There are answers and there are rationalizations. We are all frogs in a pot and someone else is controlling the heat. But we can jump out and go elsewhere. Maybe. Never underestimate the power of inertia. Nearly 97% of the people on this planet never pack up and leave their country of origin. Is it because they are happy? Or is it because they are risk averse? One way to answer the question, "Why do you stay?" is to turn it around and ask the native-born-never lived anywhere else, "Well, why are you still here since you don't seem all that happy ?" Is that a fair question? You bet it is. If someone is going to ask me why I stay abroad, then why they stayed put is fair game.
But recently I've started asking another question because I've met more and more people who move and move again (those Serial Migrants Ossman studies). These are not the assigned expatriates (people who are sent by a company and rotated to subsidiaries around the world) but true nomads that move from one place to another, settle for a time, and then decide to try something else, somewhere else. Some even become citizens before they leave because, you never know, they might want to come back and who needs the immigration hassles?
The native-born citizens and other immigrants react very negatively to this. Why come to a country, settle, and then leave? Is there something wrong with our country or is there something wrong with you? We still have this model in our head of immigration where the immigrant arrives, puts him or herself on the path to citizenship and then happily stays in his adopted country until the end of his days. That's what immigrants are supposed to do, right?
It's never been that simple. Entire papers and whole books have been devoted to the topic of return migration. A substantial number of immigrants to the US in the early 20th century stayed long enough to become citizens before they packed up and went back to the home country or to a third country. Immigrant does not equal "I plan to stay here forever." Here are a few examples that I've encountered:
- A refugee family who escaped the Soviet Union and landed in the US. They stayed just long enough to get US citizenship for the entire family and then they left a year later to live in Europe where they stayed.
- A young couple with different nationalities living in Northern Europe. Prior to that they had lived in Asia for years. When I talked with them, they were exploring their options and were thinking Eastern Europe, Middle East...
- Retirement migrants who immigrated once in their lives and when their working days were over, found a third country (or went back to their country of origin) to retire in. The adopted country was a great place but wasn't necessarily their ideal place to grow old in
- A young woman who goes from one global city to the next because after 5 or 10 years she gets bored. She wants the thrill of discovering a new place and she wants to be around people like her: people who have lived and worked in many countries, not just one or two. As for the immigrants and stay-at-home citizens in the countries she's lived in, she finds them equally uninteresting. (And, yes, that shocked the hell out of me. I sure never thought of it that way.)
It's the same question asked by the stay-at-home citizens but it's coming from a very different place. They aren't arguing that we should go home and there is something wrong with us because left our home countries; they are saying that we should get out more. The adopted country is not all there is.
So why are we still here?
Damn good question.
And for an interesting and eloquent look at how people make move or stay decisions over the course of a lifetime, have a look at this post by Iris Kapil over at her blog Iris Sans Frontieres:
Transitioning into old age from a life lived across cultures — Part IV