Should you leave the United States?

Almost three weeks have passed since the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and some of you are still hurting.  Some of the initial horror has passed, but the ongoing political news may be arousing fresh worries.  Perhaps you look to the January 20th, 2017 Presidential Inauguration with suspicion that four horsemen will appear in the skies.  Sure, some of you joked about it before the election, but should you seriously consider moving outside the United States?

Push and Pull

The advice of Dan Masys, my first department chair, has been endlessly useful to me: the best moves are those where the push is in the same direction as the pull.  In other words, it is less satisfying to run from something awful when one doesn’t feel drawn to something new.  For me, the decision to leave in 2015 was tied to my excitement about being able to make a difference for biotechnology education in South Africa.  Before that I had seriously considered acquiring a law degree through night classes at the Nashville School of Law, with a shift toward biotechnology law research.  If you do not have something that draws you, moving away from the United States will likely feel like a surrender rather than an advance.

For many, the desire to be of service to the world will be a strong motivator.  I feel a loyalty to humanity, wherever it can be found, and I’ve signed on as a Global Citizen.  For some, your movement may be tied to religious motivations; many of my friends who preceded me in visiting South Africa did so through their churches.  Perhaps you studied a foreign language in high school or college and want to gain real mastery in the language and the culture of a corresponding country.  My French training from high school and college has come in handy on several occasions with immigrants from Francophone Africa!  Coming to South Africa fired me with new energy for my career.  I hope that you find something in the rest of the world that renews your spirits.

What are the practicalities of moving abroad?

When I first developed the notion that I might move abroad, I really didn’t know all the challenges that would present themselves along the way.  Let’s separate this topic to a few practical realities:

Can you get permission to reside and work in another nation?
Relatively few nations welcome free immigration to their shores.  Even if you intend to volunteer your labor for room and board, you should be sure to get a visa that allows that activity.  I was a bit surprised how hard I had to work in order to acquire my temporary residence permit for South Africa; it took six months after I received my formal job offer.  Some nations, such as Australia, use a formal “points” system to determine whether a person qualifies for a visa.  People at a more advanced age will be glad to know that many countries offer a retirement visa option (this example is from Thailand).  The requirement for retirement visas normally hinges on applicants showing a suitable bank balance.
Can you afford to move to another nation?
My move was the “deluxe” option, where my new employer paid for a shipping container for my worldly goods.  I spent months selling down my inventory of furniture and electronics.  Even so, when my goods arrived, they barely fit into my three-bedroom townhouse in Cape Town.  The cost of packing a household into a shipping container, moving the container, and unloading it in a new country can easily reach $10,000.  If you are changing nations on the cheap, you can generally bring two 28″ roller bags without incurring extra charges on airlines.  Having lived out of two roller bags for two months, I know it’s possible, even for someone used to creature comforts.  On the question of affordability, I must say that the U.S. Dollar is at a high value versus the U.K. Pound, the Euro, and the Chinese Yuan, despite what the financial naysayers have been saying.  Here’s the ten-year comparison to each currency (can you spot the Brexit vote?), where a higher trace means the dollar buys more of the other currency.

All charts from Google Finance

Can you handle the trauma of an international move?
Moving abroad is emotionally taxing.  You will encounter considerable disbelief (and demands to justify yourself) from people who could never imagine leaving “home.”  You will bang your head against bureaucratic barriers, rail in vain against expensive SNAFUs, and you will assuredly ask yourself if it could ever be worth it during that torturous process.  As an academic, I had moved away from my friends every few years during my training, and I still found it hard to leave Nashville, a city that had been my home for ten years.  I sought relief from unmanageable stress through moving, and it certainly seemed ironic that I would choose a course that would bring some of the worst stresses to my door.  It can be very worth your while to work with a counselor while navigating this process.  It is not for nothing that “moving” frequently appears on lists of top stressful situations.
Can you maintain ties to loved ones in the United States?
To move abroad is to lose sync with many of the people you know.  Right now, my friends in the United States are basking in the glow of Thanksgiving with family, assembling their Christmas trees, and shivering in colder weather.  I went to work on Thursday, and the weather here has me sweating in a T-shirt in the “cool” evening hours.  My family keeps its ties together through occasional Skype calls and shared photos albums, as well as my once-a-year visit to the United States.  I knew this part of the move would be hard, and I was not wrong on that score.

Reaching the decision to “go”

You may already be feeling the tug to emigrate.  Perhaps it’s more “push” than “pull” so far.  If your concerns stem from the outcome of the election, I expect that the push will increase in magnitude over the next four years.  I would love to be wrong about that.

One way to test that feeling is to apply for an international job.  I always find that my decisions are much easier when I have enough information to know what lies on the other side of a gulf.  Knowing what my career would look like in South Africa removed one of my biggest doubts.

Another way is to invest some of your savings in stocks from that country.  Do you shudder every time the price jags up or down?  How would you feel if you were paid in that currency?  (The South African Rand took a serious tumble just after I arrived in the country.)  Though the Rand’s weakness leaves me on pins and needles much of the time, I am certainly delighted at how inexpensive items at the grocery store are.  There are compensations for weak currencies, especially for retirees who keep their retirement savings in dollars!

Depending on your financial standing, you may be able to schedule a trial visit.  I visited South Africa in November of 2014, after I did not get the job I hoped for.  Instead I delivered a tutorial workshop for the students at that university.  The visit helped me to feel comfortable with the colleagues I would find in my new division, and they worked hard to fund a position just for me!


This November, 2014 photo features Novel Chegou and Gerhard Walzl, two of my divisional colleagues, along with Paulin Essone, now a researcher at UCT.

For many people, the answer will be “stay” rather than “go.”  I sometimes joke that I’m a bad person to ask why Americans do the things they do.  I left, therefore I am probably not representative of my countrymen and countrywomen!  Just the same, I hope that my experience can help smooth the way for other Americans who want to see the broader world.  It is a rich and beautiful place, and I know that my life will be immeasurably enriched because I chose to step out of my comfort zone!

1 thought on “Should you leave the United States?

  1. Pingback: New continent, new language, new mass spectrometry! | Picking Up The Tabb

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