This one isn’t the usual travelogue type of post that this blog has come to accumulate lots of over the last two years. It isn’t about anywhere that we’ve been in particular (with lots of overdue pictures that I promise one day will make it on here). It’s about our state of being. By ‘our’ I mean of course my and TA’s. It’s about citizenship, nationality, home, and our current situation of near-constant limbo.
I’ve been meaning to write this for a very long time, for almost the entire time we’ve been outside of the US, where we met and started our life together. And I keep waffling and find myself changing opinions and rationalizing with myself about why I should or shouldn’t write it.
It’s about why I hate the word ‘expat’. Perhaps it’s not so much about such a strong feeling as the word ‘hate’ but more of a critical attitude towards it. Let me explain through a caffeinated jumble of words. NB: let me also say that I promise I’ll stop using scare quotes at some point, but I can’t help a certain level of sarcasm.
But before that let me also preface by stating that TA and I have not been part of any corporate relocation, so I’m in no position to comment on the dynamics and logistics by which one can be transferred to different branch offices around the globe by a particular company. Nor are we in official foreign service. We belong to a different universe, specifically that of academia, which comes with its own unique rhythms and challenges.
Most of my tension between the two words (“expat” and “immigrant”) comes from my background coming from an immigrant family in the US. A visibly non-white, language-other-than-English speaking, first generation immigrant family. My parents didn’t grow up with the same language or educational system as my siblings and I did, and we as a family constantly had to prove that we were American enough, while still fighting being shamed for not speaking our mother tongue well enough (which still happens to this day). Growing up, there was no question of whether the terminology was correct: an immigrant is an immigrant, and coming from a place which I’m proud to tell people is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world, “immigrant” was more or less a neutral, matter-of-fact classification. We had safety in numbers living in enclaves just like millions of people throughout our pretty safe city (not to say there’s isn’t bigotry or daily micro- (and macro-)aggressions or racialized violence, because trust me, I could go on about that, but that’s another story for another time). But at the surface, it was easy to say our country is a nation of immigrants, that Queens and New York City were good poster children when it was convenient for the US to pat itself on the back for being so welcoming to foreigners, working hard to achieve the American Dream, blah-de-blah. But while we were falling ever short of attaining that American Dream, being working class and never quite making it, something happened.
After college and a few years of marriage, my spouse and I moved abroad for his academic job. Suddenly as a US citizen, moving for highly trained and highly specialized work purposes, I was flung into this category of “expat”. One of the reasons that this rubbed me the wrong way was my own hangups: I have issues with class and money. As a kid, I never knew anything resembling financial stability (or savings or pensions or assets) and growing up, we were always living paycheck to paycheck. And to all of a sudden be placed on a sort of model-citizen type pedestal was a huge culture shock to me. (Not to be assumed that academic work is lucrative or even financially stable; academia is a whole universe of other issues, but again, another story for another time.) But the combination of a powerful passport with a powerful academic degree placed my spouse and me in a certain strata of society that was totally unfamiliar territory. So a lot of my hangups with the term “expat” have to do with that of luxury, money, access, exploitation, and overall not needing to assimilate because you can afford not to and still get respect. That your accent will get called sexy instead of being made fun of and expected to conform to your host country as a means of survival.
“Immigrant” has connotations of survival, being unwelcome, being expected to assimilate regardless of the cost, needing to jump through so many hoops to prove that you’re worthy of residence within certain borders.
Things that determine classification of this expat/immigrant are:
1. officially: work field/salary qualification/merit, length of stay.
2. softer but still functional social definitions: level of education, country of origin (a big one that may be a definitive one), race, language of origin and proficiency, savings, intention to settle (e.g. US classification of nonimmigrant vs immigrant visas), how low they can pay you.
Why is it that people coming form a certain part of the world to another are called immigrants, but if you reverse the flow, then they’re magically called expats? It’s as if someone waved a magic wand and reversed the tides and the rules changed out of thin air. But we know it’s not out of thin air. We know it’s because of power dynamics between “developed” and “developing” countries, between “white” and “nonwhite”, between the “Global North” and the “Global South”, between countries with big bombs and guns and ones without. See, I don’t need a visa to visit my spouse’s country of origin. But he needs one to step foot in mine. I don’t need to show anything–just that Blue Gold. Whereas he needs to prove his worth and show them that he’s not so different from them because look, he’s a doctor of sorts and knows unknowable things and won’t be a burden to them, and he can even talk like them so much that people marvel, “WOW!~~ You have no accent!” And in the eyes of the US, he’ll always be an immigrant, at best, the highly-skilled type.
And when we moved to Germany, we learned a lot of things the hard way and the inequity was glaring. We moved for a short-term position that TA got at a research institute. Even though I arrived as a dependent, once I showed up on a tourist visa, if I got a job offer, I could have that converted to a residence permit all while still in the country. And even though Malaysians as tourists also have a very powerful passport and get the same length of time of visa-free travel (90 days out of 180 calendar days), it’s not that simple. You can’t just show up and say “I’d like to register with the local authorities like I’m supposed to and have a residence permit pasted into my passport bc look I have a job and everything”. Well you could, but you’d immediately be turned away and told you can’t be helped until you first left the country and get a visa from the last place you lived (which you can’t go back to right now because surprise! That visa expired.) or your country of origin. Which resulted in our surprise trip to Malaysia two years ago.
