International Influences

Pierce County depends upon, even thrives on, our local interaction with the rest of the world…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Pierce County’s largest employers are JBLM and The Port of Tacoma.

What do these two entities have in common?

They both depend upon, even thrive on, our local interaction with the rest of the world.

How many of us have roots, business partners or even family members in nations, ethnicities or cultures far from the humble borders of Pierce County?

I’d argue that virtually all of us do. Certainly over 95% of us.

Tacoma’s neighborhoods and surrounding areas reflect these influences. From Buddhist temples and Ukrainian churches to Pho and Bahn Mi places, these streams of influence impact us all, probably far more than we might recognize.

If you mix in the proximity of Sea-Tac International Airport and the inclination toward travel and global commerce, not to mention the transnational reach of the internet, we in the greater Tacoma area are in flux, even awash in, international influences.

We, of course, are far from alone in this.

An estimated 9 million Americans currently live abroad. If they were recognized as a political entity, they would rank ahead of 40 states by population.

If you think living in America in a time of pandemic, conflict in our streets, economic uncertainty and a chaotic election season is difficult, imagine trying to explain, defend or justify our quite public stresses to a befuddled outsider – as an American.

When you travel, work or study abroad, you, as an American are expected to know, understand and represent everything about America.

You are, unofficially and maybe even involuntarily assigned a permanent role as an ambassador of all things American.

And, as in all things in 2020, it’s complicated.

So complicated in fact that US renunciations in the first half of this year soared to 5,816, more than twice as many as who gave up their passport in all of 2019.

Renouncing one’s citizenship does not come cheap – in 2014, the US government raised the renunciation fee from $450 to $2,350.

But for some, in fact for many, the tax burden makes it worth it.

On a practical, personal level it makes sense; watching their home country in their host nation’s news, or talking about it at local dinner parties, stopped being fun. The screaming headlines present a corrupt and incompetent banana republic succumbing to pestilence while arming for civil war. No political party is neutral, no skin color is safe and no job is secure.

And then there are the taxes.

The U.S. is almost unique in the world in taxing based on citizenship rather than residency.

The Obama administration passed the notorious Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), inflicting misery on U.S. expats in every corner of the world.

As a result, many foreign banks and brokers stopped taking “U.S. persons” or green-card holders as customers. American expats have increasingly been locked out of retail finance in their host countries.

Besides political tribalism, racial tensions and employment insecurity at home, the tax and financial liabilities of being American overseas can become overwhelming.

The US government is not alone in making life complicated and expensive for Americans living abroad. The European Union has been passing laws with bureaucratically mind-numbing names like MiFID II and PRIIPs that imposed new rules on everything from mutual funds to life insurance. This scared the U.S. banks and brokers of American expats living in Europe, so they also started kicking out their customers with foreign addresses.

Many Americans overseas are financially, not just politically and philosophically, marooned.

Many US citizens have been seeking legal recourse, but this too is expensive, time consuming and complicated.

Those 9 million Americans currently working or living abroad are scattered across hundreds of countries, dozens of industries and thousands of jobs from management to English teachers.

To put it mildly, Americans abroad are not a unified political action committee.

If you have lived overseas for very long, you realize something unexpected; you are not really understood, trusted or welcomed fully by your host country – you are also not fully understood, trusted or welcomed by those at home either.

It doesn’t take long for this sense of alienation/not-belonging to set it. For me, it just takes a few days.

Home is not the host country and culture, and what used to be home feels like another planet. The political tribalism, tacky commercialization and violence seem even nuttier from a distance. On the whole, Americans abroad feel ostracized and abandoned by their own country.

Children of overseas workers or missionaries have a term for this. They call themselves Third Culture Kids (TCK).

These are individuals who are (or were as children) raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their childhood.

They typically are exposed to a greater volume and variety of cultural influences than those who grow up in one particular cultural setting.

And they take this “mix” as their normal, just as we in Tacoma might take Pho, Lumpia, nachos or gyros as our dietary standards.

There is no definitive number as how many Americans are in fact Third Culture Kids, but estimates, based on how many have worked abroad (from all countries), are in the range of about 320 million.

That’s close to the entire population of the United States (about 360 million).

Often TCKs find a sense of belonging in relationships rather than geographical location, and relate best to others like themselves – not with the exact same experience but with the same sense of dislocation.

You can see more about TCKs here: http://www.tckworld.com/tckdefine.html.

But the bottom line is that TCKs, or any of us who have been abroad, feel like we don’t really belong.

As the BBC put it, TCKs are citizens of everywhere and nowhere (https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20161117-third-culture-kids-citizens-of-everywhere-and-nowhere).

Put that alongside a volcano on our horizon that could erupt any time, the constant possibility of earthquakes and Tsunami warnings, and suddenly Tacoma as a whole makes more sense – we, far more than most, are citizens of everywhere and nowhere.

And most of us wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s an edge, a tentativeness, a wavering tipping point of possibility and absurdity that you find here that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

We in Tacoma, just because of our geography, find it easy to feel distant from the rest of the country.

We are not like everyone else, and we are certainly NOT Seattle. We are the unique mix of past and future, Asia, Europe and Native cultures, high tech and no tech. We like bicycles and trucks, coffee and local brews, we love our devices, but we also love our trees. We like it here and we travel more than most.

Tacoma is not a big city and it’s not a small town. We just are who we are – and that too is subject to change.

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