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.