I recently read an article that referred to the word “expat” as something:
In the Western lexicon of human migration there are still lot of remnants of a white supremacist ideology, with hierarchical classes of words created to differentiate White people from the rest of humanity, with the purpose of putting White people above everyone else.
I’d never thought about it before. What is the difference between an “immigrant” and an “expat”?
There were various answers in the comments below the above quoted article. One difference tends to be duration. An expat is planning on returning within a short time, an immigrant is planning on staying longer term. Another might be integration. An expat is more likely to be working in a language they speak very well (like English) and not have much opportunity/motivation to learn the local language, whereas an immigrant would most likely be working in the local language and have more chance of becoming proficient.
As someone who has been living abroad for several years, I came to understand the negative side of “expat”. As an “anglo”, people automatically assumed you know nothing about local customs, often resent your presence as you have “stolen” a local person’s job, expect you to speak their language perfectly immediately, constantly expect you to “integrate” (meaning laughing at their jokes about you). I took a million language classes, I changed my clothes (to blend in), and I breathed a sigh of relief, and something very simple finally clicked.
People of colour cannot change their clothes as I can. They cannot camouflage themselves. It might seem obvious to someone from a multicultural society, but for me, it took the experience of moving out of my “home” country to teach me about privilege.
I thought about all the times my non-white British friends had mentioned racism to me, or I had witnessed the aftermath of a racist incident. I had sometimes said (in my head) at the time: “It’s not that big a deal. Why are they so upset? People say shit to me all the time”.
Then I got it. I can lose weight. I can cut my hair. I can work at conforming. They can’t ever conform physically. And why should they? (Oh crumb nuggets. This was my privilege to only just realise this now. Wha?????!!!!)
I think the tone of the above quoted article is a good example of how a person writes when they are angry after years upon years of unpleasant personal experiences (see “Favourite quotes, below), let alone generation upon generation of colonialism. It’s a rare gift to be able to be keyed up about a subject, like race/colonialism/sexism, without attacking the readers who you may be trying to educate in to reconsidering their positions. It’s a skill I must confess that I have not yet acquired. I know this because many of the blog posts I write I am unable to publish as they too are full of ire. It can take many drafts before I convert my spleen into something that might be considered balanced, bordering on informative.
Favourite quotes from the original article:
Top African professionals going to work in Europe are not considered expats. They are immigrants. Period.
If you see those “expats” in Africa, call them immigrants like everyone else. If that hurts their white superiority, they can jump in the air and stay there!
Favourite quotes from NYT article cited in: “Don’t Call Them Expats”
A more current interpretation of the term “expat” has more to do with privilege. Expats are free to roam between countries and cultures, privileges not afforded to those considered immigrants or migrant workers.
But Hong Kong will extend all of its rights and protections to me once I’ve lived here for seven years–though I often get the feeling there isn’t much expectation of reciprocity, the way immigrants to the United States are expected to learn English and adopt a certain set of values.
UPDATE: A “cleaner” (less angry, attacking) version of the Silicon Africa article was featured in this Guardian article