Expat or Immigrant?

Hello blog, it’s been a while. I’m not going to start making excuses or apologies because I sort of haven’t had much to write about for a while. But I felt compelled to put fingers to keyboard this week to address an article published in the Guardian which both irritated me and made me pause for thought in equal measures. So here I am, stirring up a hornets’ nest, and getting on my gin-soaked white middle class expat high horse to write about it.

The article in question is dramatically headlined ‘Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?’ It’s a good place to start; to open up the debate, and it’s had me thinking a lot about whether this statement is actually true. My gut instinct was that it wasn’t, but then I began to fear that it was. So I read the article; then I read the links; then I re-read my own research on the subject. The conclusion I came to, is that in a world of flux, where people are coming and going from place to place, stopping for a few months or years, or never going back, or going back one day, or next year, or as soon as they can, or running from somewhere, or running to somewhere, or running after someone, or something, or seeking money, fame, happiness, peace, a job, a safe haven, inspiration…the conclusion I finally came to, is that there is a lot of confusion about the labels we use, because they don’t all mean the same thing, and yet maybe the judgemental society we live in wants them to mean the same so we can apply them in the same way to different groups of people.

Let’s address the facts first. Immigrant, if you care to search beyond the Wikipedia entry my esteemed Guardian journalist quotes in the first paragraph and actually look it up in a dictionary, is defined as ‘a person who comes to a country in order to settle there.’ An expatriate, on the other hand is ‘a resident in a foreign country’, or ‘a person who lives in a foreign country’. See the subtle difference there? Let’s put a third definition in, because it’s another word that’s bandied about a lot: ‘migrant’, meaning ‘a person that moves from one region, place, or country to another.’

The use and abuse of these three words is, I am supposing, what the journalist had in mind as the point of their article. And this is where I have the problem. Because while I appreciate the words ‘immigrant’, ‘expat’, and ‘migrant’ are all misused by governments, media and the general public, for better or for worse I believe it to be a class issue, not a race issue.

In the UK, ‘immigrant’ is seen as a derogatory word, feeding the idea to paranoid Daily Mail readers that thousands of illegals are stealing our jobs or living off benefits they don’t deserve. This is not the truthful or correct definition for the thousands of immigrants who move countries determined to make a better life for themselves (no mean feat, by the way), but the article has played nicely on the negative connotations and emotions of their reader to get their point across. So let’s be a little clearer. An immigrant is someone who is settling. Someone who intends to stay. Someone who left their own country to live somewhere else. Forever. They don’t get called ‘expats’ because their intention is to put down roots and not go anywhere. They have to be called something, and as they are immigrating, it would seem only fair to call them immigrants. In the US, everyone is historically referred to as an immigrant. Irish, Italian, Polish, German – and yes: Arab, African and Chinese – the yanks don’t discriminate. If you want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, you’re going be an immigrant first. I suppose you could say they are emigres, if you wanted to use a word with less negativity attached to it. But I’m not sure there’s enough evidence to suggest anyone refers to someone as an expat instead, purely because of the colour of their skin.

So why does the word ‘expat’ exist at all then? As one Facebooker put it ‘there’s the suggestion of something a bit temporary about the word expat.’ I agree; I think of it as a word to describe someone who’s gone to live and work in another country on a temporary basis. But I admit, we don’t use it to describe everyone. I don’t see many Bangladeshi construction workers being referred to as expats, for example.  Housemaids aren’t usually called ‘expats’. So maybe it’s a term that’s reserved for white-collar workers? A term for the middle classes?

Or maybe I’m just more comfortable with that idea than the alternative? And god, how awful is that? I’m more comfortable with being differentiated by my wealth than by my skin colour? It’s at this point I’m horrified by myself.

I push further. Was the article right? Is ‘expat’ a problem word? Is it a ‘white’ word? I question what I would label some of my friends and acquaintances, if I had to choose: the Indian doctor, the Pakistani teacher, the Lebanese administrator, the Egyptian business owner, the Kenyan nursery teacher; the mums I’ve met from Syria, China, Brazil, Greece, Russia and Iran…and find myself describing all of them as expats. The colour of their skin doesn’t even occur to me, nor does their nationality, except that halfway through making the list I find myself marvelling at what an amazing array of languages, cultures and religions exists alongside each other here, and wonder if ‘expat’ is just a made up term used by the media to make us feel bad about our cosy middle class lives.

But no; there’s truth in the fact that ‘expat’ is a term that’s used for a specific group of people and it’s not just the media that feed it. There’s no doubt that everyone I know, everyone I think of as an expat, is of a certain social status. I wonder if the word even exists in some less fortunate parts of the world, or whether it’s just a word that’s been made up by more affluent people to try and describe how we all wander about the globe, lucky enough to be able to live a comfortable existence and trip off home whenever we’ve had enough of living away. The construction workers, factory workers, domestic workers – I still wouldn’t use the word ‘immigrant’ here in Dubai, because it implies a permanence none of us will ever have. I guess that ‘migrant worker’ is probably the description I’d use, or something similar. I’ve never really thought about it. It makes me feel very uncomfortable to admit this. I’ve never dissected it in this way before, never really examined the word ‘expat’ for all it’s meaning.

I may be naive, but I still believe there’s more to it than the colour of someone’s skin. Maybe I’ve just been away from the UK too long, or live in some sort of idealist utopian dream most of my life, and I’m completely wrong about it all. I’m fascinated and appalled by the idea that I might be, yet stubbornly convinced I am not.

I’ve never had to worry about much, in terms of the bigger picture; never had to live or work anywhere I didn’t want to, never doubted I would have an education, or a roof over my head, or my own freedom. In those terms, I have everything. My living abroad status is about wanting to, not having to. It’s a choice – a luxury even – fuelled by desire not necessity. Maybe that is what makes me an expat versus anything else: the ability to choose to be one. It’s certainly one way to think about it.

But there’s so many lines of argument, so many reasons why these labels work in some places and not in others – and why they mean so much to different people, positively and negatively. While I don’t agree with the sweeping statement made by the Guardian, it’s certainly made me more aware that the imbalance – that divide between how we label and treat the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots’ in our odd little bubbles, is something we all should address.

What are your thoughts?

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