I love meeting new people along my journey, the kind that, due to their intelligence and awareness, cause me to question my assumptions about the world and the daily habits I take for granted.
Such was the case this week when I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with an extraordinary young woman who was visiting my closest friend here in Colombia. This young woman studied and lived abroad and now runs an NGO in Mexico City (which she founded) called “Ollin,” which roughly translates to Youth in Movement.
During one of our discussions on international issues, she casually asked if I would describe myself as an expat or an immigrant.
Hum, I thought, as conflicting thoughts raced through my mind. This is a quandary. Based on my current status here in Colombia, how would I label myself?
I knew that regardless of which choice I made, there were racial, social and economic connotations attached to both of these labels.
As someone who’s keenly interested in both world history and current events, I’m aware that human movement from one part of the world to another has been a constant for millennia, as populations have explored new areas seeking more abundant resources or have been displaced by wars, famine and Colonial expansion.
In a world that seems to be increasingly defined by international borders secured by walls and fences, what isn’t quite so clear is the system we use to label the people who migrate across these borders.
I had consciously called the American, French, German and Italian foreigners who live in my small Colombian town ‘expats.’ I merely saw these individuals as extensions of the expat phenomenon that’s been expanding over the past few decades as greater numbers of Westerners ‘choose’ to leave their home countries to work or retire abroad, often in regions that people in the West label as still ‘developing.’
In an effort to see what others have written on this topic, I decided to do a bit of research. I began by confirming that my mental connotations matched the common definitions of these terms.
As I’ve stated previously, the words we use are important because they frame our public discourse and eventually our ways of thinking and viewing the world.
According to various online English dictionaries, an immigrant is ‘a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.’ An expatriate, on the other hand, is ‘a person who lives outside their native country,’ so this second label would seem to be more open to interpretation.
And what about the closely related term ‘migrant’? According to the same sources, a migrant is ‘a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.’
During my years of living abroad, I’ve known a number of Westerners who were also living outside their native countries for economic reasons, some working for major corporations which offered special perks such as luxury accommodation and annual flights home and others who were teaching in regions like the Arabian Gulf because the teachers’ salaries in that oil-rich region were higher than back in their home countries. So, according to this definition of a migrant, weren’t these Westerners also migrants?
While I personally find all labels limiting and dislike being put into uncomfortable and ill-fitting boxes, we do this with language all the time. As one dominant aspect of culture, we often take words for granted, positive and negative connotations included.
I first ran across an article published in the Guardian UK by writer Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, where he states, “In the lexicon of human migration there are still hierarchical words, created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else. One of those remnants is the word ‘expat’.”
While it isn’t clear when the term ‘expatriate’ came into common use, it seems Mr. Koutonin is right about the racial overtones of its use.
According to Wikipedia, “…a British national working in Spain or Portugal is commonly referred to as an ‘expatriate,’ whereas a Spanish or Portuguese national working in Britain is referred to as an ‘immigrant,’ thus indicating Anglocentrism.”
While I agree there are often obvious racial connotations involved in applying the term expatriate, in my experience labeling someone as an expat is about more than just race.
In Kieran Nash’s article, Who Should be Called an Expat on BBC Capital, he notes, “The word expat is loaded. It carries many connotations, preconceptions and assumptions about class, education and privilege — just as the terms foreign worker, immigrant and migrant call to mind a different set of assumptions.”
I have to agree. These seemingly innocent terms we use to describe groups of people can be quite complicated when we dissect them based on common use.
The linguistic waters become even murkier when we consider journalist Ruchika Tulshyan’s nuanced words from the Wall Street Journal. She offers, “Today’s expats are from all over the world, from diverse backgrounds and with different skin colors, most with a desire to integrate within the new society they have joined.”
In practical terms
As I considered my own perceptions of these terms, I ran through the various scenarios I’d experienced during my years of living abroad.
My memory flashed back to my eight years in Oman where I was lucky enough to experience working with colleagues from more than a dozen countries on five continents. All of these ‘professionals,’ whether from Sudan, India or Australia were labeled ‘expats.’
In fact, Oman and all the other Arabian Gulf counties are filled with expats and migrant laborers. The distinction in most cases there was based on level of education attained and socio-economic status. The disparity in living conditions in the Gulf between those defined as an expat and those called migrant laborers is enormous.
In other contexts such as China, Japan and Thailand, the term expat is reserved for use just within the foreign community. In China, a foreigner is known as a ‘laowai,’ in Japan a ‘gaijin,’ and in Thailand a ‘farang.’ Depending on which locals you ask, there may be negative connotations culturally associated with each of these terms as well.
How should I be labeled?
For me, I’m an expat when talking about the country I left behind more than 15 years ago, but I’m an immigrant when referring to my current status in Colombia. I’ve been to the Medellin office of Migración Colombia two times and I’ll be going back to the same ‘immigration’ office two more times in the process of getting a 3-year resident visa.
While teaching abroad in multiple countries, I also had to spend a good amount of time at the nearest immigration office in each country before finally being granted a work visa. So, people who have to make multiple visits to an immigration office in order to be allowed to stay in a particular country should be called ‘immigrants,’ right?
There are no signs in these offices which say ‘expats queue here’! In most of these government settings, I’ve had to line up with the masses, although in reality the native civil servants clearly treated me (an educated, white male) with more respect and the process was considerably shortened when compared to the mostly dark-skinned, low-skilled laborers with whom I shared the queues.
Considering all this, it seems to me that the common usage of the term expat carries multiple meanings. It may be determined based on country of origin (passport), length of stay within a country, an individual’s job classification and salary, level of education attained as well as various other factors all having to do with belonging to a higher level socio-economic group.
Based on my experiences, it’s obvious to me that being seen as an ‘expat’ in a foreign country carries its privileges, especially when compared to the much larger numbers of ‘immigrants’ who often live in substandard conditions while awaiting lengthy bureaucratic processes.
Realistically, I’ve been an immigrant or a migrant for the past 15 years, and that label suits me just fine.
With the near constant talk of limiting immigration in countries across the planet, maybe it’s time we begin questioning the labels we place on groups of people and the stereotypes this behavior creates.
Gaining an understanding of the reasons behind migrations will go a long way toward making us all a part of the solution, rather than enabling the circumstances that push large groups of people across international borders in the first place.
NOTE: For an insightful African view of expats and immigration, read Fiyin Kolawole’s post Non-Expat Expats.