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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First time expat? Read this.

Bet you’re halfway between elated and exhausted, right about now. You’ve probably done your goodbye party weeks ago; the house is packed up, you’ve shipped your stuff. The kids are enrolled into school, your husband’s been gone for weeks and you’re just about to get on the plane and leave absolutely everything behind. You might have even already arrived. You’re nervous, excited, sad and happy all in one go; you’re hoping the kids settle in quickly and that you can still get PG Tips and Marmite from somewhere and you’ve already given everyone your Christmas dates so they know you’re coming back for regular visits, just like you promised you would. You’ve spent the last three weeks feeling like you’re treading water – like you’ve said goodbye about 10,000 times. You know it’s not forever. It feels like forever. You can’t wait to go but you don’t want to.

You’re nearly there. Or you’ve just arrived. Welcome to being an expat. A thousand experiences and challenges await. But something’s already happened: you’ve changed. Life has changed you. You’ve taken a step away from everything familiar and put adventure at the top of the list of things to do. Here’s my list for you to mull over, in the coming days, weeks and months: Ten thoughts on moving and living abroad.

1. No matter what you think life will be like, it will be different. You will be different. You can try and stay the same, try to squeeze the shape of your old life into the new one. But  you will not return the same person, if indeed you return at all.

2. You’ll find yourself high on the experience one moment and crashing down the next, and you won’t be able to predict when or how or what will set you off. It’s not you: it’s culture shock. Even a culture that seems to be familiar, is still different. You’ll experience it a lot for about six months, and then it will ease off. But it won’t ever go away completely, even if your stay stretches into years. Ride the wave, accept that there will be times where you really don’t know what the hell you are doing here, and then move on as quickly as possible.

3. There will come a point when you have to get in a car, or on a train, or a bus and just get lost. Do it the first few days, to get it over with. After you’ve sat crying because you can’t understand anything and you don’t know where you are, know that it will be easier the next time.

4. Talk to people. People in coffee shops, people in the queue at the supermarket, people at school drop off. Everyone is in the same boat as you – bar none. Even seasoned expats need new friends to replace the old ones who left, so don’t be put off by their tenure. The longer you remain alone, the more alone you will be. So put yourself out there, find a club, or a group, or join the PTA. Don’t wait ‘until we’re settled in’ to do this. You won’t settle in until you have friends and in the absence of family, you’ll need them. Go get them. NOW.

5. If you are a trailing spouse, and you even think for a millisecond that you want to continue working while you are abroad, prepare for the fact that it might be a lot harder than it would be at home; because of visa issues, or lack of appropriate childcare, or because the job you do at home doesn’t exist where you are going. If it’s hard to find a job that fits, keep searching, and networking, until you find the solution. Make it work. Don’t be lulled into an expat lifestyle you didn’t want because it’s easier. If work is an important part of your self identity at home, consider the impact not working will have on you, and act on that before everyone gets too comfortable.

6. You will feel very lost, for a while. Not just in the streets, but as a person. Your identity, your life as you knew it, has just been ripped out from under your feet. It takes time to build yourself up again. Don’t feel a pressure to be ‘normal’ on day 1, or day 10 or even day 100. You need time to recalibrate, and you might go off in completely the wrong direction before you figure out who you are in this new world.

7. Don’t forget who you were, either. It’s okay to change but it’s not okay to pretend you’re someone you’re not. You’ll get found out eventually.

8. However easy it seems to get on a plane and go home every couple of months, try to resist the temptation, and commit to the place you have chosen to be in. Commitment will make you happier in your expat life and ironically make you less homesick than if you keep going back all the time.

9. Remember your spouse is new at all of this too, and if you have moved because of their job, the responsibility and pressure on them is IMMENSE, to make it work for everyone. Cut them some slack and make time to talk (not yell) about why life is different/difficult/depressing. Try not to blame them for your feelings (easier said than done, I know) because unless someone held you at gunpoint, it’s pretty safe to assume you had a say in this adventure too.

and finally,

10. It might not feel like it now, when you are lonely, stressed, don’t know how to get anywhere, or where to buy anything, or how to say thank you even – but this is the best adventure of your life. It will take time, oodles of it, to really appreciate this  – perhaps you won’t even realise until you’re back home again, what an amazing thing you did. But you’re doing it, and in between all the hard work, it’s going to be awesome. The very best of luck. Now get out there.

Ruby. x