Oct. 11, 2011 at 6:00 AM ET
For years, American jobs have been exported overseas, to places like China or India. Now we're exporting our people there, too.
"I just got tired of how the economy was going back home. I just figured things had to better somewhere else," said Francine, a former real estate agent in Las Vegas who recently moved to Xi'an, in central China, for work.
She has two jobs, but says her standard of living is a little bit better than when she left Nevada. "It's kind of ironic -- the middle class in China is growing while the middle class in America is shrinking."
Francine, who spoke with msnbc.com on condition of anonymity, had never been to China before making the decision to move there with her husband, and she doesn’t speak Chinese. But she's found enough locals who speak her language, and "when I meet someone who doesn't speak English, I play charades with them." The couple moved into a small one-bedroom apartment where he works in the import/export business, and she works constantly as a freelance magazine writer and at a learning center. She said she was surprised by the difference she felt immediately in the way her new neighbors treated her.
"Being poor anywhere in the world is bad, (but) if you are broke in the U.S., people just do not treat you very well,” said Francine, who is 28 years old. “In China, people are still very polite and respectful regardless of your financial status and I like that."
There's no hard data on private-sector Americans working overseas. In 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau tried and abandoned an official count of the then-estimated 4 million Americans working outside the country. In 2009, the U.S. State Department said it believed there were 5.3 million Americans living overseas, but cautioned that the number was an out-of-date guess. That means there's no way to know for sure how many Francines there are. But the response to our recent series on "Crazy things Americans are doing to cope with the recession," and a collection of anecdotes from around the world, hints that many U.S. workers are performing the same analysis that multinational corporations have made -- life overseas is cheaper, and in some ways easier, than in America. Reversing a trend that’s perhaps 400 years old, workers are leaving America to find opportunity elsewhere.
“After the market crashed, the only jobs that were available were temp jobs, or jobs with very high turnover. Either way, I knew that I could not get by like that or even dare to save money,” Francine said. “So, after a grueling two month debate with myself, I finally decided to sell what little I had left of my belongings and put the rest in a small storage unit…and armed with $300, I flew to China.”
To be sure, even people like Francine still believe success in America is sweeter than anywhere else on the planet -- and she hopes to return to the U.S. when the economy recovers. (That’s why she requested anonymity; “I wouldn’t want a future employer to think I’m unpatriotic,” she said.). But she believes her best chance of riding out the current economic storm is far from her home port. And while she misses her laundry dryer, her car and being able to flush toilet paper down the toilet, living in China does offer some advantages.
"The cost of living is really cheap," she said. "I can go and get massages and manicures every week and it only costs about $13 for both. You can't get those prices back home. In fact, those were luxuries I cut out in order to save money."
Americans are finding their way to employment all around the globe. In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, many finance majors and investment bankers fled Wall Street for Hong Kong or other Asian destinations, where the banking industry was still thriving. With Australia benefitting from China’s economic growth, Americans are flocking there, too. Americans now rank third among those applying for work visas in Australia, behind only the U.K. and India, according the Wall Street Journal, and their ranks have swelled 80 percent in the past five years. The story cited an unemployed California construction worker who now earns as much as $50 an hour laying flooring in Australia. Canada, with its proximity making it the easiest ex-patriot option, has seen temporary work visa applications from U.S. citizens double from 2008 to 2010, thanks in part to an unemployment rate that's nearly 2 percentage points lower than its neighbor to the south. The thriving oil-charged economy in Alberta deserves much of the credit for that. Meanwhile, in 2009, when IBM laid off thousands of workers, the global giant offered jobs to those willing to relocate to India and other nations as long as they accepted “local terms and conditions.”
"I constantly receive emails from people saying something along the lines of, 'I can’t find a job here in the States so I want to go overseas,' ” said William Beaver, who runs a website for U.S. emigrants at OverSeasDigest.com. "At the very least, it seems that people may see it as a viable option."
Wally, who also requested anonymity, left the west coast of Florida to work in the United Arab Emirates about two years ago. One happy surprise that made his family's move more tolerable: a thriving ex-pat community.
"I have run into several fellow Americans who have chosen to move overseas and take advantage of the opportunities that utilize their skills, which in some cases have no or little demand back home ... due to the dreadful downsizing that U.S. companies have been doing in the past few years and moving jobs to the low-cost regions," said Wally, 41, who was an electrical engineer, but now is in industrial business development. "Those I run into saw it coming, so of speak, and decided to venture outside the U.S. while they could … afford a transition."
Wally had the foresight -- and the money -- to carefully plan his departure, which made things much easier.
"It is not easy to leave home," he said. "The biggest struggle I had was leaving my family back home -- a wife and two kids -- when I took the leap of moving here. My wife and I agreed that I move first and explore the situation before I commit them to moving. It is important that you have the family support before venturing into a move like this."
Francine, the former real estate agent, didn't have the chance to plan as much – and hasn’t enjoyed as much support.
"I looked online for jobs for expatriates and there were ads for Xi’an and after I did some research about the city, I went there," she said. She said she put most of her personal belongings in storage and purchased the least expensive one-way ticket she could find.
"My family was shocked to say the least, and I would have to say that many of them were against my decision to move," she said. "It took some time for my grandmother to even understand why an American would leave America."
But thanks to technology, leaving America is quite different than it was a generation ago, or even a few years ago. During an interview via Skype, Francine said she's constantly in touch with friends and family at home.
And "home" has come to China, too. There's a Walmart in a mall that's a five-minute walk from her apartment. McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other familiar restaurants are even closer.
"It's all here," she said. "Things are not as different here as you might think."
There are unexpected benefits, too. Both Wally and Francine said they feel much safer walking down the street in their new homes than they did in Nevada or Florida, as crime rates are considerably lower. Away from the intense time demands of U.S. business culture, Wally says he's been able to relax a bit more and even "develop some new hobbies." Of course, being away from American efficiencies has its downsides, too.
"The struggle was setting expectations," he said. "We are used to systematic things in the U.S., irrespective of the state you live in, and we should not expect that getting a driver’s license, opening a bank account, hiring a Realtor, returning merchandize, or even connecting the utilities to your apartment is anything like back home. It sounds petty, but in the beginning it feels like you are on another planet."
That feeling can apply to getting the necessary paperwork for overseas work, too, said Beaver. Getting rich as an ex-pat is almost always a pipe dream; obtaining permission for full-time employment is getting harder, too. Canada recently announced it is tightening its standards for granting even temporary work visas.
"(People) don't know the facts," he said. "The job market in the industry (they) deal with can be even more competitive than in the States in certain fields because of security clearance requirements and other factors."
Wally and Francine shared one quality that made their overseas jump easier -- both had traveled extensively when they were young, preparing them for an adjustment to a radically new culture. Still, Wally urged down-on-their-luck Americans to at least consider an overseas move "if all roads at home hit a dead end."
And Francine said that ultimately, all that's required is an open mind.
"People are people everywhere. Ultimately, you'll find a way to survive," she said. "If you are brave ... just get a passport, and if you have enough money for a round trip ticket, get a storage unit and come to China."