I’ve seen the “expat vs. immigrant” controversy flare up various times in my many years as an expat. It is usually along the lines of “expat is a racist term which only applies to white people.” As a white person, I naturally react defensively to such arguments although I can see the validity in them. The international world of people working outside their national borders is as afflicted by systemic racism as any other society. My own area of international school teaching is as guilty as any other of perpetuating racism even though we strive to think globally and be accepting.
However, I’ve always clung to the classic definitions of expat as anybody who lives and works outside of their country of nationality, while immigrant is someone who moves to live and work in another country. The distinction is in permanence and intention: an expat is going for a temporary job while an immigrant is making the new country their home. Expats may stay for a long while, but their stay is restricted by their work visa and intention to eventually either move on or move home.
I’ve been an expat many times in many countries, for stays of different lengths from two years to nine. My stay in those countries was always determined by my job: I came to the country because I got a job, and when I left the job I left the country. Even when I stayed a long time and developed connections with the community, I always knew my time there would eventually end.
I’m now living in my sixth country as a foreigner. I have some expat friends and work colleagues. But I’m not an expat. I’m an immigrant. This is my home now. And I’m here to stay.
There’s a totally different feeling to it. On the one hand, there’s the worry that I don’t fit in and never will. I’m learning the language but I know that every time I open my mouth I give away my immigrant status. I also know I don’t look like a local and never will, and always will stand out as a foreigner. I find myself worrying at times that someone will insist that I’m doing everything wrong, that I don’t know how things are done here and never will, that I should just go home.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of freedom and adventure. I’m no longer tied to one job: if I don’t like it, I can quit and find another. My right to live here isn’t because I have a work permit linked to one employer. Furthermore, I don’t rely on my employer’s “fixers” to get things done. I struggle with the language and bureaucracy to manage things myself – which makes me feel really good. I’m proud of my new home and work to adopt some of its sensibilities and values. I’ll never fully blend in, but I’m adjusting and adapting.
I’m an immigrant. This is my home. After 20+ years as an expat, that feels terrific.
IMAGE: Bain News Service. “Arriving at Ellis Island,” Library of Congress, 1915, loc.gov/pictures/resource/ggbain.30546/. Accessed 5 Aug. 2020. (no known copyright).
I've been teaching and traveling the world for decades. I teach technology skills and programming in international schools, and love developing skills in my students. Teaching internationally gives me a broader perspective and I thoroughly enjoy the thrill of new sights and experiences.