I’ve always assumed I’m an expatriate (please, let’s be clear that this is not an ex-patriot. please). Lately, this has come into question. Quite a few people have forwarded, shared on Facebook, or tweeted to me an article picked up by The Guardian: Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? One person left a comment on my last piece for Brain Child (The Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting). She said she wondered why I thought I was an expatriate. She seemed to think I was wrong to use that word.

expat or immigrant

I confess that I hadn’t given this much thought. Is my use of the word ‘expatriate’ racist? Have white people appropriated the word and are non-white people limited in their ability to claim it? As it came to my attention more and more I decided it was time to think about it. There are two levels (at least) to this. One is the dictionary definition level. The other is the experiential level.

So, I looked up the official dictionary definitions and found this at the Global Coach Center:

According to Miriam-Webster:

  • the word “Expatriate” is actually 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 that sets them apart.  Immigrants have an intention to stay – whereas for the expatriates this intention isn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.

Turns out immigrants can be expatriates but expatriates are not necessarily immigrants. According to Google an expat is someone living outside their native 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 also 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.

By definition then, I am an expatriate. I don’t intend to stay in Djibouti for my entire life and since that is very clear, I can’t claim the immigrant term.

Now, that is in the dictionary. Frankly, I was at first surprised at the fury with which the article is written. It kind of seems like a rant and I’ve heard at least one person refer to it as total bullshit. I’m still willing to address the issue because I think it brings up something really important and complicated. But I was surprised because I looked at my experience:

My first thoughts took me to the most diverse place I know well – the protestant church I attend here in Djibouti. There are people from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo, Nigeria, Burundi, America, England, Switzerland, Korea, France, Germany… I think of us as expatriates. Some have lived here for decades, some for weeks. Myself, I’ve passed the decade point. I never thought of any of the others, 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 passport 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.

I had never considered that skin color or country of origin had anything to do with what we call ourselves.  There are white immigrants in Djibouti. There are black expatriates.

But that is just my experience and I’m learning that in different parts of the world, this is very different. I was helped by Hana Omar who commented on my FB page that in Europe there does seem to be a strong class and racial component to which term is used. And that is where this article in the Guardian is coming from – experience, which for the author, clearly included racism and hurtful interactions.

In raising this topic among others, it is clear there are related words that are much more racially charged (the following examples come from the comment thread on my FB page for this Guardian article). Words like migrant worker, which seems to apply exclusively to non-white people even though they are technically expatriates. Or in some places Foreign Domestic Workers who are also technically expatriates but that word isn’t applied to them. In Texas, the guys on the oil rigs are expats but the gas station employee, also in the US on a work visa, isn’t. One person mentioned that this could be because status (and the words used to convey that status) is affected by the terms of employment and his comment stuck with me because these examples turn the focus of the conversation from race to wealth and class, also problematic but not necessarily racist.

But expatriate and immigrant? Both words are beautiful 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? Two things. One, I can confidently say I’m an expatriate. And 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. What?! That’s right, always and ever back to getting to know people. Listening, asking questions, hearing where they came from and where they are going and not jumping to conclusions based on previous experience or expectations or skin color or job title.

So while it is rather easy to simply answer the question based on the dictionary, it is much harder to dive into these areas of race and class and assumption. I stand by my belief that I’m an expatriate and I feel comfortable using it without feeling like doing so labels me racist or elitist but I’m thankful for this conversation. It help me analyze and consider the experiences of others and it challenge me to examine how I make assumptions based on externals.

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