Immigrants, Exiles, and Expats

 

statue-of-liberty-part-of-a-group-everettThe central conceit of FX TV series The Americans is that a pair of grown-up Russian spies, having never set foot outside the Soviet Union, parachute into the United States and instantly pass for stereotypical American suburbanites.

Well, not quite instantly–they do spend their first night in the United States in a motel room, marvelling at the air conditioning, the shag carpeting, and the plentiful toilet paper. And they practice their English as though the language were a pair of KGB-issued secret transmitter-decoder shoes that need polishing and breaking-in. But in the morning–Boom!–they’re The Americans.

Folks, believe me when I tell you, it does not work like that. For at least a year after our arrival in the United States, my mother served Corn Flakes with chicken soup. My dad had studied English for most of his life, but never completely mastered the definite article.

From the moment I set foot on American soil, my goal was to pass for native. Now, 37 years later, I can fool most of the people most of the time, but it’s a daily struggle. I still can’t explain the Designated Hitter Rule. In the wake of the Battle of the Bulge, German infiltrators posing as GIs were summarily executed when they failed to identify the winner of the 1939 National League pennant. (It was the Cincinnati Reds, apparently.) I would have been shot, for sure.

Fitting in is hard, and some cultural knowledge comes only with mother’s milk. In real life, your highly-trained KGB super-moles would have given away the game the minute they served jellied tongue and pickled herring at Thanksgiving dinner. I speak from experience. That’s why, in real life, the KGB didn’t use Russian spies who pretended to be Americans; they used Americans who were secretly Russian spies. There’s a mediocre Soviet-era anekdot about this:

Q: How did British Intelligence spot the Soviet spy in London?

A: They caught him buttoning his fly after leaving the loo.

We’re used to thinking of the United States as a nation of immigrants, and thanks to relentless and fairly recent official myth-making, this is now close to the core of American identity. That manipulative term—“immigrant”—has a vise-grip on our public policy discussions. It plays to our sentiments by conjuring up grainy black-and-white images of our tired, poor, huddled great-grandparents weeping and waving the Stars and Stripes at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. It is, in other words, a useful term for those who want to obfuscate and prevent clear thinking about an important subject. But “immigrant” is a crude and clunky portmanteau that erases many interesting and possibly relevant sub-categories and distinctions: defector, displaced person, émigré, exile, expat, H1B visa lottery winner, illegal migrant, invader, KGB mole, refugee, settler, and so forth.

We have many words associated with the movement of people from one point on the globe to another because in his 200,000-year career, Homo Sapiens has rarely stayed put for very long. Only the Australian aborigines have occupied the same real estate for 40,000 years straight; most everyone else has been in near-perpetual motion. The Old Testament, for example, is a chronicle of migrations and expulsions, beginning with the first exiles–Adam, Eve, Cain–and ending with the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and conquest of Canaan. Abraham was probably the first recorded immigrant; Joseph was arguably the first expat; the Twelve Tribes, the first economic migrants.

From the time of the Mayflower, we Americans (can I say that?) have been an Old Testament people, accustomed to thinking of our country as the new Canaan. This heritage makes us well-disposed toward foreigners who come here, because we assume that they must share our vision. But it’s a mistake to view all immigration as good, per se. From the perspective of the Pharaohs, Hebrew immigration into Egypt did not work out well. (See Exodus, 7:7-13.) Hun immigration into Central Europe did not, in the long run, accrue to the benefit of Fourth-Century Romans. Mongol immigration into Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Near East was not without its occasional unpleasantness. Norman immigration into Sussex and Kent was obnoxious from the standpoint of the local Anglo-Saxon gentry. English immigration to the Plymouth Colony was on balance a net-negative development for the Wampanoag People of Massachusetts Bay. So it pays to ask ourselves exactly what kind of foreigners we should be welcoming. And let’s bring back that perfectly neutral and descriptive term–“foreigner”–just to be clear what we’re talking about.

Exiles are particularly interesting. Every true immigrant is in part a Ulysses, coming home at last. This is very different from an exile, who longs for a home from which he has been expelled. An immigrant embraces assimilation; an exile resists it or embraces it only reluctantly, never fully putting down roots in his adopted land. His valise is always near at hand. Typically, he is a gadfly and an irritant in his native land, and sufficiently prominent to have caught the eye of the local authorities. Socrates was almost exiled, but chose death instead. Other famous exiles include Dante, Casanova, Napoléon, Trotsky, and Picasso, but also, less poetically, The Rolling Stones (who are merely tax exiles).

