Immigrant go home? Gladly, sort of.


Here’s a trend I call “false hope” for xenophobes: What if all the foreign-born and their offspring actually pick up and go home?

Well, it’s not quite happening in such massive numbers that the Tea Party will choke on its good cheer. But it is happening enough to notice. I’m not talking about people here illegally. I’m talking about genuine Asian Americans, both native and foreign-born, who’ve discovered something quite natural–the urge to go “home.”

And it’s not just to vacation, but to live and work.

This is the kind of thing that would force Horace Greeley, our American compass, to literally turn in his grave. He had the direction wrong.

I’m sure we all know at least one or two Asian American friends who have “gone east,” at some point.

By my own unofficial count, I can name ten without even trying.

The very first ones I can recall from the ’70s were all foreign-born Asians educated in America and sent back home to be the rightful patricians in their domestic societies.

Around the ’80s came more American-born corporate types sent to open up China for their corporate clients, like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s what Asian American MBAs did back then.

But then when recessions hit in the ’90s and later, I did notice there were more American-born Chinese who, without corporate prodding, simply made the genetic decision.

Two acquaintances of mine found their way to Hong Kong, one as a journalist, the other as a fashion designer. The designer is back, the journalist has stayed and thrived. Anecdotal, sure. But some 12 years later, The New York Times has done a story on this idea, and now we have a bona fide mainstream trend.

Ed Park, the head of Asian Pacific American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, told the Times it’s now gone beyond anecdote. And I believe him.

When I talked to him the other day, he said there is still some difficulty quantifying the movement from West to East, but he said he can tell institutionally that the west to east phenomenon is taking hold. He mentioned how international schools in Seoul are loaded with Asian Americans looking to go back. “They’ve put a cap on the number of Korean nationals who attend those schools (to make room for all the Asian Americans),” he said. “Just look at their yearbooks, and you’ll see how many Asian Americans have returned.”

He also mentioned the throngs of Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans who for years have taken part in the teaching English programs in Japan (I know at least three people who’ve done this in recent years). The movement from West to East has been developing over time. In fact, Park notes that increasingly the idea of “the American” to an Asian audience is more and more the face of a Gary Locke, or another Asian American. Douglas MacArthur? Not anymore.

While there’s a “Roots”-like adventurousness and curiosity driving this phenomenon, the Times story is primarily economic. Given the opportunities in the U.S., or lack thereof, even for some in the “Model Minority,” Asian Americans seem to have a nice built-in option.

But the idea that Asian Americans are looking to Asia to seek their fortune really turns the immigrant model on its head. What does it say about the times when the Third World is better than the U.S.?

It’s the anti-Gold Mountain idea.

It’s always been the hope of the immigrant that the “grass is greener…,” but what if it weren’t even that, and the mountain we were seeking to climb was really in Asia all along?

The immigrant dream is being revised by a global generation.

This notion may be anathema to many older hard-working immigrants who see their kids toying with the idea. But this is the immigrant version of the sense many Americans feel, that their children will have a much harder time replicating the success of their parents. That is, unless you’re a young buck or buckess from immigrant stock, and then you can shift your boat in reverse and head to Asia.

It does bring up some interesting questions. What if we all just stayed put in the first place?

Can you picture America as 90 percent white? Oh, yeah, in some suburbs, it still is. But what if all of America looked like Iowa circa 1950?

I think I’d be heading to Asia now too.

There’s also the idea of “home.” What is that?

I went to the Philippines for the first time to cover the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino in the ’80s. But I’m sad to say I haven’t been back since. Not even to see my relatives. My relatives immigrated here to see me.

I was a kid from 1632 Fulton Street in San Francisco’s Western Addition who grew up in the Mission. That’s what I mean when I say “home.”

But we all have this sense of a “blood home.” And for me that will always be the Philippines of my late parents.

Would I go back? For vacation, yes. To live? Not sure. I have a friend who lives in California but has a second home in his home province.

When he went for a visit this year, he was advised to stay in the big city, Manila. It was just too dangerous in the old province town.

When you have dollars in a peso world, you are a marked man. You need your dollars to buy private security, or bribe someone for safety. The cost of living abroad?

As my friend found out, your face and blood may be Asian, but your wallet is still American. And they can tell. Especially if you’re ten pounds overweight by their standards.

Another couple I know is happy with their new San Francisco condo. Retire in the Philippines after almost 40 years in America? After a visit, they discovered just how American they were.

There are some real economic incentives to go to Asia to live and work. If you’re young and are sent abroad by an employer, there’s a $91,000 ceiling on money earned that is not subject to taxes (check with your tax advisor). But for many, the ideas of money and values are commingled. How exciting to have a hand in developing an emerging China, Vietnam, India, the Philippines? As a young immigrant or native born, a foreign scenario may offer better and more meaningful opportunities than anything in the U.S.

If you do “Go East,” just keep your American passport handy.

“It’s your insurance policy,” said Park, who said the value of citizenship is made all the more important.

Carlos Bulsosan may have written “America is in the Heart.” But if you’re living and working abroad, it’s in your breast pocket.

Your passport provides you with the American’s backup. You can always come home.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
read Emil's bio