You Might Become a Foreigner One Day
One side effect of globalization and the related phenomenon of greatly increased mobility is that the traditional definition of “foreigner” has passed its sell-by date.
Is a European who has lived in China longer than in his home country, becoming fluent in the language and culture in the process, still a foreigner in China, or has he become, relatively speaking, more of a foreigner in his own home town?
What about a Beijinger who did her schooling in Canada and then lived and worked in mainstream society there for another 20 years while raising a family, who has no intention of returning to China? Does she think and act like a foreigner? What do we mean by this label?
Or should both the examples cited be deemed to have graduated from being a simple, ordinary “foreigner” with a small “f” to a higher status — for example, of “Foreigner” with a big “F”, denoting achievement of the dual status of being a foreigner abroad as well as a foreigner at home: in effect, a Foreigner no matter where they go.
If so, is this a positive thing, or are these people who don’t really fit in very smoothly in any environment?
Wherever you go, the numbers of people like this — who would traditionally have simply been labeled “foreigners” — are sharply on the rise; and it’s not just people from Wenzhou who have set up shop in Paris or Milan. There is a major new global migration under way.
Where I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, the faces you would see during a walk through a local shopping mall back in the 1960s and 1970s included almost none of Asian descent. Likewise, the student body of my primary school included recent immigrants from Europe, but none from Asia. My high school had only a tiny handful of classmates with Asian surnames or heritage.
Today the same malls are full of Asian faces, and a glance at the ranks of top scoring students in local schools reveals lots of Asian surnames.
To some extent, this is no great surprise in the American context, because America is a land of immigrants, and a cultural melting pot. American history is marked by waves of immigrants from one place or another, and the past 20 years or so have seen a surge in immigrants from East Asian countries including China.
In that sense, the meaning of the term “foreigner” in America has always been relative, because apart from the native American Indians, Americans are (or were) to some extent all foreigners anyway. Absorbing large numbers of immigrants is an established pattern in American history, so there has traditionally been less of a stigma associated with being a “foreigner” there.
Outside of America, however, communities of “foreigners” are on the rise in many parts of the globe where this is either a relatively new phenomenon in scale and scope, or where the waves of immigrants are coming from new countries of origin, as opposed to former colonies or countries and regions with strong historical ties.
The immigration policies of many countries, understandably, tend to be more welcoming to better educated, wealthier foreigners than to those less likely to find gainful employment or to provide jobs for other people. There is also a clear correlation between growing affluence and rising cross-border mobility, not only for education and tourism, but for immigration purposes as well.
In effect, immigration policies favoring wealthier new arrivals tend to create incentives for immigrants to aspire over time to become “big F” Foreigners.
My point here is not to consider issues relating to immigration or nationality policies, which is a separate, important set of issues.Different countries approach these in different ways for a whole spectrum of historical, political, economic, and security reasons.
Immigration policy as relates to “foreigners” is of course also a very important issue for business. The simplest example of this relates to how easy (or difficult) it is for talented people whom a business wishes to hire to get a working visa for the country where the business wishes to employ them.
The more interesting long-term question which demands fresh new consideration does not relate to the definition of a foreigner for immigration or nationality purposes, but rather to the way people think and interact with one another in the new era of globalization we are adjusting to.
In most places, the traditional stereotype of the foreigner was someone who didn’t speak or read the local language well, was unfamiliar and clumsy with regard to local customs and lifestyle, who lived on the fringes of affluent mainstream society, often engaging in relatively menial or third-class work, sometimes the butt of jokes, and certainly not the type of person you would want your son or daughter to marry.
Nowadays, that foreigner down the street may well have better SAT scores than you did, a higher degree from a better university, and a fatter investment portfolio. They might also be your son’s or daughter’s next employer, if not spouse.
The traditional role models are getting mixed up, and it looks like this is just the beginning of a new chapter.
As companies increasingly compete in a shrinking world, they face a shortage of qualified, experienced executives who have lived and worked in at least two different cultural settings, and ideally even more than that.
The days when a foreigner was automatically perceived to be inferior or superior because of their ethnicity or place of origin are over, and we should gladly bid those days adieu. It’s not about where people are from or what color their skin is. It’s about who they are, what values and skills they bring, and how they think.
I will write more on the subject of “how we think” in next week’s post.
In the meantime, be prepared. Depending on how the new definition of “foreigner” evolves, you just might wake up one day and find that you have become one, or at least that someone close to you has.