Expat Ambassadors: How Migrants Answer For Their Home Countries

Given recent events, I’ve found myself watching from afar and wondering if we migrants (immigrants and emigrants) will ever be free of national accountability. Will there come a time when we won’t be called on to explain the actions (“right”, “wrong” or “indifferent”) of governments and people back at home.

Over the last few weeks, as reports of unprosecuted police violence against African Americans have poured out of the United States, I’ve noticed, and heard from friends (expats and other travelers), that we’re being asked to answer questions like “What’s going on in America”.

And, while I haven’t spent more than a few days at a time there in over three years, it’s becoming clear that, unless I adopt a full Irish brogue, I may always be asked to account for the actions of those back at home.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good political scrum as much as the next curmudgeon. And, I’ve grown use to the Irish lack of inhibitions surrounding elections. They’ve no compunction about asking who I, as an American” vote for every time a U.S. presidential election rolls around. But, then again, the rest of the world has a much bigger stake in those contests that most Americans are willing to countenance.

The, “Why should we care what the rest of the world thinks” attitude bandied about by bloviating American politicians is all well and good until they realize that, when the U.S. catches the flu (economically), the rest of the world gets a cold. And, if the United States wants to continue selling in “friendly” markets, they’d do well to realize that the world is watching. But how much of that PR burden should we, as expats, be asked to shoulder, and for how long?

Is it just major countries, or do issues of national identity and responsibility follow all expats? If you’re a Haitian refugee who left 20 years ago, have you been asked about events in the past few years?

If you live in a territory (or one time colony) are you responsible for the actions of the empire? If you’re originally from Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, are you called to account for America’s bad behavior?

If you’ve moved around, living as an expat in multiple countries, when do you stop being asked about home? Or is the first question, what country do you consider to be “home”?

I don’t know the answers to these questions (if they even have “answers”), but I’m curious to know what other expats have run into.

I have a friend who’s been living abroad for 20+ years. I wonder if he still gets asked “the question”. As he’s still got his southern accent, I suspect the answer may be yes. I’ll investigate and report back.

For anybody who left their home country (or is thinking of leaving) because they can’t stand to be associated with some social or governmental policy, be warned; there seems to be a certain “you can run, but you can’t hide” quality to being asked about life back at home.

That aspect of tribalism seems to run very deep, and remains extremely hard to shake. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s good. Maybe it helps us remember both the reasons why we left, and the good things about home.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
This entry was posted in Emigrant/Immigrant Life, Expat Living, Home & A Sense of Place, Immigration & Emigration and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Expat Ambassadors: How Migrants Answer For Their Home Countries

  1. Leila says:

    Hi Glenn, inteesting post. In my view, as long as you are born and raised in a certain country, you will mostly likely be identified as a citizen (and sometimes a representative) of that country. I have been out of America for 10 years, and I do get the same questions sometimes (I’m in Italy), although it happens a lot more when I go to countries in Africa or the Middle East. What I’ve seen in Italy is that you are a national of the country where you were born/raised forever, no matter if you’ve been here for 10 months or 10 years. You might be told you’re not ‘so American’, which is one I get sometimes. In terms of settling into Ireland, how ‘American’ or ‘Irish’ do you feel? Or neither.. 🙂 ciao from Roma.

  2. SarahN says:

    Great post, Glen. I am an American who lived in Dublin for 12 years after spending 4 years in Germany, but my Irish husband and kids have relocated to Doha, Qatar in the past few months. I was recently interviewed by an expat blogger living in Doha about my experiences and I talked about living as an expat in a truly diverse culture (only 15% here are “locals” and the rest are “expats” or “migrants”), I’ve pasted the link below because it might provide more food for thought on this issue. Another fellow American expat here also talks about what “home” means and addresses a lot of the questions above.

    http://kirstyriceonline.com/2014/11/what-did-i-have-to-lose-here-and-there.html
    Throughout the last 16 years I’ve lived abroad I’m constantly asked the question about home and made to feel accountable for US “stuff”, even though I’m living my life like everyone else is in the host country. I will say this: some years as an “American” abroad have been much easier than others. And the pattern I can see is very much linked the host country’s perception of who is in the White House.

  3. Beatriz says:

    I have also lived as an expat for nearly 10 years and I can definitely relate to this post. To be honest, I get pretty tired of having to answer to people about why the US does this or that. I find myself having to remind people that there has always been at least one country in the world at any given time in history that was regarded as meddlesome, troublesome, or a bully. If it wasn’t the US, then maybe it was Russia, China, England, The Netherlands, Belgium, France… the list goes on. People seem to have a short memory about historical events. A Dutch person once asked me if I felt ashamed to be American. My reply was of course not, I am what I am and I can’t change it, even if I do disagree with certain actions taken by my country’s government. I then asked if as a Dutch person, he was ashamed for the travesties that have taken place in South Africa by his country, or for his ancestors basically robbing the island of Manhattan from the Native Americans. It may seem trite or like splitting hairs, but it shut him up. Like I said, people have short memories and those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

  4. Liam says:

    Hey Glenn
    I really enjoyed reading this article, and as an Irish guy who lived in the US for more than a decade, I can certainly relate. Whenever anything was reported in the news about Ireland, I’d be the go-to person for an answer or opinion by many people. Granted, there wasn’t a lot of bad press about Ireland in America, but from time-to-time it would happen.