Exiles frequently become society’s leavening agents. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, a stream of Greek-speaking exiles flooded into Italy, bringing with them their volumes of Plato and Aristotle. Edward Gibbon says:

… the restoration of the Greek letters in Italy was prosecuted by a series of emigrants who were destitute of fortune and endowed with learning, or at least with language. From the terror or oppression of the Turkish arms, the natives of Thessalonica and Constantinople escaped to a land of freedom, curiosity, and wealth.

The result of this mixing of Greek learning and Italian “freedom, curiosity, and wealth” was the Renaissance. The Jews, who were a nation in exile for 2,000 years, have occasionally played a similar socially catalytic role.

Like Renaissance Italy, the United States benefited beyond measure from a torrent of exiles and refugees fleeing a Europe that had set itself on fire. In 1933, a group of prominent New York scholars and philanthropists, including a young Edward R. Murrow, formed the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars in order to put German refugees to work, and later, to place other European refugee scholars in American institutions. Thousands of displaced scholars and prominent professionals sought aid from the Committee, and several hundred were given assistance in the form of fellowships and grants to US institutions. A few became Nobel Laureates, including Thomas Mann (literature), Max Delbrück (medicine) and Felix Bloch (physics). The New York Public Library maintains an archive of the Committee’s correspondence, an untapped treasure trove for some enterprising writer to exploit.

The exiled European intelligentsia of the 1930s and 40s were Hitler’s gift to America–a gift that keeps on giving. In their second and third generations they have produced, among others, Jerry Springer, Charles Krauthammer, and Ricochet’s own Claire Berlinski, as well as her estimable dad, David.

Although perhaps it would have been better if some of these refugees had gone elsewhere. True, we did get Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, John Von Neumann, Henry Kissinger, and Leo Strauss. But we also got Herbert Marcuse, godfather of the Hippies and the 1960s New Left. In fact, for our sins, we got the entire Frankfurt School–intellectuals who escaped the Nazis by the skin of their teeth, settled in nice places like Manhattan and Southern California, and ungratefully proceeded to chip away at the foundations of American society, ultimately bringing us the trickle-down Cultural Marxism of today’s ruling class. So when it comes to exiles, you get baby and bathwater.

(Incidentally, on the strength of John Von Neumann, Edward Teller, Leó Szilárd, Sir Georg Solti, Andy Grove, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, the US Constitution should be amended to grant unconditional automatic citizenship to any Hungarian who asks for it.)

Expats, the opposite of exiles, are another interesting group. America has usually been a destination for exiles and immigrants. Expats flow in the opposite direction. There are a number of advantages to being an expat. The first is glamour and romance. Some expats are rich, beautiful, and talented people like Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Some, like the aforementioned Claire Berlinski, are not quite so glamorous, beautiful, and romantic; and not rich whatsoever, but clever at camouflaging cat barf stains with a decorative throw-pillow. [Author’s note: This paragraph has obviously been significantly, umm… “improved” from the original by Ricochet.]

Second, to be an expat is to assert easy mastery over one’s fate. Unlike immigrants or persons displaced by war, revolution, famine or other calamity, becoming an expat is often a choice freely exercised, usually from among a menu of other attractive alternatives.

Third, to become an expat is to escape the burdens of civic responsibility. Though an expat may settle in a country that is just as corrupt and dysfunctional as one’s own, if not more so, the corruption and dysfunction belong to the locals, and an expat has no responsibility to become emotionally invested in them. That is, unless she’s the above-mentioned Claire Berlinski, in which case she becomes hopelessly over-invested in them. For the others, perhaps, the dysfunction and corruption can be a charming part of the local color in a way that is impossible at home. It makes me angry that my own country looks and feels increasingly like a squalid, corrupt, bankrupt socialist sinkhole. But if HGTV’s House Hunters International is any indication, moving to an actual corrupt socialist sinkhole would be quite emotionally liberating. [Editor’s note: Don’t bet on that.]

