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Love it and leave it
The case for spending some time outside of your home country
Pew has a new survey out, asking Americans how much they like their country. The results, unsurprisingly, are that most people think it’s pretty good:
85% of Americans either say that their country is the best, or one of the best. For Democrats it’s 65%. For young people it’s 58%. Only among young Democrats does a majority say that “other countries are better” than the U.S.
Obviously, this survey supports my idea that American commentators, intellectuals, and activists should find ways to tell a more patriotic story about their country if they want to win elections. 42% of 18-29-year-olds is not a sustainable electoral base to build a movement on; most people want reasons to continue to think their country is a good one.
But this survey makes me think of another question, which is: How does anyone know? On what basis — other than pure sloganeering — are Americans deciding whether their country is better than others? You can look at aggregate statistics — average income, health outcomes, crime, etc. That does tell you something. But there are a ton of intangible factors like culture and lifestyle that you can’t get from scanning numbers.
And more fundamentally, it’s hard to tell how heavily you’d weight these various factors until you actually experience a society that does things differently. Yes, Danish people have higher taxes and cheaper health care, but would you really be happy with that tradeoff? And so on.
That’s why I think one of the most useful things you can do, in order to gain perspective on society and politics and institutions, is to live in another country for a while. I’ve lived about four years total in Japan, and the experience has been utterly transformative in terms of how I think about my own country. I’ll explain why in a bit, but first I want to point out how few Americans do this.
40% of Americans say they’ve never left the country at all, and fewer than half own a passport. And far fewer have lived in other countries for a substantial period of time; getting data on the number of expats is hard, but sources agree that less than 3% of Americans live abroad at any given time (and many of those in Canada or Mexico). Other sources put the number much lower — the OECD has us at only 0.5% living abroad in 2015, less than any other advanced country except China:
Of course, this doesn’t exactly map to the percent who have ever lived overseas for, say, a year or more. But it has to be a pretty good proxy. The fact is, Americans just don’t get out that much.
And this isn’t a criticism. It’s a big country, and you can have plenty of adventure moving from Iowa to New York City. You can even meet a lot of people from other countries, since America has a lot of immigrants. Just because you don’t live overseas doesn’t make you parochial.
But living abroad is different, in a number of ways. You get to see another system in action — a whole different way of organizing a society, with institutions that developed in a very different historical context. The hysteresis of national development means that countries have different ways of doing things — sometimes with good reason, sometimes for no good reason at all. Some differences are cultural, some have deep economic roots, and some are accidents of history — and it can be difficult to tell which is which.
Of course, actually knowing what you’re seeing is very difficult. For one thing, as a foreigner, your vantage point will be different; you won’t fit into another society in anything like the same way you fit in in your home country. This can exaggerate the differences. For example, the first year and a half that I lived in Japan, I lived in a yakuza neighborhood; this exposed me to a seedy side of society that definitely exists in America, but which I had always studiously avoided before. It took a little while for me to realize that car bombings, arson, and brothels are not considered typical elements of Japanese society (and yes, I did see a finger-cutting ceremony, or at least the aftermath of one).
Another pitfall is the tendency to see other cultures through the lens of your own preconceived stereotypes. I’ve seen a few Westerners interpret the boundless creativity and self-expression of the Japanese street fashion scene as some kind of expression of conformity, simply because they had always been told that Japan was a “conformist” country (even though surveys have found Japan to be slightly more individualistic than the U.S. since around the mid-1980s). An Australian friend of mine expressed her disgust at seeing Japanese people wearing masks on the train (heh), thinking that it sprang from fastidious germophobia; we had to explain that these people had colds themselves, and were conscientiously trying to prevent spreading their germs to others.
But if you can remember to be open-minded and to not over-generalize, living in a foreign country can be incredibly eye-opening. Of course, everyone who goes to Japan comes back gushing about how well the trains work and how convenient the convenience store chains and drink machines are. And once you’ve experienced the magic of Japanese toilets, it’s hard to go back to the stone-age U.S. version. But there are a lot of smaller things to appreciate. Here’s a short list of just a few things I don’t see the general “Japanophile” discussions mention very often, that I think the U.S. could stand to emulate (I could name many, many more):
Multi-level retail: In U.S. cities, or even in Asian cities outside Japan, you typically see shops at street level with apartments or offices above. In urban Japan, there are many buildings with shops and restaurants on upper floors.
The downside of this is that you have to take elevators or walk up stairs to get to places. But this is more than matched by the upside — it’s very convenient to get to a place with a huge density of places to eat and shop. Once you’re in the area, you can browse to your heart’s content. If you don’t know where you want to eat, it’s easy to find a place without walking around. And if you want to go to multiple stores, you can do so very easily, because they’re probably all very close to each other. On top of this, dense multi-level retail districts create an exciting urban experience, because they allow much more serendipitous discovery of new places. These districts do draw very intense crowds, but the flip side of this is that nearby residential districts don’t get as much foot traffic; if you live even a few blocks away from a shopping district, your own street tends to be pretty quiet.
