55 Comments

Man I like to think my twitter discussions with Noah prompt some of these conversations.

Noah and I both agree about living abroad. In fact the one piece of advice I give to young adults is to travel the world. Both my two older kids have lived for several years in the UK. In fact my son decided to settle there.

I spent 12-years in the military living in Europe and loved it. I was also raised in New Zealand. Now my job enabled me to spend extended periods of time working and living in South America. In fact I just returned from a 3-month stint in South America.

My observations:

1. Young people who think American isn't the greatest are deluded. It's sort of a form of self-hatred that has no basis on reality. I am not saying the US is perfect, but data speaks for itself. In just about every country in the world... more of their residents move the US relative to Americans emigrating to wherever.

2. Adding to above... even when Americans do live abroad as expatriates, they rare actually immigrate... that is, get their citizenship and plan to raise their families their permanently.

3. Many of the other countries that people fetishize. New Zealand, Australia, Scandinavian, Japan, etc.. are simply more racist than the United States. This blows peoples mind when I point it out, because Racism is such a big issue here. But the reason racism is such a discussed topic here is because we are so diverse. All these other countries are less diverse. And their black population are tiny. We talk about it here because we confront it... in other countries its just accepted.

4. When Noah and all the other progressive's and liberals talk about other countries, it usually focuses on infrastructure and social programs. All things that they have excellent points about, but as someone who is addicted to traveling, it's the cultures that I am most fascinated about.

5. South America gets short shrift. Honestly, if I didn't have ties to the United States, and I could work remote, I would move to South American. Latin Americans have a much richer social life than Americans. When I walk around in Salta, Argentina (you should visit), you see families out walking, groups of people sitting around at cafes spending hours taking. It's tradition for people to have BBQ's on the weekend and to invite their neighbors, friends, coworkers, etc...

6. More on 5. What really rocks about some foreign countries is a rich social fabric. As Americans we tend to self-isolate into these small groups. As we get older this social circle gets smaller. We might have occasional gatherings, but it's nothing like going to the pub every Saturday afternoon to get a pint and watch a football match. It's nothing like sitting at a cafe on a square and watching people walk by.

7. My last comment. If you are someone who works hard and has ambition. The type of person who believes in self-efficacy, the United States is hands down the best place to live.

The type of young left leaning young people who wish they could live in Scandinavia or some other European style country imagine that they could work less hard there... that they would basically have all their needs met by doing as little as possible.

People who want to live in Asia are sort of the same as the people who want to live in South America. I imagine me and Noah share this. We get a thrill out of living in a foreign culture. We admire what they have, but it's almost an adrenaline thing. It's the adventure.

Anyway... thanks for reading my rant if you got this far.

Expand full comment

I may be taking a "rant" overly seriously, but...

...point 1 is just presumptuous. Handwaving at directions of immigration is not "data" and even the relevant data can be only a fuzzy index of greatness! Important determinants of immigration flows are the destination's level of immigration restrictions, and the destination's stock of immigrants from a generation ago (immigration has a snowball effect). So point 1 reads to me as like saying the US is obviously the greatest country in 2021 because it has relatively open immigration policies and admitted lots of immigrants in the 1990s.

Point 3 is US-centric in some ways. There is plenty of racism in Europe. But much of it isn't focused on black people, so referring to the "tiny" black population and presuming lower diversity misses some of the story. Consider Roma, who suffer discrimination basically everywhere in Europe, or Maghrebi Arabs in France, Turks in Germany and Bulgaria, the ethnoreligious groups of ex-Yugoslavia...Bosnia and Herzegovina is about half Catholic or Orthodox, and half Muslim, regarded locally as an ethnic difference as much as a religious one — does it not count because they're almost all white Slavs?

Expand full comment

#1. I agree. The US is the greatest because we have relatively open immigration policies and admitted lots of immigrants in the 1990's

#3 I think we agree on this. I probably did a poor job of explaining it.

Expand full comment

On 3, fair enough. On 1, I was surprised because then the greatest country would not be the US but something like the Vatican/Holy See (open border), a European microstate like Monaco (formally requires only e.g. that one has job and rental contracts), or Qatar, Kuwait or the UAE (Gulf petrostates that've been majority immigrant(!) since the 1990s).

