American Expatriates: An Unexploited Mother Lode
By Doug McGill
MN -- We have met the foreigner, and he is us.
In Saudi Arabia, a strange and foreign land if ever there
was, a terrorist attack two weeks ago was aimed not primarily
at Saudi citizens but rather at European and American citizens
who have chosen to live large portions of their lives,
often raising children into their teen years, in Saudi
Americans live in Saudi Arabia, many working for American
oil and consulting companies,
some for the U.S. military and some
for the 100 percent Saudi-owned oil production company,
Saudi Aramco. Expatriates are an unusual breed of American
citizen who, after living for years in a foreign country,
might think and
act more like a "foreigner" than an American.
When they come back to the United States, they
might feel culture shock as strongly as they felt when
they first moved abroad.
3 million and 6 million Americans, or up to 2 percent
of the U.S. population, live as "expatriates" around
the world, shopping and socializing and paying bills
in foreign currencies, adopting foreign customs, making
foreign friends, often speaking in adopted foreign
tongues. Even in highly protected enclaves such as
those in Saudi Arabia, expatriates brush up directly
against the disorienting strangeness of the "other" and
thus quickly learn the skills needed to adapt, to make
peace and to thrive.
words, this special 2 percent of the U.S. population
has become expert at a set of skills the entire United
States is badly in need of learning, and fast. They
are a rich but entirely untapped resource. As the sole
global superpower and one that is not shy, under President
Bush, about pushing its military weight around, those
skills will be even more needed in the years ahead.
We need to make friends as we try to increase the odds
that democratic habits and institutions are adopted
St. Paul Furlough
received this Internet joke in my e-mail the other
a friend in Hong Kong: "In New York City, the
United Nations adopted a resolution to study the food
shortage in the rest of the world. But three delegates
raised objections. The delegate from Africa did not
understand the word 'food.' The delegate from Europe
did not understand the word 'shortage.' And the U.S.
delegate did not understand what was meant by 'the
rest of the world.'"
Is this how
we want to be known by our global neighbors? Expatriate
Americans are like honey bees who buzz around the world
collecting rich nectars and pollens. They are a valuable
source of understanding of the very countries we are
culturally, economically and militarily invading --
if only we would use that resource. But we don't. When
American expatriates return to the U.S., they usually
run smack into a stone wall of ignorance and indifference
among most Americans about the places they spent much
of their lives.
I visited with a former Rochester, Minnesota kindergarten
teacher who now teaches in Saudi Arabia for Saudi Aramco
in an oil town near the Arabian Gulf. She is furloughed
in St. Paul with her three children, waiting for tensions
to subside so she and her kids can rejoin her husband
in the Gulf. Is she incredibly relieved to be back
safely in the United States?
She can't wait to get back to the Gulf. "It's our
home," she said. "Our friends are there.
We like it there, and I still feel safe there." She
asked that her name not be used in order to avoid any
political or visa entanglements.
eagerness to return seemed in part fueled by the lack
Minnesotans have shown in learning what she knows firsthand
about Saudi Arabia, Arabic culture and Islam. One of
her youngsters rolled his eyes as he said: "When
kids here find out I live in Saudi Arabia, they say
'Do you go to school on a camel?' 'Have you ever ridden
a camel?' It's always camels, camels, camels." When
the camel questions stop, conversation shifts to more
compelling matters such as skateboarding and the Minnesota
with the Twins, mind you. (Keep the streak alive, guys!)
But in these
days of a global war on terrorism and homeland security
alerts and suspicious sideways glances going to foreigners,
especially Middle Eastern ones, doesn't it make sense
to sit down with the true experts in our midst and
to learn from them?
And who really is a foreigner these days, anyway?
Copyright @ 2003
The McGill Report