Mini split climate control: Most Japanese buildings don’t have central air conditioning. But you find few buildings that have no A/C, few loud cumbersome window-shaker units, and few antiquated radiators. Instead, pretty much everywhere has a modern, convenient, effective mini split wall-mounted system for heating and A/C.
Clean cafe tables: In a Starbucks in the U.S., it’s not uncommon to find crumbs or bits of trash on the tables. In Japan, these will quickly be cleaned up by the staff. It’s nice for customers, though it probably creates more work for the staff.
Bikes with baskets: It’s very convenient to go shopping with a bike basket. Americans, who almost never have baskets on their bicycles, tend to either use a car or walk long distances carrying heavy bags. Bike baskets do wear out your front tire faster, but it’s worth it.
Rapid construction: If you just go to Japan once, you won’t notice how fast the buildings get built. Once I visited Tokyo in the spring and saw a new skyscraper starting to go up in a neighborhood called Tamachi. I went back in the fall, and it was completed, with people walking in and out! And unlike in other fast-building countries like China, that building is guaranteed to be of the highest quality (and earthquake-resistant to boot).
Dividers in restaurants: In the U.S., even the fanciest restaurants are usually open-plan. In Japan, many places have partitions that isolate tables from each other, creating a more private, comfortable, relaxed feeling (but making it harder to see and be seen).
Discussions that aren’t about politics: Plenty of Americans have conversations that aren’t about politics, but among the educated class, I find that few discussions don’t veer into the realm of public affairs at some point. In Japan, this is simply not the case; whether you’re hanging out with professors, entrepreneurs, or engineers, politics far more rarely enters the conversation. (Interestingly, this isn’t a sign of political apathy; Japan usually has higher voter turnout than the U.S.)
Cross-class friendships and marriages: In America we’re used to people segregating themselves by education and occupation — if you see a dinner table with a physicist and an entrepreneur, you probably wouldn’t expect to see a policeman and a secretary at the same table. And you definitely wouldn’t expect to see a top college graduate from an upper-class family marry a construction worker. In Japan I saw all these things. Class consciousness in Japan was still very weak and porous when I lived there, though years of rising inequality may now be changing that.
Public park areas for the homeless: In Japan, parts of many public parks are reserved for the homeless. That’s quite a nice gesture.
Of course, there are plenty of things I’m not fond of at all. The stressful open-plan offices. The unproductive corporate culture that encourages busy-work. The concrete embankments that line every river. The privacy walls that separate houses and make suburban streets feel like corridors. The walk signals that only start flashing once it’s already too late to make it across the intersection. And so on. Japan is no paradise, and just as there’s plenty I think we could learn from them, there’s plenty I think they could learn from us.
But the benefit of noticing these things goes far beyond the things themselves. Constantly observing things that are different, and asking “Why don’t we do it like that?”, drills into your mind the fact that things don’t always have to be the way the are. If you’ve lived your whole life in America, you might simply never ask yourself why restaurants are all open-plan; but living in Japan, you might start to wonder if maybe partitions would make dining more comfortable. And so on. Then you start to ask yourself why it takes America years to build new buildings. Why our roads have so many potholes. Why our trains run so infrequently, and are so often late, and why so few cities have subways. Why we don’t have national health insurance.
In fact, living abroad helps you see all kinds of things about your own country that you tend to overlook or take for granted. I never realized how much Americans tiptoe around the topic of other people’s personal appearance until I saw Japanese people telling each other “Oh, you lost weight!” I never thought of shouting down a waiter until I learned that that’s what you have to do in Japan. I had simply internalized an unconscious list of things to talk about and things not to to talk about, and when I saw people who had internalized different lists, my own became more visible to me. In fact, living in supposedly hyper-polite Japan made me realize that Americans — who think of ourselves as blunt and direct — are governed by a delicate, complex web of behavioral rules that are second nature to us.
And ultimately, that’s the most important reason to live abroad — to reexamine your relationship to your own country. You’ll see both the good and the bad in your own country that previously you only thought of as neutral and normal. Some people live overseas and decide that their home country was overrated all along, and decide never to come back. Others realize they love all kinds of things about their country that they took for granted before, and move back and feel happier at home than they would have if they had never seen the alternative.
For me, it was somewhere in between those extremes. Living abroad made me frustrated with all the things America could do better if we only realized that better ways existed. But it also made me appreciate lots of good and special things about my country. I came back to my country angrier about its class differences, but more pleased with the degree to which it embraces diversity and promotes gender equality. I’m more exasperated than ever with how much we pay for infrastructure and health care, but more appreciative of the high consumption levels that even our working class enjoys. And there are other, subtler things I see about America too — things that I’m not sure I could ever express in concrete terms.
When Americans complain bitterly about their native land, or reflexively praise it, my reaction is now the same: “Have you lived anywhere else?” For those who hate their country, living abroad might either cause them to temper that hate, or give them a more favorable alternative to move to. And for those who love their country, living abroad might give them more things to appreciate about it, or help them see ways it could be even better. This is why I think we should have more programs that encourage young Americans to do a year abroad.
In other words, what my time abroad taught me was that to really love your country, you have to understand it. And there are things you won’t truly understand about your country until you step outside it and look back in.