Expand full comment

I'd push back on the last point. The US has substantially lower levels of social mobility that northern Europe. One could argue that this is because working class people in the US have norms which make them less productive in post-industrial capitalism relative to their Norther European counterparts, but it seems unlikely that this is the whole story.

I'd also push back on the racism point. Australia has a substantially higher foreign born population than the US (28%!) and the Sweden and Norway and Switzerland have been pretty successful at taking in refugees. It seems definitely true that southern and Eastern Europe is more racist, including France despite it having a reasonably high non-white population. I think it's also worth distinguishing between inter-personal racism and structural racism. Black people in the US seem to face an unusually high level of structural racism. It's not true for instance that the UK has lots of police shootings but no one talks about them. This may be caused by other things, like the US having much higher levels of poverty and inequality, but regardless this cashes out as black people having dramatically higher poverty rates than average.

Expand full comment

I never liked the social mobility measurements. Because Europe has such squished social class... the difference between 20% and 80% just isn't that stark, I don't think it really captures what is best about the United States.

Let's say two people, exactly the same... in Denmark and United States. Children of immigrants raised at lower working class level. Lets say family income of 30K a year for family of 4. Those people both bust their ass, go to school, start a business, put in hours. The one in the US ends up a millionaire. The one in Denmark ends up making $80K a year.

Foreign born percentage and success at taking on refugees means nothing as far as racism. https://harvardpolitics.com/nordic-racism/

Expand full comment

When you are refuting a testable and evidence based measure (like the percentage of people in top quintile born in the lowest one) with some qualitative handwave about how it does matter because of ad hoc reasons, I start to suspect that you are biased.

When in place of said quantitative and objective measure you propose a just so story you literally made up on the moment with no evidence whatsoever, I am pretty sure you are biased.

BTW, both Swedish and Danish milionaire rates are only slightly lower than America's, about 1%. https://www.statista.com/statistics/262687/countries-with-the-highest-rate-of-millionaires/

So it is really really hard to beiieve that in country with overall higher social mobility and a similar number of millionaires per capita, you imaginary kid has less chance to become one.

Expand full comment

Of course I am biased.

In 2020 .02% of the Swedish population migrated to the United States (2163). 0.000005% of the US population migrated to Sweden (1587).

I think the market has spoken.

Then again I understand how some of you like to fantasize about less diverse white countries. I personally think the US is awesome because of our diversity.

Expand full comment

0.02% is low enough that can be random chance. Also, the fact that Swedes already know English and American mores but Americans (quite understandably) don't know one word of Swedish and nothing about Swedish culture might have more to do with it. Saying "the market has spoken" because there is more movement toward the most mainstream place in the world than toward a small and essentially unknown country is like saying "the market has spoken, Rolex makes better watches than Omega because most people know about Rolex"

About the diversity thing, you are either a buffoon or a troll. Yes, Swedes did not kidnap millions of people from Africa in order to enslave them. If that makes them a lesser people in your view, you need to seriously reevaluate your morals

Also, about one Swede out of three has a parent born abroad (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Sweden). That's quite a lot of diversity. But then, if for your an American of color is more diverse from a white American than a Bulgarian is from a Swede because of color of the skin alone... Well, let's say it tells anything you need to know about racist you are

Expand full comment

1. Where do you live?

2. What other countries have you live in?

3. If American what countries are you in the process of moving to?

Like I said before. Most people are hypocrites.

Expand full comment

Nice topic and thesis. As in any other context: in some ways familiarity breeds contempt and absence makes the heart grow fonder. But in every case: travel broadens the mind, and living overseas brings appreciation of ways of living very different from our oen

Expand full comment
Dec 18, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

If we truly wanted world peace, would take chunks of the military budget and pay for exchange programs to have almost everyone spend at least 6 months in another country.

Expand full comment

That'd be dangerous as many countries that can't afford to protect their strategic interests and others have a very realist take.

Expand full comment

I don't follow; do you mean that Robert Berger's idea would leave the US military underfunded? If so, I disagree! Let's do a back-of-envelope calculation.

