American Expatriates: An Unexploited Mother Lode

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- We have met the foreigner, and he is us.

In Saudi Arabia, a strange and foreign land if ever there was, a terrorist attack two weeks ago was aimed not primarily at Saudi citizens but rather at European and American citizens who have chosen to live large portions of their lives, often raising children into their teen years, in Saudi Arabia.

Some 35,000 Americans live in Saudi Arabia, many working for American oil and consulting companies, some for the U.S. military and some
for the 100 percent Saudi-owned oil production company, Saudi Aramco. Expatriates are an unusual breed of American citizen who, after living for years in a foreign country, might think and
act more like a "foreigner" than an American. When they come back  to the United States, they might feel culture shock as strongly as they felt when they first moved abroad.

Between 3 million and 6 million Americans, or up to 2 percent of the U.S. population, live as "expatriates" around the world, shopping and socializing and paying bills in foreign currencies, adopting foreign customs, making foreign friends, often speaking in adopted foreign tongues. Even in highly protected enclaves such as those in Saudi Arabia, expatriates brush up directly against the disorienting strangeness of the "other" and thus quickly learn the skills needed to adapt, to make peace and to thrive.

In other words, this special 2 percent of the U.S. population has become expert at a set of skills the entire United States is badly in need of learning, and fast. They are a rich but entirely untapped resource. As the sole global superpower and one that is not shy, under President Bush, about pushing its military weight around, those skills will be even more needed in the years ahead. We need to make friends as we try to increase the odds that democratic habits and institutions are adopted worldwide.

St. Paul Furlough

I received this Internet joke in my e-mail the other day from a friend in Hong Kong: "In New York City, the United Nations adopted a resolution to study the food shortage in the rest of the world. But three delegates raised objections. The delegate from Africa did not understand the word 'food.' The delegate from Europe did not understand the word 'shortage.' And the U.S. delegate did not understand what was meant by 'the rest of the world.'"

Is this how we want to be known by our global neighbors? Expatriate Americans are like honey bees who buzz around the world collecting rich nectars and pollens. They are a valuable source of understanding of the very countries we are culturally, economically and militarily invading -- if only we would use that resource. But we don't. When American expatriates return to the U.S., they usually run smack into a stone wall of ignorance and indifference among most Americans about the places they spent much of their lives.

Last week, I visited with a former Rochester, Minnesota kindergarten teacher who now teaches in Saudi Arabia for Saudi Aramco in an oil town near the Arabian Gulf. She is furloughed in St. Paul with her three children, waiting for tensions to subside so she and her kids can rejoin her husband in the Gulf. Is she incredibly relieved to be back safely in the United States?

Nope. She can't wait to get back to the Gulf. "It's our home," she said. "Our friends are there. We like it there, and I still feel safe there." She asked that her name not be used in order to avoid any political or visa entanglements.

Her eagerness to return seemed in part fueled by the lack of interest Minnesotans have shown in learning what she knows firsthand about Saudi Arabia, Arabic culture and Islam. One of her youngsters rolled his eyes as he said: "When kids here find out I live in Saudi Arabia, they say 'Do you go to school on a camel?' 'Have you ever ridden a camel?' It's always camels, camels, camels." When the camel questions stop, conversation shifts to more compelling matters such as skateboarding and the Minnesota Twins.

Nothing wrong with the Twins, mind you. (Keep the streak alive, guys!)

But in these days of a global war on terrorism and homeland security alerts and suspicious sideways glances going to foreigners, especially Middle Eastern ones, doesn't it make sense to sit down with the true experts in our midst and to learn from them?

And who really is a foreigner these days, anyway?

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report