Fleeing the Country

Due to current events, a lot of people have been talking about leaving the United States. Just pulling up sticks and going somewhere else. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. It’s the classic fantasy — there’s a reason why THE HOBBIT is subtitled There and Back Again. But let me offer some practical thoughts, if you’re hoping to do more than dream.

The first thing that has to happen is that humanity at least has to get a grip on the covid virus. Until that time, travel is going to be fraught with difficulty. As I write this, most of the world is not allowing travelers from the USA. None of us are going anywhere until these bans are lifted.

Sooner or later, however, you’ll be able to buy an airplane ticket and go! Almost every polity planetwide welcomes tourists. To go many places you don’t even need a visa, just your passport. But that’s for tourism — a short-term stay. If you plan to move there, start looking into the paperwork now. Becoming a permanent resident of another country means having your documents in order. You will wish to be able to rent someplace to live, rent or buy a car, open a bank account. To do this you must be able to prove that the authorities are cool with you. There’s enough terrorism in the world that, at least in First World countries, being an illegal is asking for deportation or jail.

To get that permanent status may be difficult. Poorer countries may be happy to simply have you and your money. Richer ones can be pickier. Oh, and do plan to have money. You may not be able to work without a work permit. If you intend to work, it’ll be far, far easier to find a job while you’re here in the US, and then move. The last thing any government wants is to have a deadbeat move in. You will have to prove that you can support yourself either with a job or with your money. The day is long past when an American could go anywhere and be welcomed. This is why retirees find it easier to move overseas. When he arrives in Athens, Grandpa is clearly not intending to take a job from some Greek citizen. The Greeks will be happy to have him spend his retirement savings on retsina and sunscreen.

Research where you’re going. Look at house rental or sale sites, to see if you can afford a residence. Google for expatriate groups and join their blogs or pages, so you can start learning the local customs. Culture shock is a real thing. Dig into the medical infrastructure. Will you be able to get health care? How easy will it be to get dentistry, eyeglasses, a chiropractor? Be aware that many places have no notion of handicap access.

Unless you’re going to the former British empire, start now, studying the language. Duolingo is free. To survive day to day the minimum is to be able to find restrooms, highway exit ramps, and street addresses. Unless you have the gift of tongues, this is a hill you’ll be climbing for the rest of your life. You will probably never be as fluent in Portuguese or Tagalog as a native, but you have to try.

Do you have family or connections there, or will you arrive alone? The more support you have the better. People who move for business reasons always have it easier. A preliminary visit, on your tourist visa, will allow you to taste your new life. Better to discover early on that driving on the left side of the road makes you crazy, or that there are no bagels at all, anywhere, in Helsinki.

Finally, consider well why you’re going. In SWEET CHARITY the heroine sings, ‘Wherever I go, I meet myself there.’ Your problems may move with you, to Spain or Egypt. This includes political ones. Plenty of countries on this planet have crappy governments — find out, before you get on the plane. You are going to a foreign place. Are you going to dive in, become Italian or Moroccan or whatever? Or will you always and forever be a foreigner, on the outside looking in? Unless you’re really good (and have the right genes) you will almost certainly always look like a foreigner. You walk like an American, wear your clothes like an American. The very way you glance into shop windows marks you. These things you probably can’t shed even if you want to. You will be a minority, a stranger in a strange land. Will that be OK? Or will you find it too psychologically difficult?

In the ancient world exile was a punishment, not fun. Dante wrote about the endless dull ache of going up and down the stairs in a foreign place. You will be uprooting yourself, and transplanting into different soil. Can you put down roots and grow there? The only way to be sure is to go and find out, but prepare as much as you can.

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Fleeing the Country — 5 Comments

  1. Health care and handicap access become more and more crucial in retirement. Universal Health Care used to be expected in the British Commonwealth. In 1999 I left England with walking pneumonia and a fistful of drugs I got for free after a visit to the ER on Easter Sunday. Now? I’m hearing horror stories of the hoops one must jump through to even find an ER.

    We looked into Canada when hubby first retired in 1995. They shook their heads and said the only immigrants they wanted were young and could work and pay taxes for many years to come.

    Politics change. Rapidly. Research, research, research.

  2. Seneca, in the ancient world, observed that there is no place on earth in which you not find someone living there who moved there because he preferred it to any other place on Earth.

  3. I am ethnically Chinese, and I have a paper family tree going back 14 generations, to prove it. (It is hand-written in Chinese characters, and I can’t read it.) But, when I go to Beijing, I am as alien as E.T. I stand head and shoulders above the populace. I walk with the stride of someone who always has space on the sidewalk. All my body language is un-Chinese. People scramble out of my way.
    I no longer worry about this. I accept that I will always look exotic, wherever I go on this earth. I am always easily found, and I run into people I know wherever I go.

  4. I’d like to say, I’ve always been a stranger, wherever I go… this is true in microcosm, whenever I move into a micro-community, a club, a gang, a group. But the truth is, I’m white, I’m middle-class, I’m college-educated from the 70s no less, and I know how to play the “ladylike” string in such a way that reduces all officialdom to obsequiousness with a sublime, near-Victorian self-certainty, and the world is my fucking oyster. I don’t know how to act other than entitled. John Crowley wrote (was it in “Great Work of Time”?) of Americans in an alternative time-line who are quiet, shy, modest, hesitant to speak, utterly charming in their diffident courtesy. Not me, even if I tried. Even in communities where they look down on me, I walk as if I own the place, which gets me greatly disliked. I don’t do it on purpose. It’s a sense of privilege. I don’t think it can be undone. People have tried.

  5. I remember walking into a rural restaurant in central Arkansas. I surely was the only person of Asian extraction within 300 miles. The place was packed (a noted BBQ shack) and everyone goggled at me as if I were the Martian Manhunter. I don’t even remember feeling nervous, just hungry. I had a white guy and a budding Army officer at my back, however.

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