    Having relocated back to Ireland after so many years away, I’m seen as an American back here by some, and experience some of what you mentioned. I just try to let as much of the negative stuff run off, and take pride in all the great things that come out of the US 🙂

    Looking forward to reading more of your articles. I’m sure much of what your write about will relate to what I’m doing on my own site.

    Best wishes,
    Liam

  5. Gav says:

    Hello Glenn!

    Thanks for the post – great food for thought.

    Briefly,
    When I was an expat Irish working in South Korea I had many fruitful, though sometimes heated discussions about the division of historically united countries (a problematic idea, admittedly).

    When I returned to Ireland I sometimes found that when I was in the company of US expats, discussion of US policy, foreign policy in particular, was taken as personal criticism. I don’t doubt that some people frame their conversation in this way, and that is lamentable. However – I am not suggesting that this is the case in the experiences you have described – to discuss global politics is almost defacto to discuss the role of the US.

    Recently, maybe mischievously, I refused to speak about the US in any but positive terms (what would it be like under a Chinese hegemon! etc). But frivolities such as this aside, I sympathise.

    When I and my friends discuss the moral uncertainties of drone strikes, those who are US expat friends are perhaps prone to feeling uncomfortable or defensive. On the other hand, these are topics of global significance and to exclude the topic on account of their presence would feel something like ‘talking behind their backs’. Dilemma!

    I’d love to hear your perspective on my, no doubt imperfect thoughts.

    Mise le meas,
    Gavin

  6. Tim says:

    There seems to be an air of nationalistic “You’re with us or against us”/”support the troops” attitude radiating from the US where anyone with the gall to question why is labeled “unpatriotic”, “terrorist”, “socialist” or “liberal”.

    An increasingly militarized police force that seems to go in shooting first or blatantly beat a schizophrenic man to death while he pleads for his life (only to have a jury find those officers involved not guilty) would be more a cause for concern than whether there’s one or two taps per sink.

    Reading these things, I do often wonder what’s going on in America?
    Asking someone from that country might be a good way of getting more information and some insight because of the first hand experience that person would have from actually being native to, and living in that country. You seem to take it as a personal attack.

    Ireland may have a “goat rodeo” aspect to it as you have pointed out. That’s fine. I’m sure a lot of Irish people agree with your observation, as they did in the comments. When it comes to finger pointing though, it can be pointed both ways. It can be said that the US sees itself as the only country of any significance as the self styled ruler of the world.

    US Internal affairs aside, there’s the hypocrisy of defending freedom while drone bombing, torturing people (which is fine because it’s not in a place where the Geneva Convention applies and morality stops at borders), and invading countries despite UN objections. Basically displaying a “Do as we say, not as we do” attitude, while thinking in economic terms first and foremost, as you yourself do in the example you give.

    As someone coming from that country, one which democratically elects its leaders, why wouldn’t people ask you about it? What does it matter on your present geographical location? If there’s a positive news story concerning the US, do you feel good about it or decry the fact that people mention it to you even though you don’t live there anymore?

    When I was last in London, it was pointed out to me that there’s no lockers in any of the train stations because of the IRA bombing campaigns of the past. Do I feel responsible for it? no. Do I resent it being pointed out? no. I found it quite thought provoking. If someone was pointing out things that were currently happening between my country and theirs (for example – the economic crash and subsequent bailout) I would feel involved in it whether I was living there or not. If they personally blamed me for everything that happened (or if they kept referring to me as a drunk because of my nationality), I’d probably find less idiotic people to socialise with. As was said before, there’s 1 million people living in Dublin. They can’t all be anti-American!

    I hope you still have the flat-cap 🙂

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      I do still have the flat cap (four of them actually).

      It’s funny, but I’ve never said anything remotely close to the U.S. is “better” than Ireland (or anywhere) else. I don’t make those types of value comparisons, merely observations. Yet the Irish, in their collective national insecurity (and surprising low self-esteem for a people who are generally so happy), often assume that anyone from the U.S. who comments about them must be doing so in comparison to the U.S.

      Your comments about the race issues and violence in America seem to assume that nobody in the U.S. is upset about the situation, or out to change it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      I honestly couldn’t tell you “why” these things are happening in America.

      Frankly they are part of why I left.

      Best,
      Glenn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *