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The Movie

No matter how interesting I find international tax codes and regulatory policies, I am not a fool: most people find them boring. Myth and tradition come from the media these days. What Expat Nation really needs is a blockbuster movie.

Studio 60 recently had a brief storyline about a new series called “The Nations,” which is apparently a drama set at the UN. The Chairman of NBS [the network] describes it as an impending disaster for the business, since Americans are loathe to watch foreigners speak with subtitles about bureaucratic maneuvering. The heroic new president of the network, deliciously played by Amanda Peet, bids for the property anyway, instead of pursuing another reality TV project about infidelity and secret lives. Her pitch to the writer, with erudite references to Pericles, is based on the democratic appeal of the free “NBS” network over the more upscale and elite viewers at HBO. Ultimately the writer decides to go with NBS, because of the “street cred” of the Studio 60 director.

This little snippet is relevant for two reasons: first, internationalism is apparently creeping back into acceptability (or, Cosmopolitanism is creeping back into Vogue? 😉 ). Second, “street cred” is more important than Pericles. Expat Nation needs gutsy and sexy heroes, witty screenwriting, and moving storylines.

Despite the humble beginnings of this blog, someday I hope Steven Spielberg and Adam Sorkin will wander across it. When they do, they will need some help to see the potential for Expat Nation, which otherwise would make the apocryphal “Nations” seem like Gone with the Wind. I want your help: let’s brainstorm a screenplay! Something on the scale of HBO’s Rome or a mini-series would seem to be the best venue. I am looking for the wittiness and credibility of The West Wing; the drama and pace of Studio 60; the sci-fi [poli-fi?] of Battlestar Gallactica. . .

First pass proposal:


Ahmad, a dashing Pakistani Rhodes Scholar, is pursuing Indira, a young Indian graduate student at the London School of Economics. He follows her into a lecture hall where David Held is delivering an inspirational speech on the emergence of non-governmental authority in the international sphere. Initially just to impress her, he debates her on the topic, gradually realizing that his nationalism is little more than chauvinism. Soon he is drawn into an underground network of international graduate students working on Expat Nation, led by the firebrand Zhao Baixing, who are tired of “research” and ready for “action.” Subplots would focus on mindless sectarianism in London slums, and multicultural love affairs akin to White Teeth.

Mini-plot 1:

Baixing challenges the group to bridge the gap from academe to popular cause, first by converting a superstar spokesman. Ahmad conspires to make a pitch to George Soros, through a clever series of misrepresentations. After finally getting his attention, Soros laughs Ahmad out of the room.

Mini-plot 2:

Through a fortuitous coincidence, Ahmad finds an opportunity to approach Zhang Yin [richest person in China, the recycling lady], who is visiting London. She attempts to recruit him to open a European branch office of her recycling business; he goes along to get her attention. During a meeting that Ahmad sets up to introduce Zhang to Baixing, Baixing is assassinated by . . .Chinese nationalist spies? Falungong zealots? Chinese spies posing as Falungong zealots? Whomever… Zhang and Ahmad escape; Zhang is transformed by the experience and sets up a $1B challenge grant for EN.

Mini-plot 3:

George Soros reconsiders. . .joins the leadership team. Tiger Woods comes on board, as the spokesperson; he converts his good friend, Roger Federer. Together, they found the post-nationalist Olympics, in which athletes take over control of the marketing and regulation of sports in which they participate. As the brains behind these new developments, Ahmad is elected President of EN.

Mini-plot 4:

Indira gets pregnant (by Ahmad); they agonize over what to do. Indira asks Ahmad to come home to visit her parents. The parents go ballistic; Indira and Ahmad both leave, discouraged, and angry at each other. Soon they realize that they only have each other left, with no home to go back to. They return to London.

Mini-plot 5:

Ahmad meets William, son of the Prime Minister of the British Virgin Islands, and a fellow Rhodes Scholar. William invites Ahmad to meet his father, James; Ahmad lays out the benefits to BVI of becoming a second-citizenship location for EN. James uses a loophole in the BVI regulatory code to let non-domiciled foreigners apply for citizenship. Soon, the BVI is inundated with immigration applications from EN citizens; the nominal population swells to 20 million; tax revenues also swell, making James a hero to his people and the Third World.

