At its Latin roots, the term expatriate, usually abbreviated to ‘expat,’ is a combination of words meaning ex (‘outside of’) and patria (‘one’s native country’). “Outside of one’s native country” seems pretty innocuous, doesn’t it? However, the way the words “expat” and “expatriate” are now being used, makes them loaded in ways that seek to divide the world of emigrants into white and non-white, western and non-western, rich and poor.
Eight years ago, when I took early retirement and left the United States, I happily called myself an expat. After all, I wasn’t one of “those people” who was escaping a desperate situation; I was leaving to see the world and live a more fulfilling life. I happily embraced the label. (Never mind the ignorant few who somehow thought that expatriate meant “no-longer-patriotic.”)
Is There A Difference In Meaning Between An Expat And An Immigrant
However, after a few years of meeting people and making friends around the world, I began to realize that when someone calls themselves an expat, they often use the word in an attempt to elevate their status. To place themselves above “those people.” You know, the people who looked different or had less money than they did. They were wanting to be 21st-century colonists living the good life overseas, while not having to accept “the other.”
I don’t think anyone should be offended by the word expat, but it creates barriers. The term expat attempts to elevate the target above others when no such elevation is deserved.
I didn’t like the thought of being elevated and began looking for other terms to describe myself and my situation. I thought, “refugee,” but that didn’t work because that word is more accurately used to describe people who are escaping dire circumstances. I left the United States to satisfy my curiosity about the world and to improve my standard of living. I was not in dire straits.
I entertained the word “exile” for a bit, but soon realized that that word describes people who are banished or forced to leave their homeland. I was a dilettante wanting to explore the world and meet my fellow humans. The only thing forcing me to leave was my own insatiable curiosity and a vague sense that there is more to life than buying more stuff.
I Am An Immigrant
Eventually, I realized that my search of the “right term” was my privilege talking. The perfect word had existed all along: “immigrant.” I AM AN IMMIGRANT.
I see people who claim to have no use for political correctness insist that they are to be referred to as an expat. I even once heard an old British chap permanently in Portugal say, “I am not an immigrant; I am a British expat! We don’t deserve to be lumped in with all those foreigners.”
“Sir Fumblebottom” aside, if you are permanently living outside of your home country, don’t think labeling yourself an expat places you above others. You are the same as the millions of other people who cross international borders. You are interchangeably – an alien, a foreigner, a noncitizen, a nonnative, a relocatee, a migrator and, yes, an expat – no more; no less.
A corporate CEO on a long-term overseas assignment attempting to climb a few rungs on the corporate ladder is no less a migrant than a laborer. Because of his self-image or political correctness, he may prefer the term “expat” because it differentiates him from “those others,” but his term of preference is a distinction without a difference.
What Is The Right Term For An Expat
So please, don’t call me an expat. If you mean it as a term of respect, I don’t deserve it. If you are using it to differentiate me from others, I don’t want to be differentiated. If you are uncomfortable calling a middle-class white American living overseas the immigrant that he is, please get over it.
All immigrants are people who have changed their location looking for a better life. I am no different. Call me an immigrant.