Suppose the US paid its inhabitants to spend 6 months overseas when they turned 18. The US has about 4 million people aged 18 (a third of the 11.851 million aged 18, 19, or 20; https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2019/demo/age-and-sex/2019-age-sex-composition.html). Living in Kyoto (just as an example) costs about $50,786 a year, comparable to living in Kansas City (https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/compare_cities.jsp?country1=United+States&country2=Japan&city1=Kansas+City%2C+MO&city2=Kyoto); that's $25k for 6 months.

Now multiply up: if you gave $25k to each 18-year-old in the US to spend 6 months overseas, that's $25k × 4 million: $100 billion. Do that every year and it's $100 billion per year. For comparison, the Senate just passed a $770-billion military-spending bill (https://www.reuters.com/world/us/majority-us-senate-backs-770-billion-defense-bill-2021-12-15/). So Robert Berger's program would cost only 13% of US military spending, and simply put spending back to about its 2017 level (https://www.statista.com/statistics/272473/us-military-spending-from-2000-to-2012/).

Expand full comment

Nice in theory. Horrible in practice. I'm not sure many countries want so many exchange students. A military that is 13% weaker while other countries are aggressively expanding their military presence overseas would worsen many problems in other parts of the world (or they might not; I've seen enough over three decades to think they will and I was once rabidly anti-US adventurism). Back of the envelope calculations aren't enough for my peace and security as a resident in Hong Kong, a place that feels at times like a tinderbox. Having said that, the long-term focus must be on steady de-escalation of Cold War era rhetoric and a return to diplomacy and multilateral engagement among all parties. Trump threw out the rule book but it's still there and the rest of the world wants to abide by it but we need the two biggest countries and their people to stop acting like teenagers and respect the rest of us.

Expand full comment

"I'm not sure many countries want so many exchange students."

That supports my view that the program would be affordable. If non-US countries were willing to admit only (making up a number) 1 million more teenagers instead of 4 million, that cuts my original cost estimate by 75%!

"A military that is 13% weaker while other countries are aggressively expanding their military presence overseas would worsen many problems in other parts of the world"

I reject the premise that money in equals strength out (and it's far from obvious that strength in this militaristic sense is good at the margin). The US cut military spending by 22% from 2010 to 2017, then upped it by 14% as of 2020, and it's hard for me to directly trace either change to big changes in the rest of the world. Certainly the 22% decline didn't make the sky fall in.

"Back of the envelope calculations aren't enough for my peace and security as a resident in Hong Kong, a place that feels at times like a tinderbox."

I don't regard a feeling of Hong Kong being a tinderbox as stronger evidence than arithmetic.

Expand full comment

Sure, let's agree to disagree. It's HK's election day. Tensions are high here. I regret not being civil. What I will say is that most countries are anti-immigration and only want to let in a certain number of international students. That's what I meant.

Expand full comment

"It's HK's election day."

Oh snap, so it is. I'll confess to having lost some interest in HK's legislative elections after the, uhm, electoral changes and the, uhmmm, rectification of the opposition.

"I regret not being civil."

It's cool, I gave as good as I got. I've had waaaay more obtuse and annoying responses from this comments section before.

"What I will say is that most countries are anti-immigration and only want to let in a certain number of international students."

Fair enough.

Expand full comment
Dec 18, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Thank you for this post. The US is an awesome country. As an immigrant from Poland that lived there in the 80s, I often get very frustrated with the BS people here complain about. This may be a cliche point, but the ability to make enough money for a pretty good quality life is so easy if you work at it and watch your spending.

The "blunt and direcet" point about Americans is interesting. When I first moved here, it was glaring how nice everyone was, but it often came with phoniness and distancing. I think this sometimes prevents people from getting to know each other well quickly on a deeper level since the "cocktail conversation" interactions about nothing can drag on for a long time. I would prefer it if it was ok to ask more personal, insightful questions about someone soon after meeting them.

Expand full comment

As someone that has lived overseas for roughly 22 total years of their life, including New Zealand, UK, Germany, Holland and spent another total 3 years working in other countries for extended periods of time, you are spot on.

I love traveling internationally, but Americans take for granted their opportunity to work hard and become successful.

I've noticed that its people who are on the lower side of motivated who tend to idolize living abroad. They always choose these less diverse countries with a bigger social network.

Expand full comment
Dec 18, 2021·edited Dec 18, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Very good article, spot on conclusion.

