Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

As this ex-pat can attest, moving abroad following the outcome of an election in your homeland is a lot more complicated than you think.

Last Tuesday night, as the returns were coming in and revealing news of victory for Donald Trump, Canada’s immigration website crashed under the heavy traffic, as devastated American voters panic-shopped for a new homeland. American celebrities frantically tweeted their intent to leave.

But emigrating to Canada, or New Zealand, or anywhere else, is not as easy as many Americans seem to believe. And leaving the U.S. behind is more emotional than you think.

I left almost 24 years ago, because I could finally go see the “Czech lands” that my grandfather had always told me about. I was going to, not fleeing from. I stayed in Europe because it felt so much more like home to me than did nerdy, narcissistic Silicon Valley; or a New York City that was so lost it was ready to opt for law-and-order and Rudy Giuliani; or a horse-and-hounds New Jersey suburb; or any of my last Stateside ports of call.

Every visit back to the States left me glad I made that choice. In addition to the fact that my English was picking up an odd lilt, I felt like a foreigner. Though I tried to keep up with the social and political changes, this was no easy task in the pre-internet era.  When I was allowed to vote every four years—you only get to help pick the president when you don’t reside in the U.S.—I did, though the process seemed to change every time and I was never really sure if my ballot ended up counting. My electoral vote is assigned to New York, my last legal residence, so I never even felt the satisfaction of tipping a swing state.

I’ve spent a quarter-century assimilating, being secretly thrilled at rarely being taken for an American. In Slovakia, I was the disruptive Czech spy sent to destabilize the country.  In Turkey, I was the German girl with no husband, thus fair bait. In Latvia, I was the German correspondent; in Lithuania I was suspected to be South African; in Belarus I was assumed to be Polish due to my accented Russian.

When I arrived in Switzerland as an exotic guest worker in the early days of globalization, I was dismissed as “that German Woman” because I spoke high German and not the Swiss dialect. The American thing was something I pulled out of my back pocket when it was useful for a job: native English speaker with keen understanding of cultural nuances, that sort of thing.

My Swiss work colleagues would sometimes ask, “How often do you go home?” and I would look slightly puzzled when I answered, “Every evening.” This is of course not what they meant. In a small country with four language regions, people tend to not stray too far from the familiar.

Ironically, just as the disillusioned in the U.S. are googling “emigrate” in fear of post-election chaos, I finally have the chance to become a citizen in this country that has become my home. Switzerland has a serious residency requirement for naturalization. After 17 years here, I was allowed to file the papers. Statements have been gathered from my employers, friends and neighbors.  Before the end of this year, I have to pass language and civic knowledge tests, go through a number of interviews, and be approved by my town council. Some time in 2017 I will receive the red passport and can truly belong where I live. I can participate in local elections, and never have to worry about being sent back to the land of my birth because it’s the only nationality I have.

Once I’m a Swiss citizen, I can give up my U.S. citizenship. Dual nationality is allowed on both sides, but why should I swear more than one allegiance? Especially if the country left behind is not what I’d want to claim as mine.

Except: As that yearned-for red passport gets closer, I’ve found myself owning up to my American-ness more and more. Getting riled about the Dakota pipeline is not about fashionable social-media positioning, or because I’ve adopted romantic European notions of Native Americans. It’s because my immigrant great-grandfather learned their languages and served native people alongside the white farmers at his general store out on the prairie.

When my son was old enough to ask me about how things were when I was his age, the memories I dredge up are all about a galaxy far, far away. Or so it seemed at first. But our frequent stateside visits and regular contact with his American cousins mean that my son understands my stories. We laugh together at 10-year-old stuff, and I start to notice that not all my cherished memories are European.

Giving up the blue passport suddenly starts to feel like negating part of my life. It’s not merely an administrative process, or a political statement.  Almost a quarter-century after packing my bags, I certainly didn’t expect to get sentimental.  As a Czech-Slovak-Polish-American (with a German son and husband) about to become Swiss, the basis of my patchwork identity still feels, well, American.

I question authority.  I am convinced that people never stop learning and education is not a privilege meant only for a few. I meet everyone at eye level, whether it’s a CEO, the dreadlocked guy selling the homeless newspaper, a head of state, the rugby moms, an elderly farmer selling her homemade jam at the market, the Bosnian cashier at my local grocery. I believe that careers are not linear.  Because I went to racially integrated schools, and kids in wheelchairs were also “mainstreamed” into our classes in the 1970s, I grew up thinking this is how the world is and should be; this is still a radical notion in much of Europe today. Despite my general cynicism and occasional misanthropic fugues, I am still basically an optimist.  And I am grateful that I could grow up in the country that I did, when I did, because that formed me in all these good ways.

Leaving the U.S. in a fit of pique doesn’t mean you will find a home in another place. It’s certainly not a quick fix. It takes years to build a life somewhere else and often much longer to get the paper that says you belong. And then you realize how much of you is still anchored somewhere else.

 

Caroline Smrstik Gentner is a U.S.-born and -educated European writer. She writes about educational policy and migration, among other things, from her home in Switzerland.

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