Expat = immigrant? Some thoughts on the matter

I stumble onto complaints about the word “expat” now and then. So the argument goes: “expat” is really just another word for immigrant, reserved exclusively for those of European descent, Westerners, “white people,” while “immigrant” applies to everyone else. Its use is a subtle means to reinforce a global hierarchy defined by race, nationality, and socio-economic status. Or something like that.

I’m not trying to diminish anyone’s personal experience. I won’t claim that  “expat” has never been misused to elevate one group at the expense of another. That old-fashioned imperial chauvinism still infects the world, I have little doubt. There are assholes and ignoramuses the world over. I’ve met more than a few who call themselves expat.

But I have to disagree.

For starters, let’s consult a dictionary. An expatriate is “a person who lives outside their native country.” An immigrant is “someone who comes to live permanently [emphasis added] in a foreign country.” The notion of permanence being the key distinction.

Let me add to those definitions at bit.

Expats are tumbleweeds blown across the globe by the winds of curiosity and opportunity. We’re modern nomads. Itinerant vagabonds with itchy feet. Idealists and opportunists. Rootless cosmopolitans. We are businessmen and scholars and diplomats and educators and aid workers, and the families that come along for the ride.

We settle sojourn for a time in a foreign country, but rarely with any intent to stay. And there’s nothing imperative in our peregrinations. We go because we can, because we’re so inclined, and because the opportunity presents itself.

And we do come in various hues, and we aren’t all Westerners, and it’s safe to say we’re not all standing on the same rung of the socio-economic ladder. From what I can tell, we’re a diverse group, mostly held together by shared experience.

Now what about that other word, “immigrant.”

Immigration is often the product of limited or narrowing opportunities. It is less a choice, more an imperative born of circumstance—instability and poverty and injustice; a potato famine, a pogrom, a civil war.

(Note: I do recognize there are other reasons, not all of them dire, which may compel someone to uproot and replant themselves with such finality. We’re not going to talk about those here.)

The costs of relocation tend to be higher for the immigrant. The risks greater. The potential rewards less certain. And can you change your mind? Can you simply reclaim your old passport if the Land of Opportunity doesn’t live up to the hype? An expat, of course, can always pack up and head “home” should they so desire.

An immigrant is expected to relinquish some aspects of his former self—his language, his culture, social and familial bonds. “Assimilate” is the word often used. Such sacrifices are rarely required of the expat. No one forces you to adopt the local customs, frequently you don’t even have to learn the language. And it goes without saying, no one demands you pledge allegiance to some other flag.

So clearly, there are real differences. “Expat” and “immigrant,” I feel comfortable saying, are two different words for two different things. And while we’re at it, expat ≠ “migrant” or “guest worker” either. That seems obvious to me, but again, there are some who conflate and confuse the terms, so…

“Migrant” implies a spartan menu of life options. it is applied to both “internally-displaced peoples” (IDPs) and to refugees fleeing across international borders. I’m going to go out on a limb here and posit that migrants don’t choose to displace themselves in order to alleviate the doldrums of sedentary life.

And what of the guest worker? Like the expat, a guest worker is a foreigner who’s allowed to work in a host country for a limited period of time. Wealthier countries—like Saudi Arabia—”invite” guest workers from poorer countries—like Nepal—to perform the sorts of break-breaking and menial labor nobody else wants to do.

Guest workers often live and work under unenviable conditions. They are abused by unscrupulous employers, subjected to dangerous work environments, and often deprived of basic human rights.

The draw for the guest worker is a steady job and a paycheck, which may not be available back home. For the expat, moving overseas is an option, often an attractive alternative to the drudgery of the status quo, but not typically the only option one has to earn a livable wage. No expat I know or ever heard of has experienced anything remotely analogous to the plight of a guest worker. A reasonable person should be able to make the distinction.

So I’ll end on this: it seems reasonable to call yourself an expat. It’s a useful term. Its use is not an act of exclusion or a claim to some elite status.

It is a form of identity. It does imply membership in a group. But that group identity isn’t defined by race or ethnicity or nationality or even social status, but a shared lifestyle—that of the foreigner in a foreign land, who freely chooses to live that life.

Getting down off my soapbox now.

2 thoughts on “Expat = immigrant? Some thoughts on the matter

  • As an expat I think you made some relevant distinctions. To classify all of these terms as the same disregards the challenges and choice. As an expat, I have the choice of coming and going. My passport and skill set makes it easy for me to work almost anywhere in the world. It comes with a lot of privilege that many do not have and we shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “comes with a lot of privilege that many do not have and we shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t exist.” Agreed. It gets harder to ignore the disadvantages others are born with having lived abroad. I’ve become more aware of the privileges given to me because I was born in a stable country of relative peace and prosperity—things I might not ever have considered had I not left. I feel quite lucky, all things considered. I wish more people (including family and friends I grew up with) could have the same opportunity I’ve had. It has been an incredibly illuminating and enriching experience, one I would not trade for anything.


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