The bell curve of expat opportunity

There’s a theory I’ve been kicking around. It may be totally wrong, and will probably offend some people, but I thought it would be fun to inflict it on the internet and see what happens.

The theory applies to Western (especially American) expats, and it goes like this: The degree of opportunity in living overseas tapers off as you approach the extremes of the social hierarchy.

Here’s a visual depiction of what I mean:

Some explanation is in order. Before I first moved abroad, I was under the vague impression that the streets of the Orient were paved with gold. That seemed to be the general consensus of people who didn’t actually live there. “The China market has over a billion people; if I sell a $1 widget to only 1% of the population, I’ll make $10 million!!!” would be a crude distillation of this type of thinking.

Or maybe this – again using China as an example: “I’ll ‘pick up’ Mandarin, charm my way into the upper echelon of Beijing society, and somehow convince a Chinese billionaire to give me large amounts of cash for [X activity].”

The simple strategy behind these and similar ideas basically amounts to this:

1) Move to Asia
2) Leverage my foreignness
3) ???
4) Profit!

In general, foreigners who move to Asia harboring these types of dreams are likely to be cruelly disappointed by the reality that if they can’t get rich at home, there is almost zero chance they will strike a gold mine in the strange, restrictive, and often cutthroat business environment of the East. In fact, such foreigners are far more likely to wind up teaching oral English to ingrate kids for beer money than building a lucrative business in Asia or somehow weaseling their way into the elite ranks of an Asian society.

This is not to say that it’s a mistake to live abroad. To the contrary, going and staying overseas in a non-Western country can be one of the best moves you ever make. But NOT in order to get rich quick, obtain fame/power, or “change the world.” If you aspire to do any of these things, your best bet is probably to head to a Western power center such as Manhattan, Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., London, or Boston/Cambridge, depending on your specific ambition, and start climbing the greasy pole. Packing your bags for Bahrain, Bogota or Beijing for anything more than a short-term stay (3-12 months) is as likely to sidetrack your quest for world domination as it is to accelerate it.

Exceptions to this rule might include the heavily Westernized cities of Hong Kong and Singapore (even Shanghai, despite its growing clout, is still something of an outpost). By and large, though, the gateways to the global elite lie in the U.S. and Europe. Like it or not.

So much for the elite. At the other end of the social hierarchy (no offense), we find a similar aversion to living abroad, but for a different reason: the math doesn’t work. For a broad category of people, ranging from comfortable blue-collar workers to those living off the government teat, putting down roots in the smoggy cities of China or the tropical beaches of Siam makes little to no financial or personal sense. People who can’t afford a plane ticket, or don’t have a passport, or lack the educational credentials to find work overseas, are going to find their global mobility greatly restricted. Like the aspiring Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley tycoons, their future lies at home, in the warm embrace of the motherland.

The bulge of the bell curve, between these two extremes, is what I call the “expat sweet spot.” These are the wannabe elites, the liberal arts graduates and mid-tier professionals and creative, independent, hedonistic types who chase the expat dream because they think it will generate new opportunities and appreciably boost their quality of life.

In a huge number of cases, this belief is correct. Escaping the postmodern hell-matrix of the West for the more easygoing cultures of Asia and Latin America can be a fantastic option for the young, the mobile, and the reasonably well-educated, not to mention retirees looking to kick back in a more exciting locale than South Florida. The dirty secret is that expat life is a blast. Seriously. Someday, all Westerners will catch on to this and the flabby white hordes will overwhelm the beaches and nightclubs of the third world in a modern-day Normandy of self-indulgence. (Some argue that this has already happened.)

Also, it’s often laughably easy to get hired and promoted overseas, where native English-language skills and a Western mindset are in high demand. Working in a foreign country can therefore be a powerful accelerant for your career, if you play your cards right and avoid the deadly English-teaching rut (or, once in it, get out of it ASAP).

Learning a foreign language is overrated because most people do it half-assedly; but mastering a difficult foreign tongue can bring a variety of intellectual and monetary rewards to the committed expat, opening doors to niche but interesting careers. For the subset of expats who choose full immersion in the language and customs of a foreign nation, living abroad can be a gateway to a new and more fulfilling life. These people I would describe as eccentric, and the more alien the nation to which they assimilate, the more eccentric they are. If anyone thinks I’m being disparaging, remember that most of the great artists, thinkers and inventors in history were eccentrics.

Many of these types manage to thrive in their adopted homeland, earning great respect from the locals, carving out lucrative careers for themselves, marrying and raising families and living happily ever after. I call these “high-functioning eccentrics.” The only catch: their lives aren’t generally “transferable” – if they ever decide to repatriate, their accomplishments in a foreign land may be looked upon with total indifference back at home, and reverse culture shock will be amplified by the personal eccentricities that propelled them overseas in the first place. Such are the paradoxes of life – especially expat life.

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