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Expat Archipelago: The New Yank Abroad Is the ‘Can-Do’ Player In the Global Village

December 12, 1995

America. If they love it, why do they leave it?

``I thank God I was born in the States,″ Gail Singh says. ``I’m probably more patriotic than most.″ Ms. Singh is a Southern Baptist from Edenton, N.C. Divorced from her Indian husband and 50 years old, she coexists now with the filth of Bombay.

``Our system’s a good one,″ says Matthew Steckel. ``To be a part of it, to be American, is worth anything.″ He is 56, Bronx born, and spends his life in hotel rooms from Beijing to Yerevan.

``You become a super American when you live overseas,″ says Andy Sundberg. ``You discover how wonderful it is.″

Mr. Sundberg, 54, went to Annapolis, and met his wife at Oxford; she’s French. In the late 1960s, he set up as a consultant in Geneva and had two daughters. Then he stumbled on an American rule that floored him: If his children didn’t spend a number of years in the U.S. by their 26th birthdays, they would lose their citizenship. Poof.

With a few friends, Mr. Sundberg got a bill into Congress. He recalls a senate aide asking, ``These kids, are they really Americans?″ The bill passed; the rule changed. But Mr. Sundberg never forgot that comment. It made him realize how little his nation of immigrants cared _ or knew _ about its own diaspora.

The U.S., like it or not, manages history’s mightiest cultural and commercial empire. Its foot soldiers live almost everywhere and carry American values everywhere they live. Expatriates used to go native; now they go global. They used to sell; now they sell service. They used to be white men; now they cover the rainbow. The influence of these scattered legions, from pop culture to banking, has probably never been greater. What hasn’t changed is how little space they claim in the home-front psyche.

Americans don’t dutifully send second sons to rule the Raj, or mythologize its life in movies. No map exists of the expatriate archipelago. No census takers visit. The State Department guesses its population at 2.6 million, not counting at least 600,000 in government service and the military. Yet, the archipelago doesn’t send a soul to Congress. Its inhabitants don’t complain. It is no exaggeration to call them a national resource _ and a depleting one.

How do they manage?

Disarmingly. In a sail through a few of the archipelago’s atolls, one impression is clearest: The expatriate talent for holding the U.S. above the international crowd stems less from the subtleties of modern globalism than the constancy of American character.

It is close to 40 years since a novel came out called ``The Ugly American.″ It preached the winning of hearts and minds for American success in Vietnam. The character labeled ``ugly″ in the book wasn’t the bad guy. Still, the epithet entered the language to describe the lout who won’t learn alien tongues and plows up rice paddies in his Cadillac.

The gibe nurtured a national clumsiness complex. Ugliness, though, is in the eye of the beholder. Foreigners no longer faint at the feet of American power. But if the U.S. is so oafish, why does the world buy its software, its cartoons, its remedy for the Balkan war? Because as a nation of many nations, the U.S. has perfected a knack for tossing simple messages over cultural walls.

At home, it may go unnoticed; overseas it stands out. Expats act by reflex. And whether they love America a lot or a little, their messages to foreigners still come down to the American home truths: wide-open competition, gung-ho service and can-do optimism.

Posters for ``Scanner Cop″ line the steps up to Home Box Office headquarters in Budapest. The power is out. ``Hope you don’t mind the dark,″ says Steve Smith, leading the way down the hall. He runs HBO in Hungary, though after four years, he barely speaks the language. ``I have to apologize a lot,″ he says.

Mr. Smith keeps a paperback movie guide on his desk. He flips to ``The Ugly American″ (starring Marlon Brando, 1962) and smiles weakly. It reminds him of a debate with his Hungarian staff on the virtues of selling subscriptions door-to-door. ``The sales manager would say, `This is Hungary. You can’t do that.′ But I couldn’t take the chance that he knew more than I did about consumers. Sometimes you’ve got to go with what you know, risk being the ugly American, and force it.″

Hungarian directors have a penchant for sardonic drama, but when Mr. Smith chooses movies for HBO, he still goes with what he knows. ``Hungarians have enough drama in their lives,″ he says. ``A movie where there’s not a lot of subtlety travels well. Slapstick travels incredibly well. Chevy Chase hitting his head on a door. The audience is just howling.″

Mr. Smith is an expatriate of the corporate kind. He is 36 and grew up in New Jersey. He planned to spend his HBO days commuting into Manhattan, until this job came along. ``It was a way to get out of the middle,″ he says. High profit in low culture embarrasses him a little, but that’s entertainment. What cheers him is the way his Hungarian staff has learned to think positively. ``That’s one thing we brought over here I feel good about,″ he says. ``The concept was, work like crazy to get this business started, train the local staff and turn it over to them.″

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