Saturday 11 January 2014

Expats and immigrants

Have you ever wondered why those of us who move to work in a different country are sometimes called expats and sometimes immigrants? The labels can’t reflect distinct purposes behind the move, because both groups leave previous stomping grounds to seek (perceived) better conditions elsewhere. So I thought of trying to understand the reason for the choice of different labels.

We could start with standard dictionary definitions. Expat(riate): ‘one who lives outside their native country’. Immigrant: ‘one who comes to live permanently in a foreign country’. I wonder why these definitions can’t be swapped, in that neither expats nor immigrants live in their “native” country – or both are “foreigners” in their new country, if we prefer. The word “permanently” appears to hint at a difference, portraying immigrants as having moved for good, whether intentionally or not. I also wonder. Many immigrants leave their country not because they’ve ruled out returning to it, but because the only way to return to it and survive in it involves spending time elsewhere creating the means to do so. On the other hand, if expats count as temporary visitors, I go on wondering what to make of families like mine (we rank as expats, not immigrants), who’ve stayed put in the same country for decades as permanent residents. How permanent is “permanent”?

We could try integration into the host community. Maybe not a good differentiator, on second thought, in that my thesaurus gives ‘alien’ and ‘outsider’ as head synonyms of “foreigner”. Whether quartered in dedicated compounds or roughing it out there in the mainstream jungle, neither expats nor immigrants are renowned for assimilation skills. Perhaps because we all tend to build our home even, or perhaps especially, when away from home? I, for one, don’t see any difference between these two scenarios where I happened to play the role of confidante, the immigrant lady fussing about (substandard) standards of personal hygiene in her new country, and the expat lady who was devastated by her realisation that her favourite (home) brand of coffee wasn’t available where she had moved to.

Could a differential (or do I mean deferential?) guest status in a host nation be it? The word expat does carry nicer connotations than the word immigrant, but connotations have nothing to do with what we are: whatever the labels we go by when we’re working in a new country, we’re aliens. We represent a nation within someone else’s nation, a foreign body in someone else’s eye. Even when we are officially recognised as citizens of more than one country, like my Swedoguese children, that citizenship is always hyphenated and therefore always “special”. Vaidehi Ramanathan’s book Language Policies and (Dis)Citizenship explains the art of using citizenship as a weapon and/or shield, as needed. It is as if the countries ruled over us, people. So no difference there, either.

And then it hit me. The difference must lie in our entitlement to the languages we brought along with us in the move. Expat children attend schools featuring their home language. More often than not, these “international” schools offer monolingual schooling, which means that it’s fine for little expats to stick to remaining monolingual, if they so are and they so wish. Immigrant children attend schools featuring the mainstream language. More often than not, these local schools also offer monolingual schooling, which means that little immigrants must, in principle, become multilingual. I say in principle, because what happens in practice, more often than not, is that little immigrants find themselves discouraged to stick to any other language than the mainstream one.

There might be a few blurry edges here, though. Like immigrant families, multilingual expat families may also need to actively assert their right to keep their languages in good working order, as I report in my book Three is a Crowd?. Matthias Hüning, Ulrike Vogl and Olivier Moliner put it this way, in their book Standard Languages and Multilingualism in European History: because of “the principle of ‘one language, one state, one people’ [...], multilingualism came to be viewed as an undesirable aberration.”

So how do our linguistic “aberrations” further impact the way we are treated, in more than one sense of this word? I’ll look at this next time.

© MCF 2014

Next post: Accent, dialect, or disorder? Saturday 8th February 2014.


  1. It is an interesting topic. What I have noticed that there is a big number of immigrants in America and expats in Europe. I guess it is more real to return home if you do not have to cross the ocean.

  2. Galina: I’m not sure I got you right. Are you relating “immigration” to America (I presume you mean the US?) to crossing of an ocean and “expatriation” in Europe to not doing so? I also wondered whether your observations about immigration and expatriation in two continents draw on the definitions of expat/immigrant that I quote in my post.

    Thank you for your comment!


  3. I am curious as to why you chose the expat category for your family, since it's been decades in your current country?
    I started dealing with the "where are you from?" conundrum when I was a child when I moved to Texas from Colorado, and decided that I would say I was "from" Colorado until I had been in Texas longer than I had lived in Colorado - not a bad reasoning technique for a child of 10, I thought.

    But then things would be much more complicated for folks who either don't have a length of time that indicates their intimacy with a location, or don't have a long existence in any one location..

    I find I don't object to saying where I'm from as much as I disagree that that particular aspect, and the assumptions that go with it, enlighten the person asking about me.

    I don't really consider myself an expat, because that implies I intend to go "home" one day - but I don't have a "home" place; instead I have my family.

    The "you're not one of us" phenomenon will forever be with me now, wherever I live - even if I went back "home" to Texas.
    And I'm okay with that.

    I love reading your blog!

  4. I also wonder why and how my family should fit the expat label better than the immigrant one, Joyau. Perhaps because we started off globetrotting one year at a time (sometimes less, sometimes a little more) in each different place, which could mean we were seen as “proper” expats then, and expats don’t turn into immigrants – or vice versa? But the thing is that neither length of stay nor entitlement to family languages can clarify why there should be a distinct status, also in our case. All very muddy, this issue of what we are where...

    Like you, I have no idea why “where” or “where from” matters should be held to shed any light on who we are and, very much like you, my home is where my family happens to be. That’s what makes us expigrants (??) *us*, I believe: we’ve learned that what matters are the people, not the places.

    I love your comments. Thank you for being there!


  5. I think those two words have different viewing points. When you say expat, the emphasis is on the native land of the person and the view point is more from outside. Outside means more universal view of you as someone who left his/her native land. When you say immigrant on the other hand, the view points shifts to the ethnic citizens who see you as a new joined part to their social order and the emphasis is more related to the destined country and how you are doing in that country. Briefly, former has a little stronger emphasis on your past status, where the latter is more oriented around your current status.

  6. My sense is that it's fundamentally a social class distinction. When we talk of expats, don't we usually refer to diplomats, university professors, people in the higher ranks of business, oftentimes with a strong professional connection back to their "homeland"? In my context at least (Turkey), going to international schools is only possible for people in such pay-ranks, and yes, their children usually do not go to Turkish state schools (more possibly to private schools with English language education). It's the cosmopolitan elites who expect that their children will live similarly cosmopolitan lives. The term "immigrant" in turn usually connotes labor migration, doesn't it, often into the least paying sectors of an economy.

  7. Many thanks for your views, Yasin and Katharina. They add to my persuasion that defining what expats/immigrants are isn’t as straightforward as our everyday use of these words appears to imply!


  8. I always trying to think that where I would place myself. I worked in Germany and lived also now for 12 years or more, have full time employment, have built a house, pay local taxes, health insurance and so to a large extent am economically fully integrated. I speak almost exclusively german at work and with friends and so would regard myself as socially integrated.However, at home I watch english TV, speak only english and eat so far as possible what we have always eaten - which sound like expat traits.All in all, I do exactly what immigrant communities the world over do. In some countries, such as GB, they tend to get criticised for it.


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