Fourth, becoming an expat is generally liberating. In particular, it is a liberation from social constraints. An expat exists fully outside of the local social matrix, and therefore takes no part in the complicated petty dramas of jockeying for status that are at the heart of any animal society. An expat is not judged by the same standards as everyone else. He stands apart, viewing his temporary home with a bemused anthropologist’s eye. [Editor’s note: Don’t bet on that, either.]

Finally, to be an expat is to embrace the “citizen of the world” idea. My sense is that the upper reaches of our social strata are composed increasingly of such world citizens–a class of peripatetic trans-nationals who hold a passport of convenience (or three), and drift along from New York to Singapore to London to Dubai to San Francisco, equally at home in each, without much permanent attachment to any particular one.

I am ashamed to admit that in the last seven years, the thought of becoming an expat has crossed my mind more than a few times. These days, US citizens are second-class citizens, which puts a strain on my America-right-or-wrong inclinations and makes Uruguay look more and more attractive. The trouble is that unlike me, my kids are fully American, and I hesitate to uproot them.

Besides, you can never escape the long arm of the IRS, no matter where you go.

There are 47 comments.

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  1. user_891102 Member
    user_891102
    @DannyAlexander

    My maternal grandfather was almost executed during that same Battle of the Bulge period you mention, albeit he was most definitely not a German infiltrator.

    He was a combat surgeon (an MD) who had landed in Normandy with an ADSEC field hospital that eventually made its way to the Ardennes in time for the Nazi onslaught.

    The problem he had in the circumstances was twofold:

    1) His surname was Deutsch, albeit he was Boston-born-and-raised

    (It had originally been “Daitch” when his Berdichev-born-and-raised father, my great-grandfather, fled to the US after going AWOL from the Tsar’s army during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War);

    2) He didn’t follow baseball — rather, he was a classical-music devotee.

    So, when his jeep was pulled over by hyper-antsy MP’s, and he was asked “Who plays starting first base for the Red Sox?”, he was hosed — had the question been “Who is the current BSO concertmaster?” there would have been no issue at all.

    Fortunately, his CO started wondering where the hell my grandfather had gotten to with no communication in the ensuing 24 hours or so — an intensive search turned him up in the clink, where the MP’s were on-course to put him up against a wall.

    Postwar, my grandfather became much more attentive to the doings of the Red Sox — this partially accounts for why he enthusiastically took me to Fenway on a fair number of occasions as a kid.

    • #1
  2. Byron Horatio Inactive
    Byron Horatio
    @ByronHoratio

    I was fortunate growing up as a I did with number of immigrant friends from Eastern Europe. It shaped how I viewed the world through the teen years, and honestly gave me a much deeper appreciation for living here after hearing what life was like from people who lived under the Soviet Union.

    I’ve tried making it a point to always befriend newcomers to the U.S. You really take things for granted if you only talk to people born in the U.S. You can flake out on church here, but you don’t consider how people have to hold church services secretly in some counties. Or that some peoples’ first memory in life is being gassed or living in a refugee camp.

    It kind of boggles the mind just how uneventful the average life is here compared to elsewhere.

    And as to the television show, I happen to be a big fan of The Americans. Do you find it as subtly conservative as I do? The KGB are not the heroes in the show. If anything, Regean, who is consistently shown through newsreel footage, is kind of vindicated by the storyline. The Soviets have co-opted fellow travelers in American society be it the civil rights movement or the intelligentsia.

    • #2
  3. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    “Expats are almost always rich, beautiful, talented people like Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the aforementioned Claire Berlinski, and the like.”

    Beautiful and talented, maybe, but rich? No, my dear Oblomov, I am not rich, except in the sense that all Americans are. I earn less than the American median wage. I have absolutely no grounds for complaint, but I’m not rich, or even, by American standards, “comfortable.”

    • #3
  4. Matty Van Inactive
    Matty Van
    @MattyVan

    Very nicely done, Oblomov. Your random thoughts are excellent.

    My favorite teacher in high school (and still favorite after university) was a Hungarian who was invited one day into my freshman history class. He kept us spellbound with the story of how, when barely a teenager, in Budapest, he and his little brother had been woken up at the crack of dawn by the sound of explosions and gunshots, how they worked their way through Russian tanks and across barb wired borders, and found freedom.

