequently,” said the 34 year old, who hails from Minnesota. “My life is here now.” (Ted didn’t want his last name to be used because of privacy concerns.)
Like millions of other Americans, Ted, who also found a new career working in the high-tech end of the film industry, fled America and reinvented himself overseas. And nowhere is the expat invasion more evident than in East and Southeast Asia. In Hong Kong alone the number of American expats is estimated to be 60,000 in 2009, though many say that number is much higher.
That is almost the number of expats living in mainland China, which is somewhere around 72,000, according to the Chinese census. Kathy Pauli is one of them. She and her husband, both lawyers, decided to move from Washington, D.C. to Shanghai 10 years ago.
“We struggled at the beginning,” she said. “Everything was difficult. Even opening an account at the bank was a big struggle.”
Since then Shanghai has become home, and the couple have found work as attorneys dealing with international law.
Indeed, in my various travels, I have met countless Americans of all ages who have made lives outside of America, far from home. I know a Vietnamese-American woman who left America for Vietnam when George W. Bush became president and promised not to come back until he was out of office. I know another who had lived in Arizona most of his life, but who retired to Phuket, Thailand.
As an immigrant to America, however, I feel an impulse to defend the sacred myth I tell myself: that one goes to America to reinvent oneself, not vice versa, that opportunities remain abundant in the promised land.
On the other hand, having traveled to East Asia regularly over the last two decades, I have been struck by the diaspora of America’s young. Some years ago, one young businesswoman told me in Thailand: “No one says the American dream has to be within America’s borders.” In the age of globalization, she goes where the opportunities beckon.
Americans, of course, have ventured in waves to the Orient many times before, usually bent on some form of conversion. By contrast, the new generation ventures abroad with a surprising sense of humility and open-mindedness, eager to rid themselves of America’s “parochialism,” bent on reinventing themselves through immersion in local cultures. In the process they are ultimately redefining the American frontier.
American immigrants too are discovering that the new frontier lies in the lands their parents abandoned. In Hong Kong, Asian American actors tell me they have found more work than Hollywood ever offered. In Saigon and Hanoi, a parade of young, well-educated Vietnamese Americans, who once saw themselves as history’s losers, now feel they are riding a new historical wave. Vietnamese American filmmakers who couldn’t make films in the United States are now making waves in Vietnam with their directorial debuts. An average film in Vietnam is made for less than $500,000 (USD).
From Dustin Nguyen (21 Jump Street) to Johnny Tri Nguyen (Once upon a Time in Vietnam), the Vietnamese film and TV industry got a boost from its expat population. “Viet Kieu are now involved with at least half of the commercial films made in Vietnam — a stunning development considering that not long ago those who returned faced deep suspicion from the Communist government as well as opposition from staunch anti-Communists in San Jose and Orange County,” according to the San Jose Mercury News.
East Asia beckons. And young and now not so young Americans are responding (along with Australians, British and countless other Europeans).
Ironically, emigration out of the United States remains a little noted phenomenon — no federal agency has a mandate to count emigrants. The State Department estimates 3 million U.S. citizens now live abroad, but most expats believe the actual number is much higher. Work exchange and education abroad programs report a steep rise in the number of students and recent graduates seeking to work abroad and U.S. companies overseas continue to grow.
If restlessness is a human impulse, Americans in particular have made it a national trait. It follows then that a country built on the proposition of expanding territory and transcending history requires a trans-Pacific imagination if the new generation is to have room to reinvent itself.
The future? I have seen it, but it belongs not to the old politicians cashing in on anti-immigrant hysteria, nor to the cranky intellectuals insisting America should look back to its European roots. Instead, the future belongs to the young American executive who sings Japanese songs in a karaoke bar in Tokyo “very well and without an accent,” according to his Japanese counterpart; to the Cantonese-speaking American who negotiates across the continents as easily as she straddles two dissimilar cultures; to the Vietnamese American businesswoman who could have told us that home for her, for a while now, consists of two addresses, two time zones, two languages, two senses of history.
When he was growing up in Minnesota, Ted knew nothing about “the Orient,” he said. “I didn’t even know any Asians.” By pure chance, after the dot.com bust, he was offered a software job in Taipei. Then he found love in Hong Kong. “I can travel the whole continent from here,” he boasts as he looked out to the Hong Kong harbor. “I’d discover a new country, a new city every few months.”
A more humble Columbus, Ted is finally imagining the two hemispheres as one.