On Being an Immigrant

by Seth Lewis

Growing up in Alabama, I knew the rules: I knew when to say “yes, ma’am” and how to order a Sprite by asking for a Coke and waiting for the server to say “What kind?” I knew what was expected of me, and I knew what to expect from others. I knew how to say things so that people would listen, and when I needed opportunities, I was confident that doors would open and people would give me trust. And I was right. Even when I made mistakes, the trust remained, and I knew I would have the help I needed to get back up and try again. Alabama was good to me, and I learned to expect it. I didn’t even think about it.

It wasn’t until I moved to Ireland that I learned what it means to be an outsider. All of a sudden I was an immigrant who was totally unfamiliar with the deep assumptions and unwritten consensus of my new home. I made a lot of mistakes, following the rules I grew up with instead of the unfamiliar rules of Ireland.

People were forgiving, but I soon began to realise that something was different. In Alabama, I was a homegrown local boy the community had invested themselves in. I was one of them, and they wanted me to succeed. They cheered me on, and I can still hear those cheers now, all the way across the ocean. In Ireland, I appeared out of nowhere as an unknown, a “blow-in” with no roots, no investment, no history. People were friendly, yes, but many were also suspicious, and how could I blame them? Who wouldn’t be?

It didn’t take long for me to realise that I was going to have to prove myself, and that all my qualifications and experience from America would do nothing to help me. I was going to have to start over from scratch, and this time I would have natural suspicion instead of natural trust from many of the people around me. If I had to describe that realisation in one word, it would be this: Lonely. I could no longer have the underlying confidence that I would always be supported by a wide community where I had deep roots. I was on my own this time.

Ten years later, I’ve learned a lot about how to fit in Ireland, what is expected of me, and what people mean when they say “I will, yeah” (they won’t). Ireland has been working her way under my skin, while I’ve been working hard to win her trust. In many ways I’ve gained it, and she’s given me great opportunities. I also have deep friendships with people I know will help me whenever I need it, even when I mess up. Without a natural reason to trust me, they have chosen to do so anyway. These are blessings, and I know it.

I also know that I will never have in Ireland (or anywhere else) what I had in Alabama. I won’t be able to relax in the natural camaraderie of a shared cultural history. I won’t be able to draw on a reservoir of native goodwill like the one I left behind with those who invested in my growth, those I grew up to resemble. I live in a land of other people’s reservoirs now. None of this is Ireland’s fault, so how can I complain if I’m treated differently sometimes? I know it isn’t deliberate. It’s just the natural result of not having natural ties. Wouldn’t I do the same? Haven’t I?

All things considered, Ireland has gone out of its way to be welcoming and generous to this blow-in. And yet, there are still occasional reminders of my status. There are times when I know, without having to be told, that my words have less weight than those of others. Other times, people find ways to tell me. Sometimes it comes from strangers, like the time I was in a slow queue at Lidl and the lady in front of me explained the delay by saying: “Sure, they’re all foreigners anyway.” I kept my mouth shut, because I knew my accent would give me away as a foreigner, too.

I can’t always keep my mouth shut, though. Wherever I go, I bring my accent with me, not only on my words, but also on my ways of thinking and my basic assumptions. I know I’m different. I know it can be hard for people to understand where I’m coming from, and I know that means I will always have to work harder to earn their trust.

I’m not complaining. In fact, I’m genuinely thankful for the experience of being an immigrant. It has reshaped my heart in ways I wouldn’t trade for all the natural trust in the world. Knowing I have to work harder to get the same hearing and opportunity that is freely given to others (as it was freely given to me in Alabama) has humbled me and shown me how I took that trust for granted and thought of it as my birthright, never considering the experience of those who didn’t enjoy the same advantages I had.

Overcoming the natural suspicion of others has strengthened my resolve, while simultaneously softening my attitude towards those I naturally tend to suspect. Experiencing the trust extended by people who have no natural reason to give it has taught me what grace looks like and has spurred me on to do the same for others.

I know my experience is not unique. I wonder how many Irishmen in Alabama could tell a similar story in reverse? Anyone who has left their home and their roots in order to replant their lives in a new place has likely tasted some of the same things, whether in a new country or a new county. As for me, I love my new home, and I’m proud to be able to call myself a citizen of Ireland, where being a blow-in has made me a better man.


Seth Lewis has lived on the south coast of the Republic of Ireland for the last ten years with his wife Jessica; two of their three children were born there. He works with a network of local churches who are committed to church planting and also assists with a local Bible college and youth camp ministry. Before moving overseas, Seth worked with a church in Virginia. His accent doesn’t really fit anywhere anymore, and he’s okay with that. You can find him online at sethlewis.ie.

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?

Missions Field or Land of Opportunity?

One man’s mission field is another’s land of opportunity.

I realized this in a fresh way as I was interacting with some immigrants to South Africa from Malawi.

They were telling me about their home nation, Malawi. The common descriptions were of a lush, green, and beautiful nation which was peaceful.

They left their homeland for South Africa, also a beautiful land. But on the day I was having this conversation, we were bracing ourselves though near gale force winds blowing sand through every opening on buildings. You could hear their longing for home in their voices.

And, they remarked often how they had left safety for crime. These immigrants left home to live in shacks in an impoverished, crime ridden community.

A community which I consider to be a part of my mission field.

Why you ask?


“There are no jobs in Malawi”

These middle class Malawians left peace and safety to become impoverished foreigners in a land which often projects xenophobia (fear of the foreigners) onto those with different passports.

All this to have a chance to work.

  • They gave up peace and relinquished better houses.
  • They chose to move far from family, often leaving behind spouses and children.

South Africa is my mission field. But to these beautiful people from Malawi, it is a land of opportunity.

One man’s nation in need of “missions” is another’s land of opportunity.

As I got to know these natives of Malawi, I found myself wondering why they chose this life. What drives educated folk to choose a downgrade in lifestyle in hopes of climbing higher in the future?

In my years in South Africa, I’ve met Zimbabwean doctors and Rwandan lawyers cleaning houses and washing cars. Often they fled political turmoil or tyrannical dictators for a crime-ridden, but governmentally stable nation.

I get this. Sad as it is, I can make sense of it.

But leaving a family in a peaceful land is harder for me to grasp.

I came away struck by the power of hope. These people left home in search of a better life.

In my nation, we call that the “American dream.”

I found myself so drawn to the hope these saints carried in their hearts.

In this time of year, Christmas, we speak often of the power of hope. Here was a tangible example of that hope.

I have hope to see transformation in South Africa which motivates me to serve here.

My friends share a similar hope that South Africa will be a land which provides their families a brighter future.

This is a lesson I do not want to forget.

One man’s mission field is another’s land of opportunity.

May God bless South Africa as well as the immigrants and refugees seeking a better life within her borders.

Photo credit: liquidnight via photopin cc