    I took every class of his they offered, one of his own creation that delved into the intellecual foundations of modern culture and society. Not your typical high school class. Yes, give the Hungarians automatic citizenship. My life is certainly the better for it. And who knows? Without Mr. Dekunfy I may have fallen into the intellectual clutches of Marcuse and the Frankfurt School. Thanks, also, Oblomov, for pointing those out. They had only existed on the fringes of my knowledge but a little bit of googling shows how destructively important they may have been to creating a certain kind of anti-capitalist mindset that still rules the modern intelligentsia.

    • #4
  5. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Oblomov: Exiles are particularly interesting. Every true immigrant is in part a Ulysses, who is coming home at last. This is very different from an exile, who longs for a home elsewhere from which he has been expelled. An immigrant embraces assimilation; an exile resists it or embraces it only reluctantly, never fully putting down roots in his adopted land.

    Is this such a bad thing?

    You point out these can act as leaven, and countries have typically been fortunate to host Jews, Lebanese… as Sowell calls them, the “middleman minorities”, often exiled out of sheer envy, it seems.

    Even the Christian, if he is devout, is in some sense an exile: “for here we have no abiding city; instead, we look for the one to come”.

    • #5
  6. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Hungarian Jews are something special.

    We say that a Hungarian is someone who enters a revolving door behind you, and exits in front of you.

    And the difference between a Hungarian and a Romanian? A Hungarian will sell you his grandmother. The Romanian will deliver.

    • #6
  7. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    I really enjoyed this piece. It is a source of never-ending interest for me how many very, very small language or behavioral things identify a person.

    I can tell (>90% accuracy) which Ivy League college a person attended.

    I can tell if a Jew was always Torah-observant.

    • #7
  8. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    iWe:

    I can tell (>90% accuracy) which Ivy League college a person attended.

    That’s interesting–not just that they attended an Ivy, but which one? What are the giveaways?

    • #8
  9. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Am I the only one who thinks that cornflakes with chicken soup sounds pretty good?  And I don’t even like corn flakes.

    • #9
  10. user_188825 Member
    user_188825
    @WadeMoore

    Cornflakes with chicken soup or cornflakes in chicken soup?  If it be the second you might be on to something…

    • #10
  11. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Claire Berlinski:

    iWe:

    I can tell (>90% accuracy) which Ivy League college a person attended.

    That’s interesting–not just that they attended an Ivy, but which one? What are the giveaways?

    Demeanor, vocabulary, speech and logic patterns.

    Columbia are the easiest: the Core really makes an imprint on everything. Yale and Harvard are more of a toff-like patina – Yale with more of a gaydar-alert kind of way. Princeton is usually found in the bearing, a kind of quasi-southern reserve and manners.  Brown is an outlier – so laid back as to be semi-stoned. Dartmouth are more intense and a bit less socially ept.

    • #11
  12. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    iWe:I can tell if a Jew was always Torah-observant.

    Even if they have been “mainstream” orthodox for decades, and might even be very traditional rabbis.

    • #12
  13. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Oblomov: It makes me angry that my own country looks and feels increasingly like a squalid, corrupt, bankrupt socialist sinkhole. But if HGTV’s House Hunters International is any indication, moving to an actual corrupt socialist sinkhole would be quite emotionally liberating. [Editor’s note: Don’t bet on that.]

    I have always assumed that House Hunters exhibits the heights of journalistic, just-the-truth ethics.

    • #13
  14. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    So you reject the premise of Seventeen Moments of Spring?

    • #14
  15. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    iWe:Demeanor, vocabulary, speech and logic patterns.Columbia are the easiest: the Core really makes an imprint on everything. Yale and Harvard are more of a toff-like patina – Yale with more of a gaydar-alert kind of way. Princeton is usually found in the bearing, a kind of quasi-southern reserve and manners. Brown is an outlier – so laid back as to be semi-stoned. Dartmouth are more intense and a bit less socially ept.

    Oh! I forgot!

    Penn – not really an Ivy. I kid, I kid. Penn grads are quite pre-professional, and it shows in a general shallowness of thought in more general areas. And insecurity about not being from the Ivy League.

    Cornell is hardest to place, probably because it is so large and so many different schools. Cornell is what I pick when the person is eliminated from the others.

