For as long as there have been communities, there have been borders, that outer edge beyond which lies the other, and within which exist right-thinking folks like, well, you and me. And for as long as there have been borders, there have been immigrants, curious strangers who, for reasons the locals don’t understand, have left the comfort of their own homeland to settle anew here.
Or, rather, the locals do understand, because who in their right mind wouldn’t want to come here? This is where the food is the right food, right? Where the laws are the right laws! And where even the trees, as one politician infamously said, are the right height! We’ve lived here forever and it’s exactly what we imagine a place to live in should be like. And if that’s just because we can’t imagine anything different because we’ve never lived anywhere else, well, so what?
Thus we come to understand that the very fact of immigration reinforces the local’s sense of superiority, whether justified or not. Reinforces their sense of “the way we do things is the right way to do things and if you’re here and not doing things the way we do things then you should just go back to where you came from and do things the way you were doing there – oh yeah, you can’t because you LEFT there to come here because clearly we do things better here.”
Which, as bigoted, jingoistic, narrow-minded and warped as that may be, pretty much explains the tensions between all immigrants and all locals since people started saying to themselves “this sucks, I’m gonna see if things are better over there”.
The only problem with that model, as Robert Guest points out in his well written, well-researched, and well-balanced book Borderless Economics, is that that’s not how immigration works now:
What few people notice is that migration is no longer a simple, one-off event. People do not merely leave one country and take up residence in another. Often they circulate. They are born in one country, study in another, and then return home. Or they work abroad and use the savings and experience they gain there to start businesses back home. Or they divide their time between two or more countries.
Most importantly, they build networks. A transnational family may have brothers in Kolkata and cousins in Cleveland. A graduate of a top American university may have classmates in both Bangalore and the Bay Area. Typically they stay in touch, swap ideas and alert each other to business opportunities.
Why is it different now than it has been since forever? The internet and airplanes.
The internet. Where you didn’t even need to leave wherever you were to stay in touch with your homeland, to see your family, to share the same goofy little day-to-day things that, curiously, are the things that bind us. For as Guest writes: “Many people assume that the borderless Internet breaks down barriers of race and ethnicity. Sometimes it does, but mostly it serves to strengthen traditional bonds.”
And airplanes, which have made it infinitely easier for people to not simply physically relocate, but also revisit their family in their own homelands. Before World War II, only the very rich could afford to go back to Europe, let alone India or China. And realistically, travel to those nations only became an option for the middle class after the 1970s. My god, just imagine what the impact that kind of fluidity would have had on the U.S. economy during the 19th century if the Irish, Italians, Germans and more were able to jet back and forth between continents. Boggles the mind.
Which means not only that today’s immigrants are fundamentally different from the immigrants that have always been, it also means that their impact on the economies of nations is entirely different. Hence the book’s title, right? But if you think we’re only talking about the traditional “wages earned here being wired home” impact, Mr. Guest would like to clue you in to a much more revolutionary, innovative, and therefore, encouraging situation.
For what Guest is most interested in chronicling is examples of businesses that would not exist were it not for the kind of cross-pollination that is intrinsic to today’s immigrant. Like how Nandan Nilekani used the Indian diaspora to help the Indian government build a biometric identity system, bringing in Raj Mashruwala who had worked on the New York Stock Exchange, and Srikanth Nadhuamuni who had built a multi-billion dollar health IT firm in California. Or how Mei Xu, who attended university in Beijing but then grad school in Maryland, “used her knowledge of China and America, and her connections in both countries, to build a multinational business from scratch.” Using the internet to make the kind of connections to global intellectual capital that would have been unthinkable in generations past, to create something that would have been otherwise impossible. That only exists because of a new kind of transnational immigrant.
Now, you may dispute this and believe that you’re either Indian or American or Chinese or whatever, and that fluidity runs contrary to one of humans’ most basic traits, loyalty. But Mr. Guest is not so sure:
Nationality need not be an either/or choice. Just as a man can be both a son and a husband he can also be both Indian and American. His loyalties may sometimes be divided, just as a man may feel torn if his wife and mother are at loggerheads. But most such problems can be resolved or papered over. It is rare for relations to degenerate so badly that the man must sever ties with one of the women he loves.
Every nation has learned a lot from its immigrants. But this idea – especially in an era of intense black-or-white, yes-or-no, left-or-right, with-us-or-against-us acrimony – that we are capable of being more than we were capable of being before, may be the most valuable thing of all.
Borderless Economics by Robert Guest was published by PalgraveMacmillan on 02/07/2012 – order it from Amazon here, or order from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).