The three years my family and I spent in Denmark -- our son went to Danish børnehave age 2-5 and spoke Danish without an accent by the time we left -- was eye-opening and very enjoyable. It game me both a renewed appreciation for many American things (entrepreneurialism, our openness/friendliness) and a first-hand experience of how we could be better (bicycling infrastructure, single payer healthcare, safe cities and towns). I'd do it again in a minute.

Expand full comment
Dec 18, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

So close, and yet so far from the updated guide for Japan !

Expand full comment
author

It's coming, as soon as they let me back in

Expand full comment
Dec 18, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

I agree wholeheartedly as a 22-year expat but I love that Americans are polite to their service staff and are careful about judging people by their appearances. Meanwhile, China is not 'advanced' (the term is problematic too) from the perspective of a Hong Kong resident (nor is it upper-income yet). Living abroad can be very lonely for BIPOC individuals, though, but it's easier for my American counterparts than others. You also end up finding the ties that bind with other expats if you go to any place that's relatively open to foreigners like most international financial hubs are.

Expand full comment

"Living abroad can be very lonely for BIPOC individuals"

Is a negative frame on how remarkably inclusive the US is in ways which it's easy to miss without a comparison.

---

Separately I think the expat life can be quite lonely for everyone. As a white Australian living in London I've got it about as easy as it could possibly be. But I've definitely felt lonely and disconnected from English society. Almost all of my friends are expats and the expat life is transitory.

Expand full comment

Lonely, yes, but in my experience expats are consistently the most interesting people I meet: intelligent, cultivated, and open to new experiences.

Expand full comment

Agreed - afterall I am an expat by choice 😉

Causal factor is a pretty obvious sorting. High openess people more likely to consider it. High intelligence more likely to have the transferable/in demand skills, etc.

Expand full comment

Yes, it's lonely for everyone. It's probably more lonely for black people in Japan than it is for a white person, no? I don't understand your first point. Are you saying the US is inclusive so BIPOC/PoCs may not have as difficult a time as they envision? I agree. My comment was not directed towards people who want to move to the US. It was directed to anyone who wants to move to any of the 195 countries in the world. I've been abroad for more than two decades, mate. Pretty sure I'll retire in Sutherland in Sydney at this rate (Aussie partner).

Expand full comment

Yes, and sometimes one grows to appreciate one's home country after years abroad. I used to berate my native Canada as being very small-minded and parochial, but after living in many different countries, where massive division and civil conflict seems to be the norm, the fact that bilingual Stop signs in Quebec is about as divisive as it gets, made me appreciate my "home and native land" to a considerably greater degree.

Expand full comment

Americans' concept of ourselves as "blunt and direct" is right up there among the most delusional lies the people of any country believe about themselves. My understanding is British, Irish and Australian people often find US culture saccharine and clothed in self-aggrandizing pieties. And of course northern Europeans are stereotypically very blunt in a way Americans are not. And then there was the foreign student in my grad program, who once said to preface a complaint about the program administration, "I don't know how to put this the Berkeley way, so I'll just say it the Indian way", by which she meant bluntly and without the marathon of conflict-averse circumlocution that girds any negative sentiment in the Bay Area especially.

Anyway, I ask you, could a blunt and direct culture have produced this cultural document:

https://twitter.com/calebsaysthings/status/1201590348730032129

Expand full comment

It makes total sense if you consider the stereotype in relation to an America's most obvious reference points, ie UK and Canada. Having lived in both countries, trust me, American bluntness is real and great.

In the US you don't have to use coded language and euphemisms when talking about money and don't have to pretend to be an asexual being, which is the bare minimum of politeness in the UK and to a lesser degree in Canada.

That said, yes, many continental Europeans (don't know about many other cultures) find Americans conversational norms still too prudish and indirect, but not as much as the British or the Canadian ones.

Expand full comment

Spot on! As a 19 year old I moved to Honduras for two years and dealt with bucket showers, met families cooking with an outdoor wood kitchen (the bad kind), washed clothes on a washboard/pila, and shivered trying to sleep on windy nights in the foothills of Tegucigalpa. Beautiful funny people and now have loads of appreciation for their country and USA that can’t come any other way.

