Expatriate, Immigrant, Racist?

I’ve always assumed I’m an expatriate (this is not an ex-patriot or an ex-pat or an ex-patriate). A few years ago an article called this into question, and the conversation is ongoing. The Guardian published Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? I regularly hear from people concerned that I call myself an expatriate. I needed to dig into this.

Is the word ‘expatriate’ racist? Have white people appropriated it and are non-white people limited in their ability to claim it? There are two levels (at least) to this discussion: definitional and experiential.

According to Meriam-Webster:

  • the word Expatriate is a verb or an adjective and means someone “living in a foreign land.”
  • the word Immigrant is a noun and means “a person who comes to a country to take permanent residence.”

If we go only by these definitions above, I see one major distinction. Immigrants have an intention to stay, for the expatriates this intention isn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.

According to Google, an expat is someone residing outside their native/passport country. An immigrant is someone permanently residing outside their native country.

This idea of permanence is significant both in how it relates to the new country and the old country. An expatriate tends to engage less in the host country and maintains a stronger tie to the old country. An immigrant might feel a greater sense of loss toward the old country and a greater sense of responsibility and intention in engaging in the host country. Kind of like renting versus owning. An expat is a renter, an immigrant is an owner.

That is the dictionary discussion and by definition, I’m an expatirate. What about our experiences?

The most diverse place I know well is the protestant church I attend. There are people from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Congo, Nigeria, Senegal, Burundi, America, England, Switzerland, Korea, France, Germany… I think of all of us as expatriates. Some have lived here for decades, some for weeks. I never thought of any of us, regardless of skin color or economic or social class, as immigrants. We are here for work and we are expatriates.

Because none of us intends to stay forever.

We might stay here a long time. We might even die here, though that isn’t our intention. But we maintain residency and passports and voting rights and tax-paying responsibilities, etc. in our home countries which are not this one. To me, that is an expatriate. We’re here but we’re also slightly not here. We’re renters.

An immigrant is someone who comes, possibly against their will or preference, like a refugee, and goes all in. They will stay in this new country. They might go back but that isn’t in the plan as far as they know it. They invest in a different way, a more personal way, weaving themselves into the fabric of the new country and letting it weave itself into them. They are owners.

But that is just my experience and in different parts of the world, this is very different. Hana Omar commented on my FB page that in Europe there seems to be a strong class and racial component to which term is used. And, there are related words, much more racially charged, like migrant worker, a person who is actually an expat. Or in other places the term Foreign Domestic Workers is used for people who are also technically expatriates.

Both expatriate and immigrant are beautiful words and should be worn with pride by those to whom they belong. Expats are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other. Immigrants are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are also bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other.

But the terms matter, they aren’t conveying the same thing. For example, expatriates have the struggle of doing the splits, of keeping a toe in two countries and the longer they live abroad, the further apart the two countries become, the deeper they must sink into the split. This hurts. And immigrants have the struggle of grief, they have left behind a place they knew and instinctively understood and are straining to fit into a place that doesn’t inherently recognize them. This also hurts. We have something in common but we are not the same.

What do I conclude? Three things. One, I am an expatriate, not an immigrant. Two, I can’t assume by looking at someone that they are an expatriate or an immigrant. I have to talk to them and hear their story. Listen, ask questions, hear where they came from and where they are going and don’t jump to conclusions. Three, the ability to use and choose this term is evidence of my privilege and not all expatriates have that ability, being labeled what others perceive them as, often solely on account of skin color. This is deeply problematic.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Expatriate or immigrant?

What would you suggest as a new term?

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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: https://amzn.to/2P3BWiK Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter http://www.djiboutijones.com/contact/

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