When anyone from Asia travels to the US or Europe, they inevitably notice the segregated lines at the immigration counter – the fast moving ones for nationals (in the case of Europe, all the rest of the continent as well) and the generally crowded lines for immigrants. For much of the last century, this arrangement elicited no complaints, seeing as it reflected the economic realities of the 20th century.

As we usher in the first Year of the Rat of this century though, perhaps some thought can be spared for the future of such emigrants. Would today’s youth in China and India bother to leave the region for life in Europe and the United States? The answer may indeed surprise most Western observers, in that there is no longer an unequivocal “yes” about it.

Asian economies continue to grow and more importantly offer opportunities for wealth accretion in a context that is best understood by the carpetbaggers of the Wild West more than any other group of people. While all of the asset bubbles in place will eventually recede, today’s economic engines across Asian countries will continue to produce millionaires well after the last European checks himself (or more likely herself, given relative longevity of women versus men in the West) into the grave.

Human beings only ever make irrational decisions, but societies always make rational choices. Thus, while some individual Chinese and Indians are likely to choose studying, marrying and living in the US, the decision will no longer attract the same social approval as in the recent past. With better economic opportunities within these countries, those leaving the local education system and its automatic leap into skilled workforce will be seen not as winners, but as losers, ie the people who couldn’t cope with the rigors and competition of the existing dynamic.

This is already the case with the most talented Chinese mathematicians and scientists, as well as Indian engineers. A number of Indian companies have indeed expanded their recruitment programs to “accommodate” those who studied abroad in a cute reversal of the rather more automatic choice of such people in past decades.

In the past, the choice of local graduates was primarily driven by cost considerations, but increasingly now this has been replaced by quality as the top echelons of Indian and Chinese business are dominated by locally educated people rather than those trained abroad. Even if the latter group boasts successful entrepreneurs in China today (as well as India), what really opens the doors for them is their basic education within the homeland.

Imploding banks in the US and Europe also rob many a talented graduate of their chosen vocation, as career paths are no longer automatic. Indeed, many students who have signed up for MBA programs in the US next year are reportedly dropping out or postponing their plans because of fears that the economic decline will prove more permanent than temporary.

Remember the colonists

Fairly recent history tells us that the last such replacement of employment opportunities happened just after World War II, when an enfeebled Britain pulled out its nationals from across Asia and progressively Africa. Unable to sustain the cost of colonizing these countries, and needing better quality labor to replenish what had been lost in the two world wars, Britain simply threw in the towel.

The result was that it was no longer “expected” that the second son onwards of landed families would end up in the service of the king (and queen before him), civilizing the colonies while playing a round of cricket with the natives. Instead, in the years after World War II, they were expected to work for Her Majesty’s Government within England, sorting out more basic tasks such as fixing local roads and ensuring that the trains ran on time.

The severe depletion of able-bodied men in World War II only hastened the process of localizing talent, leaving the colonies essentially unmanageable. While the impact of this removal of talented bureaucrats wasn’t immediately noticeable, today’s spiraling tragedies in Africa have much to do with the rather haphazard administration that prevailed in the last days of the British Empire, resulting in the creation of patently unviable countries such as Pakistan, Iraq and Kenya.

This isn’t exaggeration; after all, working the colonies was economically the most opportune task for many a young man, with commensurate luxuries in terms of quality of life and a lovely tan that spoke of wild adventures in faraway lands. That was in turn a function of the post-Industrial Revolution period wherein productivity gains far outstripped the supply of labor and caused deflation in wages that many English authors found substantial time to examine (for example, the redoubtable Charles Dickens).

As economic dynamics changed, many a young man found that a life of sufficient income offering a comfortable existence beckoned at home, along with a rather irresistibly low risk of getting beheaded by the irritable chieftain in the next borough; just the sort of thing that might spoil one’s afternoon tea.

Asian emigration to the US and Europe of course followed the opposite path, ie it was natives attempting to leave behind their lower quality lives in pursuit of greater economic opportunities. That process was also helped along by the rule of law and other niceties in Western societies.

Many of these niceties of Western life are now of course lost to the common man, as Europeans and American governments get more intrusive – indeed, in the case of Britain going so far as to illegally bug the telephones of a Muslim member of Parliament. Meanwhile, much of America has become hostile territory for Asians who are seen as contributing to job losses and the general economic decline.

These feelings are certainly exaggerated now due to the prevailing electoral dynamics of the two major political parties, but the undercurrents appear real enough to persist for much longer.

A few years back, a Mexican movie that depicted California without Mexican laborers was a surprise hit on the “art” film circuit [1]. Today, though, that movie can be seen as an eerie reminder of the future that beckons the US and Europe.

A day without Mexicans, 2004, directed by Sergio Arau