Expand full comment

Respect - not an easy place to live. My dad grew up on a farm in Tegu, came to the US at 18 for college and never looked back.

Expand full comment

I bumped into the premise of this post myself via my wife, who is from Sweden. I had never been outside the US when I married her (36 years ago). 'Of course we are going to Sweden', she said, 'my family is there!'. So we did many travels--Sweden, Germany, Italy, Spain, Costa Rica, even the island of Margarita (Venezuela) before that country melted down. Meeting residents and experiencing the various places was awesome and gave me a much broader viewpoint of the world and the US. I also came to appreciate that every place has it's positives and negatives. I think the ultimate point is to be able to observe and participate in the life wherever you are without judging the place as simply 'bad' or 'good'. Of course one can choose to locate in a place that one sees is 'best', but no place is a utopia. The US has been a place where I have been able to work my way from a construction laborer up to real estate developer, and allowed me the freedom to visit other countries and hold the opinions that I have. Having seen other countries and met with their citizens, I can more fully appreciate these US opportunities, and also gain respect for what other countries/citizens are doing.

Expand full comment

As recent college graduate who recently moved to France, so many parts of this post ring true. I don't think I ever really felt a sense of patriotism until leaving the US, even though being abroad has brought many of the worst aspects of the US into focus. Living outside of my home country has made me realize that I have a personal identity as an American, and that my upbringing has made me different from people in other countries on some level.

I've found that trying to talk politics with some of my European friends has been enlightening. Whenever they explain local political issues with me or when I explain American issues to them, the entire problem we're talking about takes on a completely different light -- everyone involved genuinely wants to learn more and neither of us have preconceived opinions formed. This is one of the only contexts where you can have political discussion where you are neither arguing with nor indulging in the other person's beliefs.

Expand full comment

Fantastic thoughts

I lived in China 5 years until Covid hit. I run a company that promotes travel for the very reasons you are advising. We gave 2000 university students funded/free (fee free) summer placements in China over the past few years. Now Covid restrictions are ending, I look forward to promoting travel again.

Personally though I fall into your category of those people that used to want to escape their country (and complain about it) but then travel led them to understand the good things about their country.. having moved home to UK during Covid I am unsure I’d live abroad ever again! 5 years abroad and now I truly appreciate the simple things about Britain, potable tap water, delicious clean air, a politics that encourages diversity and multiculturalism, legal rights. I do miss China’s frenetic excitement and energy though!

I wanted to share a quote with you . My grandpa, a doctor in Kenya during Britain’s colonial era, used to say to me “what do they of England know that only England know”. Kipling I think!

Thanks for a great bit of reading!

Expand full comment

I’m very skeptical of that chart. Am I really meant to believe that there are currently only 6 million people who were born in China and living somewhere else?

Expand full comment

Good eye! I wondered whether the difference between the Chinese-ethnicity diaspora (~ 50 million people) and the Chinese-born diaspora might explain this; it partly does, but not wholly.

The UN puts the total Chinese-born diaspora at 10.7 million (cell BA1715 of https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/data/estimates2/data/UN_MigrantStockByOriginAndDestination_2019.xlsx) in 2019, or 0.8% of China's own population. In 2010 it was 8.7 million, so even allowing for the chart's age its China number seems low.

Expand full comment

Love the article, which prompts two comments and one question.

Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in “American Exceptionalism”, those who know only one country know no country.” Summarizes it well.

One really neat feature we enjoyed in Japan, was a hotel bathroom that also functioned as a dryer for clothes. Granted it was really small, but that made it possible to use it as dryer.

Glad to read you are updating your Japan guide. In 2019, we spent two weeks in Japan on our first visit and want to return. We did Tokyo => Takayama => Kanazawa => Kyoto => Osaka (with 1.5 days too short for your taste, I am sure) => Kii-Penisula => Tokyo.

Next time: head north or south?

Expand full comment
Dec 20, 2021·edited Dec 20, 2021

Loved this piece, and very much agree. Almost every day I think about how my year in East Africa taught me:

(1) How profoundly deep and different cultures can be despite retaining the same humanity,

(2) How much bigger and more varied the world is outside the American experience, and

(3) How aubsurdly rich (and weirdly unaware of it) most of us are here in the US.

Expand full comment