Did you know that by calling yourself an expat you could be using a politically incorrect term? Or you could be demonstrating your superiority over others? No, neither did I.
Like many expats before me I realised that there may be more than one label for my life overseas and I started wondering what the difference was between expat and immigrant. My initial thought was that technically, an expat is someone who moves somewhere temporarily, maintains his or her foreign identity and will eventually settle ‘back home.’ An immigrant, on the other hand, is making a permanent move with the goal of making the new place home.
By that definition, does that then make us ‘long term expats’ people in denial? Is it that we are really immigrants but we just can’t accept we will be in our host country forever? Or is it simply describing a state of mind, therefore letting us off the hook (we can still call ourselves expats if we want)?And at what point in our longevity overseas do we move from being an expat to an immigrant?
I Googled it of course.
One very frequent answer is that expats are the privileged group, the wealthy Westerners who move to another country. Immigrants are those escaping poverty from the third world countries. One writer went so far as to state specifically which countries/regions fall into what category: “Europeans, Americans, Australians and Japanese abroad are most of the time referred to as expats, while Latinos, East Europeans, Arabs, Africans and Asians are considered migrants.”
I have a friend who moved to Spain because she was escaping her poverty in Britain and the standard of living in Spain is much, much easier than in Britain. She calls herself an expat, not a migrant.
I also encountered this answer: “I think the politically correct term is foreign national.”
I had no idea I was politically incorrect all this time.
I also found comments and articles written by people who call themselves expats but who are suffering from some sort of label-guilt. Such as this: “It's been easy to label myself as an expat all this time, but I'm starting to think that doing so is almost a racist statement against other legal immigrants, it's like saying ‘I'm better than them’ somehow”.
And I was surprised to read this: “To me the term expat smacks of British (or American) superiority, be it used consciously or subconsciously.”
I had no idea the term expat could be so loaded!
I started wondering if people were over-thinking this.
The dictionary defines the terms like this: Expatriate: Person living in a country that is not their own. Immigrant: Person who has gone to live permanently in a country that is not their own.
From what I understand, ‘immigrant’ has negative, local connotations in some European countries (France, Spain and Greece, for example).
I can understand why ‘foreign nationals’ don’t choose to be called immigrants there, but what’s stopping the rest of us?
The next time someone asks me what my blog is about, if I reply “I write about my experiences as an immigrant in Britain” they’ll just look at me like I’m being weird (but trying to be funny).
Do any of you long term expats call yourselves immigrants–if not why not? I simply never thought of it until now.
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.