Mini-plot 7:

The CIA hires Russian ex-KGB agents to assassinate Ahmad. The plot is foiled by defectors. EN membership multiplies in the aftermath. . .

Mini-plot 8:

A new, Democratic, president is elected in the US. He [she?] offers EN members free immigration [leading to citizenship] in the US, in order to stanch the outflow of US citizens to EN. Ahmad gets far in negotiating a merger, then finally realizes that he is being corrupted by greed and American nationalist interests. He pulls out. . .
Mini-plot 9:

Poor farmers in Brazil picket the EN convention; placards identify EN with globalization and a growing rift between rich globalists and poor [nationalist] workers. The events drive a wedge between Ahmad and the more idealistic academics within the EN leadership. A severe schism develops. . . Indira takes the side of the idealists. . .asks for a separation. . .

Season 2!

An Imagined Community?

In Steven Spielberg’s movie Munich, there is a scene where Avner, the Mossad agent and Ali, a Palestinian terrorist, discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in surprisingly candid and personal terms. Avner asks [and I paraphrase]: “Are the olive trees and the parched land really worth anything, after generations of wandering? You Palestinians can go anywhere. . .” Ali replies: “We can wait 100 years if we need to, but we will always come back. . .”

Palestine is the cultural opposite of Expat Nation – a place to call home for an ethnically and politically homogeneous nation. Even with all the mythmaking about the ties to land, this vision of nationalism rings hollow to me. In fact, I think it rings hollow for most people, diasporas and nationals alike.

The sense of belonging somewhere called home is based on much more than olive trees or the rich smell of earth. America is testimony to the rapid sense of belonging that emerges after less than a generation. The ebbs and flows of population today are driven by opportunity more than philosophy or ethnic affinity. Even within nations or the EU, people move for jobs and a comfortable lifestyle with newfound colleagues, friends and neighbors.

The ties that form at each stage of life are much more powerful than the ties of nation or tradition. Clearly family ties are in a class all alone, for most of us. When we look to do business or rely on someone who needs to be totally trustworthy, we start with family. The next round of community can form in a second grade class, a baseball team, a college dorm, or with new parents at a birthing class. These ties are personal; we form them for many reasons and some of them last a lifetime.

The next round is the one that concerns loyalties and ties to people we don’t know – Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. As Anderson describes, these ties are based on a shared experience of culture, usually transmitted by books and newspapers in the last few centuries, and now movies, music, and the internet. Spielberg’s Munich has replaced the local gazette.

It is in this realm that our national loyalties are shaped and bounded. Anderson is very convincing about the role of the popular press in building the national consciousness. Historically, this phenomenon is quite new. Only since widespread literacy has the press been able to influence the majority of people. Nationalism, independent of ethno-centrism and tribalism at various levels, is only several hundred years old. And in that short time we have had how many wars to codify the division of land and hegemony among nation states?

Regardless, the battles for “Imagined Community” loyalty are the defining conflicts of our era. Whether it be Islamic Jihad vs. Western pluralism, Red vs. Blue states in the US, urban capitalist vs. rural farmer in China, these factions or affinities are the basis for identity and community. What is new is the extent to which these loyalties are selected by choice instead of birth. For an increasingly large group, we choose our affiliations. For Expat Nation, we have chosen to subordinate nationalist identity and community to something else; today that “something” is not well defined.

For most, it seems, our only common bond is “we can never go home again.” This alienation from homeland varies, but everyone sees his or her homeland differently after a long period overseas. Since my expatriation has roughly coincided with the post 9/11 era, I have witnessed a steady decline in the status of the US in the world, and a steady rise in many other countries’ reputation and power. Certainly the US’ self-imposed isolation and decline through two wars and the “War on Terrorism” have contributed to my alienation. But it has not been matched by a newfound loyalty to anywhere else. If anything, proximity to China has made me more jaded to all the machinations of government.

I think that expats from many nations, and many Chinese who have lived overseas, share my alienation. But this is only one dimension of our affinity. The effect of globalization on this stratum of the population has been to forge a community with much more in common than shared sources of news and information. And, if shared perceptions of the world are enough to forge nationalism, then we certainly have enough to begin the discussion about more collaboration.