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Why Do Americans Retire Overseas?

We Must Be Pretty Weird Because, You Know, We’re Expats

In my experience, most countries look better, and live better, on the inside than what we’d predict from the outside.

Consider France, for example.

Outside France we read about strikes, the world’s highest taxes, a broken welfare state, and Arab riots. We hear of snotty innkeepers, arrogant food vendors, and pickpockets who target tourists.

Yet once inside France we enjoy red wine and leg of lamb, the Louvre and the Pompidou. We wander through a thousand years of European history. We still hear about things like subway strikes, but we find that those things rarely affect us.

Or consider Argentina. From outside Argentina we read about travel restrictions, currency controls, import controls, an arrival tax targeting Americans, media censors, and a terrible crime problem. From the outside, Argentina looks exactly like the mess it is.

But once we’re in Buenos Aires we eat thick steaks, dance tango, go to the opera, and sit at beautiful sidewalk cafes. We spend a morning at the Costanera Sur, perhaps the world’s finest urban wildlife refuge.

I see one big exception to this phenomenon: the United States.

Vicki and I are visiting family in the United States as I write this, and we’re enjoying ourselves immensely. Yet I think the United States looks better from the outside. To an outsider, especially an outsider in Latin America, the United States excites, innovates, moves markets, values morality, and invents iPhones.

From the inside, though, the United States lives worse that it looks. I could go into detail about what I dislike, but why bother? You don’t want to read about my complaints.

The world mostly loves an idealized USA and looks on the country as a model. Foreigners pour money into this country, and many want to live here.

Vicki and I recently got to know a 22-year-old woman in China. She studied tourism in college, speaks English, and wants to work in a five-star hotel. She’s likely to achieve her modest career goals. But what she most wants to do, the thing that most fascinates her, is to visit Los Angeles.

I asked why.

“The USA has everything, so up-to-date, so exciting and wonderful. The best.”

So what makes the United States so appealing to Third World foreigners? I call it a bias toward change.

Many Americans remain inculcated with the pioneer spirit. Americans tend to choose the new and exciting rather than clinging to the old. Americans, perhaps more than any others, move forward, get things done, and focus on a better tomorrow.

Look at the way Intel thinks, for example. Suppose Intel builds a new, faster chip that sells for half the price of the old one. In much of the world chip developers would withhold the new, fast chip from the market. They’d desperately try to move out the old chips first. Perhaps they’d even deny a new chip was coming out. Not Intel. Intel simply throws the old chips away. Intel wants their customers to think about tomorrow. And if the customers are to think about tomorrow, Intel must do the same.

Take a more prosaic example: calendars. In the United States, calendars and datebooks for the following year come out around September. Peak sales probably occur in December. By the following March, those calendars sell for pennies, as retailers hope to get at least something out of the inventory.

Not so in the rest of the world. In the rest of the world March calendar prices never drop more than a small amount. Many calendars get thrown away simply because retailers refuse to cut prices. Rather than lose money on a sale, they prefer no sale at all.

Perhaps the country most opposite the United States would be Japan. The Japanese never move forward rapidly, never leave the past, never write off losses. The Japanese economy tanked in 1989. Banks found themselves with billions of worthless loans on their books…and nearly 25 years later those loans remain on the books. Japanese bankers never took their losses, never moved forward, never made the tough decisions.

Partly as a result, Japan never came out of its 1989 hole.

Okay, so I’m an American. I think the United States looks pretty good, especially from outside. So why, then, do I choose to live overseas? And more to the point, why should any American choose to live overseas?

Answer: personal preference.

Vicki and I enjoy visiting the United States. Our mothers live there. I tell jokes in English, love a barbecued pork rib, and read The New York Times. I root for Stanford football, like to see American tennis players win at Roland Garros, and hope to see the United States win a soccer World Cup.

Still, we choose to live overseas. And that’s the point. When we move abroad, we express our pioneer spirit. We take that spirit with us.

Vicki and I first moved abroad in 1981. We learned quickly that, when visiting friends and family back in the United States, we needed to focus on ideas and events that interest Americans. Our expat life means little to our friends back in the States. Only other expats and other perpetual travelers care about our expat lifestyle. Back in the States, our American friends prefer to relate to new technology, new cars, new wines, new restaurants…new-new-new. We’re the only expats they know, and we must be pretty weird because, you know, we’re expats.

Best to avoid talking about it.

The United States looks pretty good from afar. Foreigners tend to overlook fiscal cliffs, lawsuits, over-the-top medical costs, the nanny state, and sequesters that can grind Americans down.

Meantime, we American expats continue to value our childhood roots, education, family, and apple pie, even if we choose to live elsewhere. We alter our viewpoint of who and what we are by immersing ourselves in new cultures, new languages, and new experiences. We choose to be pioneers who venture into the unknown.

Recognizing that our new life remains largely a mystery to those who choose to stay put.

Paul Terhorst

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