Saturday, March 30, 2019

Where should Americans live if they live abroad?

I'm a huge fan of living abroad, and I think many more Americans should do it. Living in a big, rich country with relatively few other countries nearby, Americans don't tend to travel overseas much. And of course, a great many don't have the economic opportunity to do so. I think there should be government programs that help young Americans travel and live abroad, and I think more charities, religious organizations, and other nonprofits should focus on helping people go overseas.

In a recent Twitter thread, I explained how I think living abroad changes one's perspective. In addition to the obvious benefits of cosmopolitanism - helping people realize that people around the world aren't so different after all, etc. etc. - I think it conveys a healthy appreciation for how hard institutions are to get right. Living in Japan for a few years, I got to observe institutions that work better there (cities, primary education), but also institutions that in many ways don't work as well - like the media, universities, corporate culture, the justice system. In fact, the institutions that Japan struggles with the most tend to be things that Americans complain about a lot.

Thus, living abroad taught me that institutions are very hard to get right, that tradeoffs and path dependence are very real, and that even the smartest people (in this case, Japan's vaunted elite bureaucracy) can often get things wrong for a very long time. I think I returned to the U.S. with a deeper appreciation of how hard it is to make a society work the way you want it to, and how precious functional institutions are. It made me both less satisfied with the things America does wrong - for example, urban density and transportation - and more wary of tearing up the things that actually work halfway decently. I can see the same sort of perspective in the writing of some of my favorite writers, including James Fallows and Terrell Starr.

OK, so if you're young-ish and looking to live overseas and gain some perspective, where do you go? Or if you're a nonprofit looking to give young Americans some perspective by sending them overseas, where do you send them? Japan's not a bad choice, but I imagine that there are even better places in terms of comparing/contrasting local institutions and culture with the U.S. Here are some ideas:

1. China

China has got to be the obvious choice, because the country is just so important to the world economy and to geopolitics. This is the Chinese Century, so might as well try living where the action is! Making connections to China could be very useful in life, in addition to any perspective gained.

Furthermore, China's one-party rule, development-oriented state, and close cooperation between government and companies make for an important and interesting institutional contrast. Chinese politics, ethnic divisions, and sense of history are also probably all very interesting and different. Some of these differences are very scary, but scary things can also be instructive. James Fallows is one of my favorite writers, and his time in China shaped him deeply.

The big problem here is that unless they speak Chinese (which, due to the large # of characters and the tonality, is not the easiest language to learn), an American's ability to really get to know people in China might be limited. Being trapped in the expat community is an easy way to avoid getting the full experience of a country. Though notably, some Americans who have actually lived in China claim that Chinese ability isn't as necessary as you might think.

I hear through the grapevine that the best city to live in is Shenzhen, though of course Shanghai and Beijing will always be popular (and Sichuan in general has my favorite food!). There are tons of other places to choose from, too.

Alternative: For those who want to see an up-and-coming superpower with more democratic governance and more English usage, try India.

2. Germany

When choosing a foreign country to live in, there's a balance between choosing one that's too similar (in which case you might overlook the important differences) and one that's too different (in which case you might assume there are no relevant lessons to be learned). Germany might be in the sweet spot. It's a rich Western country, which contributed more immigrants to America than any other nation except possibly Mexico. But it also has a very different economy and set of institutions -- worker councils and co-determination, strong vocational education, export- and manufacturing-oriented industrial policy, and dense urbanism with good public transit.

Germany might therefore be the best country if you want to see different ways to run an advanced economy. Also, lots of people can speak good English, and the country is safe, wealthy, beautiful, and fun. It might also give good perspective on issues of ethnonationalism, what with its WW2 history and its recent acceptance of large numbers of Middle Eastern refugees.

Berlin is the most famous place to live - it's very cheap, and is a legendary party town, with lots of history. But Munich is my personal favorite.

Alternative: France is a country with similar points of interest, though its economic model is a bit different and its English usage is a bit less.

3. Brazil

Brazil is, in many ways, America's "sister country". It's a large, populous post-colonial Western Hemisphere nation with a history of slavery (abolished 1888), a history of immigration, and a very diverse population. For those who are intent on living somewhere nice, it's also famous for its natural beauty and fun culture (though with a murder rate 6 times as high as that of the U.S., it's also a bit dangerous).

Brazil could offer some broad perspective on how to make a very diverse young society with a checkered past work for all its people. Economically, it's middle-income (slightly poorer than China), with some advanced industries but low productivity growth. It may therefore be a good example of the "middle income trap" - a country that is no longer mired in poverty but is struggling to make it into the ranks of wealthy nations.

Alternative: For those who would rather stick closer to the U.S., Mexico shares some of these points of interest.

4. Ethiopia

My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Tyler Cowen strongly recommends Ethiopia. If you want to see a developing country just on the cusp of industrialization, Ethiopia might be your best bet. Thanks to a recent improvement in political stability and a torrent of foreign investment (much of it Chinese), Ethiopia looks like it's hopping aboard the train to industrialization. That could mean useful commercial advantages to living there, if you want to invest and get in on the ground floor! And because Ethiopia is the first African country to start out on this manufacturing-based growth path, you'd be there for a historic moment.

The country is still desperately poor -- its income per capita is less than 1/30 that of the United States. But living in a desperately poor country is a good way to see what life is like without industrialization, and why countries rush to embrace it despite all the pollution, safety issues, and other drawbacks.

Alternatives: Other countries going through similar rapid industrialization, but slightly farther along, include Bangladesh and Vietnam.