    • #15
  16. user_83937 Inactive
    user_83937
    @user_83937

    Vise-Grips are locking pliers.  Vice-grips may be something like heroin addiction, so still tenacious!

    • #16
  17. Dave_L Inactive
    Dave_L
    @Dave-L

    I’ve enjoyed Nelson DeMille’s novel, The Charm School, enough to read it twice and listen to the audiobook.

    It’s about a secret camp near Moscow where Russian operatives are taught how to fit in to American life by….  well, I’ll let you read the book to discover it yourself!

    • #17
  18. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Claire, it was artistic license. But thanks for the corrections!

    • #18
  19. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Danny, what a great story!

    • #19
  20. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    iWe, are you saying I’m Ivy? Which one?

    • #20
  21. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Chris, it was “vise grip” in the original. I’ve been burned with that one before, when I was less Americanized.

    • #21
  22. Tim H. Member
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    iWe: “A Hungarian will sell you his grandmother. A Romanian will deliver.”

    Being married to a Romanian immigrant, that really made me laugh! I’m going to tell that one to the Mrs.

    This reminds me: One time, our daughter was misbehaving rather badly, and I said that if she didn’t shape up, we would sell her to the Gypsies. My wife looked shocked, apparently taking me half seriously, and said, “Don’t say that! I’ve seen people that happened to! You walk around in Romania and see a crowd of Gypsies with one kid who’s definitely not, and your mother points her out to you and says, ‘THAT’S a girl who wouldn’t clean up her room when she was told to.'”

    • #22
  23. Mr. Dart Inactive
    Mr. Dart
    @MrDart

    The DH rule is fairly simple.  It’s the infield fly rule that fans often have trouble with and recognizing a balk is something that even MLB umpires get wrong.

    There, now I’ll go back to separating the pepper from the fly…. stuff.

    • #23
  24. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    The cultural confusion can go both ways.

    Years ago, while working for a previous employer, I was asked to help out our Washington DC office for a presentation to a client (I worked out of Baltimore). The presentation team met up at the DC office, and we all drove together to the client’s building near Dulles Airport.

    One of the team was a woman who had only immigrated from Ireland a year before. At the time, I still had my original red hair, and when she met me, she said, “Dear God, you look like you could walk the streets of Dublin.” Anyway, on the trip to the client, she told me her story of coming to America. Then she asked me how long my family had been in America.

    I told her that my grandparents had come over “on the boat.”

    She had absolutely no idea what that meant. After all, she had come over on the Concorde.

    • #24
  25. Rightfromthestart Coolidge
    Rightfromthestart
    @Rightfromthestart

    ‘I have absolutely no grounds for complaint, but I’m not rich, or even, by American standards, “comfortable.”

    Can’t resist ancient joke:

    New York garment worker needs to be hospitalized , after setting him up in bed nurse asks ‘Are you comfortable?’ he replies   ‘Eh, I make a living’

    • #25
  26. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    Oblomov:Chris, it was “vise grip” in the original. I’ve been burned with that one before, when I was less Americanized.

    Hold on, now I’m confused. (I sometimes get US and British spellings mixed up, too.) I looked that up. I thought vice-grip checked out as the correct US spelling–am I wrong?

    • #26
  27. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Excellent post, Oblomov.

    iWe:

    Cornell is hardest to place, probably because it is so large and so many different schools. Cornell is what I pick when the person is eliminated from the others.

    Far above Cayuga’s waters
    There’s an awful smell.
    But it’s not Cayuga’s waters,
    It’s just old Cornell.

    Sorry.  Just bagging on my brother-in-law.

    • #27
  28. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Oblomov:iWe, are you saying I’m Ivy? Which one?

    I would have to meet you.

    • #28
  29. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    iWe:

    Oblomov:iWe, are you saying I’m Ivy? Which one?

    I would have to meet you.

    As I’ve pointed out before, the Yale ones are easy.   Just let them talk for a few minutes and they will work it into the conversation.

    • #29
  30. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Percival:
    Far above Cayuga’s waters There’s an awful smell. But it’s not Cayuga’s waters, It’s just old Cornell.

    Far above Cayuga’s waters,

    There’s an awful smell

    Some say it’s Cayuga’s waters

    Some say it’s Cornell.

    That said, the campus is stunning. What an amazing place!

    • #30

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