Is an Expat Living Abroad a True American?
Are you still entitled to consider yourself an American if you choose to live abroad?
As Vice President of Business Development for Best Places in the World to Retire, I have been told by many people living abroad that they have been told (let’s say, by their sister-in-law, Betty) that, because of their decision to live abroad, they were no longer “American”. A month and a half ago, my wife and I crossed over the US – Mexico border into Mexico and became expats, which makes this is our first American Independence Day living abroad, and which makes Betty’s challenge now a personal one for me. Because I’m now living outside the US, am I now somehow "less American"?
Before we see if you agree, let’s clear up come confusion by first defining the term “expat.” “Expat” is short for “expatriate”, which just means someone living outside his or her country of citizenship. It has nothing to with the word “patriot” or “patriotism.” “Expatriot” isn’t even a word. If you don’t believe me, look it up.
We can define “American” in two ways. The first should be pretty unarguable. An American is someone who is a citizen of the United States. So, unless someone renounces his or her citizenship, any US citizen living in the US or anywhere else in the world is still an American, which means that Betty is wrong in the legalistic sense.
But I believe that Betty is communicating something more, which is that if you choose to live outside the borders of the US, you relinquish your right to be included in the social or cultural group as an “American,” that perhaps you have rejected America, or that perhaps you are in some way less American than those living in the US.
I believe Betty is wrong in this sense as well. In my view, being an American is more than the happy accident of how the geography of your birth bestowed upon you citizenship, or even where you physically reside. In my view, being an American is subscribing to a set of shared American values. “America” is more than a piece of paper or a place. “America” is an idea.
We can all argue what that idea is and perhaps how you would describe the American idea is different than how I describe it. For me, the American idea is encompassed brilliantly in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, signed exactly 240 years ago today:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
In my view, the first principle of being an American is that you believe that our rights come from the Creator, as opposed to from the king or the state, and because of this, the king or the state cannot take your rights away. Your rights are not given by the state, a man, or a group of men, so no state, man, or group of men can take your rights away. Consistent with this principle, later, in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Founders made it even more clear that the state's powers were limited and that, as long as we didn’t harm others, we could pretty much do whatever we wanted; we were free. There is nothing in this paragraph that has anything to do with geography. Rather, it is more of a statement of the universal human condition.
At the time the Declaration was written, this was a radical idea, and it dramatically changed the world for the better. More than our language, our last name, the food we ate, where we were born, or even what citizenship paperwork we had, adherence to this idea and all that followed— being able to get ahead as a result of hard work, self reliance, treating everyone equally, fair play, rule of law, the rights to one’s own labor and property -- is what defined us as “Americans.”
Of course, this idea was not applied perfectly; far from it. The most glaring exception was of course, slavery. Following right behind were many other exceptions, including women not being able to vote, etc. However, America must have applied this idea better than others, because, as a result of this idea, the US became the most powerful and prosperous nation in the history of the world. Immigrants risked literally everything to come to a place that practiced this, however imperfectly. Most American immigrants put these American concepts to work, and most thrived along with everyone else. In places outside the US, the extent to which other peoples and countries followed this organizing principle was the extent to which they thrived as well. The American idea was not confined to the borders of the US; it was exportable and, because it is an idea, given freely to all who would apply it.
American values and the American spirit were born from the American idea. It was the American spirit that compelled so many from other places to come to the US, before they even arrived. And it can be this exact same American spirit that compels so many Americans to seek out life and perhaps even opportunities in places outside the US.
Today, we have an odd situation, where there are people in places outside the US who believe more in the American values I describe than many who are citizens of the US. Recently, in the small Mexican fishing village where we’re staying in Baja Sur, I met a 28-year-old young man who had opened a car washing service literally in front of his house. I don’t know if he had a permit or a license, but I doubt it. He just invested his own money to buy a pail, soap, some sponges, etc., uses his own water, puts up a handwritten sign, and presto, he’s in business. He also works as a manager at a local restaurant, and helps his wife, who opened a bakery on their lot. He probably works 70 hours a week. His children go to school to learn English. Without me asking, he tells me that, out of his three jobs, he likes the car washing best, even though it is hot and sweaty work. Why? Because in his car washing business, he works for himself. I have seen the same thing in all the countries we cover, Panama, Belize, Portugal and Nicaragua.
So happy birthday, America, from all who share your values, expats included. This American expat feels truly blessed to be an American, to inherit the heritage of freedom, to be from the place that more than any other promoted freedom and human dignity. This American expat thanks you, and it thanks every man, woman, people of every color, faith, nationality, political persuasion, etc., who promoted and fought for the best of the American idea. Thank you for the values you bequeathed to all in the world who would have them, for changing the world for the better, and including everyone who believes in and practices your values, regardless of where they live.
Follow Chuck Bolotin, his wife, Jet Metier, and their two dogs, on their road trip through Mexico and beyond. The first story was Why We Will Be Traveling Through Mexico For the Next Year.