5. Ukraine

It might feel a bit voyeuristic to go live in a country that is mired in troubles. But it could also be very instructive. Despite a history of industrialization as the center of Soviet heavy industry, and despite some of the world's most fertile agricultural land, Ukraine remains poor. It's mired in economic stagnation, political dysfunction, and a seemingly never-ending war with a small Russian-backed breakaway region in the east. If you want to see how a country with lots of advantages and close connections to the West can still struggle in this day and age, Ukraine is probably your best bet.

Of course, Ukraine also no doubt has much charm. Terrell Starr lived there and liked it. Nor is he the only one. It's cheap, and if you decide you'd rather return to the comfort of the developed world, other European countries are very close by!

Alternative: You could always take the full leap and go live in Russia.

So there are some suggestions of where to live if you're looking for some international perspective (with a bit of adventure thrown in). Of course, I haven't lived in any of these places, so this post is highly speculative. In the end, you won't know until you go!


  1. As a not-so-young adult, I and my wife lived in Switzerland for almost 10 years. It has much to recommend it as a destination for Americans. The political system is fascinating, allowing great diversity of ideology without much in the way of polarization at all. Lots of day-to-day norms for interacting with each other are very different than in the US. Unbelievably beautiful scenery. Probably the only downside is the high cost.

  2. British by birth, I've lived in Indonesia for nearly 30 years and Malaysia for 3.5 years prior (and 2 years in USA before that). I've stayed long periods in Singapore during those years. All are tropical, so don't come if you're bothered by heat. Singapore is Asia for beginners, an almost unique state, wealthy but with a very high cost of living and an almost punitive legal system. It offers an interesting example of how to manage a multicultural state, and how to create wealth in a region of poverty. Indonesia is sometimes a wonderful place to live (the people are famously friendly, think Bali) but tough to do business in an increasingly nationalistic environment, with widespread corruption. Malaysia (for me at least) steers the middle path - English is widely used, the legal system works, corruption is generally manageable, infrastructure is decent and foreigners are welcomed for their economic contribution. Also it's the cheapest of the three.

    1. Anonymous12:22 AM

      American living in Malaysia and also highly recommend it -- English is widely spoken, multi-cultural society with Muslim majority, cosmopolitan (Kuala Lumpur) with plenty of smaller towns, cities, and nature. The country is developing rapidly and foreigners (especially Americans) are welcomed in the business community.

  3. Anonymous1:00 PM

    Sorry about ten years too late to recommend China. It's getting harder and harder for foreigners there, and long time foreign residents are leaving. And I'm not talking about the cost of living or pollution or learning the language.

  4. Plus one on Singapore. Also a great gateway to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. On China, you can get by with English in Beijing, or Shenzhen, but not having Mandarin will be a handicap most places.

  5. Anonymous2:40 PM

    I highly recommend France over Germany. This Simon Kuper article has some great reasons why you should live in France:

    The French welfare state and French unions are on another level, an eye-opening one for Americans.

  6. The Netherlands could be more eye opening to young Americans than Germany. Better infrastructure (education, transportation), more open to the world, similar norms, higher taxes. Less income inequality, highly urban population, no love for the car, etc.
    Note: I live in Germany and would not move to the Netherlands.

  7. 275. Canada

    Living here for a year or two will really open up your mind to a universe of cultural differences. They have a slightly different postal system, and there's some white lady with a crown plastered all over their money. Also knit hats are called "toques", but the word is pronounced "tooques", so you're going to run into some of the same language problems I mentioned with regard to China, above.

  8. Berlin was amazing and good food; Prague was beautiful and cheap; Paris was wonderful but expensive.

  9. Anonymous4:54 PM

    One comment and one suggestion:
    * Singapore: Lived there 2011-2013, one thing that surprised me (an American) was how "one-party authoritarian" it is in terms of civil and political rights. If you're a young person and have a whiff of rebelliousness in you, it can be challenging (ie walk down the street with a political poster, you can and will be arrested).
    * Philippines: English is widespread, fascinating native-Asian-Spanish-Americanized gumbo of a culture, great food, tons of growth going on, still has a dirty/rough side, super-friendly people, warm culture, good weather.

  10. Smaller but a LOT safer than Ukraine is Slovakia - Bratislava is near Vienna. Most young folk speak some English (many older folk don't). Is a post-commie place, not on the level of gorgeous Prague (more like Brno, Czechia #2 city). Very nice Old Town. Still a lot of places not yet re-developed.

    Recently elected a very liberal Zuzana Caputova (Č is like Ch) for President. It's in both the EU and the Euro zone. Highest car making output per capita. With a (Schengen) Border to Ukraine.
    Lots of changes in the last 28 years I've lived here. (Married a Slovak, many are lovely)

  11. Try Plovdiv, in Bulgaria. Fun, distinct, culturally rich, relatively cheap and safe, with a budding tech scene and great food. Mountains, seaside, Sofia & Istanbul are close by.

  12. People here in Brazil say there is a lot of racism in disguise in this country. I don't agree and I think Noah gets it right. If there is one thing we have better than other places is the full integration of ethnicities and cultures. There is still some white people braging about their condition (mainly in the south), but they don't seem aware of how similar to other Brazilians they are, culturally. It seems like every culture gets absorbed in the country and contribute to a true melting pot countrywise.

  13. Anonymous9:38 AM

    What about Finland? Nature is beautiful, Helsinki is beautiful (for the most part), Finns are friendly. okay, it's expensive, but the welfare state works relatively well there. Easy access to St. Petersburg or the Baltics for a weekend trip (if you can get the Russian visa).

  14. Chile is a great option for many of the same reasons that Brazil is, though the specifics on what makes it similar to the US are different. Also, services (retail and financial services) are a big part of the economy so it's a place where your job might contribute to your resume back home and where there is a dire need of talent. Also, getting a work visa is very easy once you have a job offer.