Expatica Amercicana (Part 1): What is a Handball American Expat and Philosophically, What is an American?

Eleyes Baltagi, Asaf Bengozi, Amir Seifert, and Rene Ingram at the Jr World Championships.

Americans who have primarily developed their handball skills while growing up in another country are playing an increasingly important role with U.S. National teams. The first part of this series looks at some common misconceptions regarding this key subset of our national talent pool.

Citizen, Expat and Dual Citizen

First off, I think it’s important to have some common terminology because each of these descriptions of Americans are often used interchangeably when it reality they have some distinct differences.

  • Citizen: A legally recognized U.S. status entailing that person specific rights, duties and benefits. (Kind of a mouthful, but good ol Wikipedia has the best one I could find.)
  • Expat: An American citizen who lives in a foreign country
  • Dual Citizen: Someone who is a U.S. citizen, but also has citizenship with another country

What do each of these definitions have in common? They are all U.S. citizens and they all can represent the U.S. in international competitions.

How Does One Acquire Citizenship

There are 3 ways one can acquire U.S. citizenship. Those ways are:

  • Birth in U.S.: With only a handful of exceptions, if you are born on U.S. soil you automatically are entitled to U.S. citizenship
  • By Parent: If either one or both parents are U.S. citizens than the child can become a U.S. citizen
  • Naturalization: Citizenship can be obtained through the Naturalization process

Each of these methods have their own little rules or process associated with them. Having a U.S. birth certificate is by far the simplest. Claiming citizenship via a U.S. parent requires paperwork and is simplest if done shortly after birth. Regardless of how citizenship was obtained, if you have U.S. citizenship you can represent the U.S. in international competition.

The Typical Handball American Expat

The cohort of athletes that are making the big difference right now for U.S. national teams are:

American citizens that primarily learned how to play handball in another country where the sport is structured and well established.

In most cases these athletes are expats with dual citizenship, but as I took the trouble to explain above neither of those terms always fit or are even relevant to this description. And, some folks will even misconstrue those terms as negative. But, for the purposes of this discussion I’ve got to call them something and for simplistic reasons I’ve settled on “Handball American Expat” or simply expat.

Setting the semantics aside what is a typical Handball American Expat? In many cases it’s an American who has one American parent and one parent that is a citizen of a country where handball is well established. And, those parents have decided to live and raise a family in the country where handball is well established. These American kids are therefore exposed to handball, decide to make it their sport and they develop into handball players just like any other kid might living in that country.

The beauty of these expats is that USA Team Handball doesn’t have to do anything to develop them as players until they approach adulthood. About all that is required is communication and encouragement for them to eventually participate with U.S. National Teams. And, then even when they reach adulthood much of their development continues to be the work of their club teams. There are, of course, some things that USA Team Handball can do as a federation to foster and guide that development and that will be covered in a follow on commentary.

Americans that More Likely than not have Really Thought about their Citizenship

As I alluded to earlier, from time to time I’ve been taken to task for simply distinguishing between dual citizens/expats and state side Americans. Basically, being called out for insinuating that expat Americans are somehow not really Americans. Let me try and explain why that isn’t true on a personal level and why any redneck handball fans reading this might want to rethink that view.

I lived in France as a just visiting American for five years. Five totally awesome years in so many ways. My daughter went to French schools. I played basketball and handball with a local French club. I even speak some French… poorly. In short, I really tried to learn about the culture and be part of it. Of course, not to the extent of someone who decides to live in another country permanently, though, I did seriously contemplate applying for a job at NATO HQ in Brussels and not coming home. Contemplating is not the same as having done so, but it sure gives me a sense of what it might have been like to. To have a foot in two worlds.

And, another thing which surely any expat with a foot in both worlds has to have done a few times is really think about what it means to be an American or to explain to someone else what it means. To essentially defend who you are. I had to do that more than a few times and trust me it required a bit of thought while living in Paris as an active duty Air Force member in the lead up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Such reflection on one’s citizenship is just not as front and center when you live stateside.

Of course, what I’ve just described is not true of every expat American or stateside American for that matter. Some expats might have ridiculously strong ties to the States based on frequent trips back there to visit relatives or an American parent that religiously reminded them of their citizenship and what it means. And, some expats might have pretty thin ties especially if they were simply born in the U.S. and have parents who are not also Americans. But, even if the ties are thin that individual has made a conscious choice to take on the mantle of being an American.

Any remaining doubts? I suggest that you watch these Handball American Expats when that Star Spangled Banner is played and they’re wearing USA on their backs. You’ll quickly come to the realization that they’re just as American as any American. And, arguably for the reasons I’ve laid out they may well have thought about what that means then the typical state sider.

Definitions and philosophy covered and out of the way. In Part 2, I’ll look a little closer at the demographics of our 51st state, Expatica Americana and how it’s a bit like the Faroe Islands.