Some people (generously) lump together all migrants as “expatriates”, and strictly speaking, technically anyone living outside their country of origin (however defined), could be one in theory. But often there are very specific connotations to the words “expats” versus “immigrants” or “foreign workers”. Being an “expat” is like a badge of honor that only an exclusive and undefined body of people can bestow upon you. You can’t just claim that you’re an expat if you’re from a certain part of the world, lest those who have really earned it with all their qualifications of ancestry and phenotype and education and money and security scoff and maybe clutch their pearls at the fact that their classification is being encroached upon.
In the strictest sense of the words, I am both. I am living outside my country (an ex-patriate). I am a migrant (one who moves; let’s also talk about “migrant”, “emigrant”, and “immigrant” at some point). But then again, who isn’t? The point is that these words could apply to anyone. But they don’t. My point is that certain words describe certain people. And everyone seems to know what you’re talking about when you say “expat” versus “migrant” or “immigrant”.
Is it that there is a sense of permanence to immigration, whereas in the case of expats, they are signing up for possibly indefinite but ultimately finite stretches of time? That they’ll go ‘home’ at some point? And then the immigrants are settling in for the long haul, raising families with hyphenated or adjectival identities, not being able to visit ‘home’ (wherever that is or whatever that means) whenever they want because they need to prove that they are seeking permanent residence and belongingness. But then there are retiree programs for rich/white people to be able to settle in other parts of the world to enjoy luxury in a place with the weather is warmer and the cost of living is cheaper and make their pension dollars stretch (cue The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a cute story, but rife with neocolonialism). And then there are returnees, perhaps students who studied internationally or worked for a stretch in a country where it’s “nice to settle” to eventually come back home.
The clearest and most blatant definitions of these words I’ve come across has been with the Malaysian Immigration Department. Take a look at the differences you see between these two pages on their website: one for expatriates and one for foreign workers. The former has a vamped up and attractive website complete with swanky logo designed to invite you, the highly skilled and qualified talent (read, not “worker”) to come and stay! The latter begins by listing the thousand-and-one restrictions placed on you and the type of work you’re allowed to do depending on your country of origin and your gender and warnings of the consequences if you don’t follow the rules, an overall punitive tone throughout the page. (See also, foreign domestic helper.) One can appreciate the clarity, because at least there is no illusion of pretending like in the US that the society and immigration system is equitable and saying on the one hand that immigrants work so hard and contribute so much while on the other, grumbling about the fact that “our country is getting a little too *shudder* ethnic” and trying to disguise the anxiety that “pretty soon we’re going to be outnumbered! Onoz!”
There’s also another word, which is one thing I appreciate about Indian bureaucracy. The government of India uniformly classifies everyone as “foreigners” regardless of country of origin. That’s as good and equitable as a classification gets under a nation-state system, though my baggage from the US tugs at me to resist the rhetoric of the perpetual foreigner. Sort of has the tone of “resident alien” that the US likes to use, which connotes something distant, other worldly (not in a good way), and always belonging to somewhere else.
So what now? Is there any point in trying to reclaim the word and its connotations? What space is there for people of color (my fellow purported perpetual foreigners) to challenge stereotypes? As non-white diasporic people holding Blue Gold, what are the responsibilities that come with treating a place that is not one’s own with respect as both travelers and residents? How can one live in a globalized world that still most definitely has borders without reinforcing hegemonic dynamics?
I don’t really have the answers to these questions, except that there definitely is a responsibility. One is to talk about it because I know I’m not the only POC from the US living outside the US, and for goodness’ sake we need to change the narrative about obnoxious and ignorant rich white gwai lo’s living outside of settler colonial states. We have a responsibility to not perpetuate orientalist thinking or think that the West is going to save the world because that’s just downright foolish. We have to continue asking self-reflective questions about the words we use and why, and always acknowledge the power dynamics in any interaction. We have to educate ourselves on the fact that even within non-white settings, there is an entire hierarchy that places certain ethnic groups over others (e.g. Koreans and Japanese can be expats in South and Southeast Asia, but it doesn’t work the other way around). See also this amazing piece on Crazy Rich Asians which complicates and contextualizes the question of Asian representation in Hollywood. It’s because our power dynamics are all flipped around and because if we don’t do the work to suss out the complexities (and together, might I add), we’ll end up tricking ourselves into thinking that just cus we got a certain kind of passport we can and should act like foolish with impunity. Psh, I’m not tryna end up like Tila Tequila. P.S. Note to all Grateful Immigrants: We also don’t need to grovel and continue proving that we’re oh so thankful to have made it to this “Great Country of Ours That Has Bestowed Upon Us Many Blessings”. We don’t have to fit into these pre-cut molds, but we do have to know that those molds exist, and that unfortunately it’ll take a lot of work to break them or make our own altogether.
As for me, I’ll still cringe when I hear the word expat, but know that it’ll take a few thousand words to explain my discomfort.