Sunday, 12 June 2011


I was described as an expat again this week. I've started correcting people and telling them I'm an immigrant.

I think the term 'ex-pat' has its place - others may disagree on the definition, but to me it describes people who live in a new country for a significant but finite period of time, maintain strong links to their country of origin, primarily associate with people from their country of origin - or other expats in general. They often work for international organisations, are (semi) retired or run a small business, particularly in hospitality. Most of those using the term, though, and most of those about who it is used tend to be white and middle class to wealthy.

Those who come from poorer countries to wealthier ones, work to send money home in low paid jobs, hoping to return in a few years, often associating primarily with those of the same national origin/who speak the same language tend to be classed as immigrants. I've no idea what terms people in this position prefer, but it underscores just how so many of the negative connotations of 'immigrant' are based in racism.

Immigrant or migrant are pretty neutral terms for me. They describe what I've done - migrated from one place to live in another. I confess I like challenging people's perceptions, pinpointing why they thought I'd not consider that term to apply to me - or for it to be an insult. At the same time I don't want to do that by reinforcing the idea that I must be a better type of immigrant because I'm white/English speaking etc.

Use of the expat term does make sense to me, though, for those who feel it accurately describes them. It's hard to find the words to talk about experiences of migration, to pinpoint one's own specific experience. So many differentiations - economic migrant, for example - have acquired negative connotations. Sometimes I really want to be able to describe my migration experience in a way that gives a more specific impression, without shunting the conversation off track or going into the details of what was a somewhat complicated and at times really painful experience.

I played with the word refugee for a while, but ultimately felt it appropriative. Yes, that may describe my reasons for leaving the place I grew up but (a) I believe I would be physically safe if I went back now (b) I have always had a passport that allowed me to settle in other places to New Zealand without going through a significant process and (c) I did not apply for residency status as a refugee (and wouldn't've been accepted if I had) and had a vastly easier ride by having other options opened to me. These may or may not be logical reasons - I'm aware that the definition and understanding of the term differ globally and historically - but it just doesn't feel right.

These words don't describe any of our experiences, really. The closest I've come is queer diasporic but that annoys me on semantic grounds, and is only half the story anyway. I don't mean that words like migrant aren't all of who we are - that's a given. I'm talking about the story - about the advantages my whiteness and financial resources and education afforded me, about the stress, the fat and disability discrimination, which were still less than some people experience, the assumptions that this was for fun when it was for survival, the knowledge that I was not faced with the discrimination queer friends faced immigrating to other countries, the mixed feelings when I had no relatives left in the country I spent most of my life, and as laws and situations changed and I began to feel guilty for feeling unsafe, for not sticking it out, for not fighting harder, the denial of people as to just how bad things were. How much I love my home and this city and how I'm still scared enough that my passport is permanently in my handbag.

There are people who could reverse every statement I've made to make it true for them. And in the end, that's why I've increasingly become comfortable describing myself as an immigrant. Because I'm not going to be able to describe my experience in a few sentences, it's better than making a poor attempt to use a word which I know can carry so many varied stories.


Hugh said...

I've always found the term 'expat' slightly pretentious. It seems to imply a sense of superiority both to where one came from and where one has ended up. There's a sense of hovering above both societies, being entitled to judge them but not be judged by them. Still, that's probably just me.

'Immigrant' implies an intent to settle permanently, or at least long term, somewhere. When I lived in the UK I would describe myself as one even though I didn't intend to settle long term purely in order to upset debates about immigration. People would always tell me "Oh, you're not an immigrant" but I think they really meant by that that I was white and spoke English as a first language, not anything about my residency aspirations.

I think ultimately the English language is pretty lacking to describe the way people move between nation-states despite the fact it's getting more common and more complicated, and the fact that we haven't evolved new terms or even used the existing ones in more sophisticated ways is a sign of just how intellectually paltry the debate about migration is.

katy said...

Expat comes from the Latin "ex patria" = "to be out of one's country" so I guess you can be an immigrant and an expat, if you are for a time in a country other than that (those??) of which you are a citizen. I think it is a useful term that describes an increasingly common experience though I can understand how it must be frustrating for it to be assumed that this is not your country when it is.

anthea said...

Hugh - expat does have many of those associations for me too, but that's not to say everyone or even most of those who use it feel or display that sense of superiority. I've tried thinking of alternatives for those who spend significant but finite time in a country - the best I can come up with are either pretty specific terms or '[nationality] living in [country]', neither of which are ideal. Which I guess feeds into Katy's point - I agree it is useful, but it's also imperfect for a lot of people, and inappropriately used, which is symptomatic of wider issues with language and immigration.

katy said...

When I lived in Japan for 7 years I used a variation of '[nationality] living in [country]' by saying when asked where I was from that I was "originally from NZ but now live in Tokyo. At the time I didn't have a plan to return to NZ and it annoyed me that I didn't have more of a claim to being a local (it is extremely difficult to naturalise as Japanese and the locals know this). I wonder if this is part of why several of my friends (including myself) changed our surnames to Japanese names when we married locals, so that we looked more like we had a right to be there.

In Dubai I noticed that Indian labourers are referred to as expats, I wonder if this is because, like Japan, this is a much more common category than immigrant.

Hugh said...

To me "expat community" actually implies a much smaller group than "immigrant community".

katy said...

Hugh, obviously it depends on the country, in some places immigration is basically not an option. ie, an Indian labourer/financial analyst in Dubai is only going to have access to a 3 month working visa tied to their job, a situation which I wouldn't describe as immigration. Similarly when I was living in Japan on a 3-year working visa I certainly didn't feel like an immigrant, no matter what my personal ties to the place were.

stef said...

I find this an interesting question. I moved from Canada when I was young and have no real reason to live there again. I went back and it very much was a foreign country to me.

however when i lived in Korea I thought of myself as an expat because I knew I wasn't go to last there.

I think home is where you want to buried...

Psycho Milt said...

In Dubai I noticed that Indian labourers are referred to as expats, I wonder if this is because, like Japan, this is a much more common category than immigrant.

Basically there is no immigration to Dubai, so no immigrants. Kuwait's the same - everybody's an expat, from Whitey like me to the lowliest indentured servant barely distinguishable from a slave. You can be there for decades, but if at some point you find yourself between jobs for longer than it takes your visa to expire - out you go.