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Economic Affiliation

Among American immigrants today, the vast majority come for jobs or opportunity. Among expats overseas, a good fraction comes for opportunity, augmented by novelty and a variety of personal reasons. Many cities around the world are more international in their ethnic and cultural mix than they are representative of their homeland nations.

Because residency is defined by work more than other affiliations, and because of the increasing mobility from globalization, “home” and “homeland” are often separate. The personal ties we form as expats are based on work; on social groups such as clubs, gyms, and schools; and through various referrals and networks. Ties to place – home or homeland – are, in my opinion, secondary to ties to people we know. If there is a conflict between people or cultures, these anti-ties are equally powerful in forming affiliations.

The ties to place – as opposed to nation — are a gradual accumulation of personal ties and group affiliations we form in that location. Defining these ties as meaningful — in the sense of “homeland” and nationality — is a very complex process. For some, the personal experience of a melting pot community in a college dorm, for example, becomes a defining feature of nationality. For others, it is a common enemy in the Army, or a shared hardship like a tsunami, or racial discrimination, that defines a bond. These sub-national bonds are aggregated in some very personal way, until we define some aggregation as constitutive of our nationality. For different people, the sub-bonds that make up each personal definition of nation are likely very different. In Benedict Anderson’s analysis, the ties that form to nation are historically linked to print capitalism more than personal ties to place. While this may be part of the picture today, there seem to be many influences that define the groups we identify with, from personal experience to “imagined.” Regardless of the cause, we ultimately pin more of our identity and certainly our resources – taxes, conscription, and legal citizenship – on this aggregation called “nation.”

One important subset of these bonds or affiliations is essentially economic in origin. Where we live (rich neighborhood or poor), where we go to school, what companies we work for, who we interact with professionally and socially – these are largely economic decisions and consequences. “Belonging” also has a major economic element – if we feel needed and valued by employment, then we feel comfortable and connected regardless of whether we are in our homeland or elsewhere. Sometimes we have to choose between economic connectedness and homeland affiliation, such as a Chinese upper-class family choosing a successful international school vs. the local public school, in order to build different relationships for career and later life.

How important are economic affiliations relative to other ties that bind? Obviously it varies among different people, but we can look at some examples for anecdotal evidence. Aihwa Ong describes an example from interviewing many Hong Kong Chinese in Vancouver. The more recent, well-heeled arrivals bear considerable contempt for [previous] lower-class migrants with poor manners and social skills. The class barrier in this case certainly trumps ethnic, language, and racial ties. The multi-cultural colleges and high schools across the globe provide plenty of evidence of emergent ties superseding traditional connections. In the movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, a second-generation Chinese immigrant and his Indian college buddy are clearly more closely aligned to each other than they are to their parents. My international apartment building in Beijing provides a curious example: The Chinese staff monitoring the entries and elevators are much more likely to question and depose an unknown Chinese person, whereas foreigners of virtually any age, demeanor, or roguish manner can simply walk in unquestioned.

Quantitative assessment is a little harder to come by. One interesting estimator is the declining level of “hardship stipends” for international jobs. Expats are increasingly willing to take a job at a salary much lower overseas than they would accept in their homeland. While some of this is simply an awareness of the different cost of living, the trend over time – to what amounts to “negative hardship pay” – may indicate a preference for expat affiliation over homeland.

Shared economic interest is probably the most important factor in economic affiliation. In a global economy, the itinerant knowledge workers from all nations have a very similar set of interests. They [usually] face uniform barriers to entry or recruitment from national economies. Most nations favor their own nationals over expats for college admissions, scholarships, and tuition rates. In most countries, immigration policies are used to attract workers with scarce skill sets and deter low-wage workers from coming. Consequently, the global economy skilled labor force faces the same environment overseas, no matter where they come from.

These economic ties result in expats working for many of the same companies, teaching at the same universities, going to the same restaurants, and working out at the same gyms. Equally important, shared economic interest results in the same interface with local governments and nationalist interests, such as visas, airport security, residency registration, and health regulations. For example, if China opens a sector to foreign investment, all expats benefit and soon rush in. Similarly, if China restricts housing ownership to locals, all expat’s suffer as a result.

Expats have a much greater common economic interest with each other than they do with the average citizen of their homeland. In fact, global workers are usually at odds with their national compatriots on the issues of barriers to trade, labor and capital mobility, immigration policies, and national security policies directed at travelers, among other things. Indirectly, expats also have a much greater stake in non-governmental and international conventions, legal agreements, and standards, because these facilitate simpler trade and commerce. The more level the playing field, the better. Not so for nationals, many of who are still hoping to insulate themselves from an open world market.

Over time, shared economic interest will drive everything else – soon culture, educational curriculum, and values will begin to align, overcoming other barriers and traditions. Nations and governments will be powerless to stop it. If they try, it will simply speed their own decline as other, more prescient governments scramble to keep and attract multinational corporations, capital, and eventually, talent. In the neo-liberal anarchy of nation-states, it is “every one for themselves.” This could augur a very grim future for everyone, or it could mean something totally benign: new forms of non-governmental authority. . .

One Comment

  1. Sara Bareilles – Love Song…

    Sara Bareilles – Love Song…

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