In Another Country are You an Immigrant or an Expat?

English: Dira Square (also known as Chop Chop ...

English: Dira Square (also known as Chop Chop Square by expats), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Taken by BroadArrow in 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve referred to myself as both expat and immigrant but think that perhaps I have been mistaken about the “expat” self-reference. An expat is someone who still largely identifies with his/her country of origin. It is who they are. Even with permanent residence/green card status or even dual citizenship, the land of birth still trumps. But an immigrant is someone who wishes to assimilate and take on the new country as his/her identifier. They acquire first residence and then the second citizenship with an eye toward becoming a part of the new land.

In the United States, people bemoan “immigrants” who do not seem to want to be Americans. I would argue that this so-called immigrants are really expats who’ve come to America for political, economic, career or education reasons but who see themselves primarily as citizens of their native land. In that way, how are they different from Americans who pursue work opportunities in other countries for short or long periods of time but consider themselves always American – not bothering to learn the language or make friends locally and living in enclaves of other Americans?

The answer, of course, is that they are not different. But it is a very white versus not so much kind of prejudice that is not attractive or admitted to. Brits, Americans, Europeans, Australians and Japanese refer to themselves as expats but consider Eastern Europeans, Asians, Latinos and Africans immigrants.

In my opinion, if one leaves his/her nation of origin to settle permanently in another country that person is an immigrant. Even if he/she stubbornly refuses to mix, learn local customs and language and generally remains an elitist snob about the whole thing. When you leave to live forever somewhere else, you have emigrated and are therefore an immigrant. This state of being is further compounded by marrying locally, producing children and obtaining legal status up to but not always including dual citizenship.

Expat, really, has this sort of British colonial taint to it. It reminds me of stories of colonials living in India or Africa during the days of Queen Victoria and later under King Edward. Privileged white people enjoying semi-royal lifestyles at the expense of a local population who was considered second-class and expected to appreciate servitude in exchange for pathetic monetary “reward”. All quite Kipling minus the adventure.

It’s important, I think, to know who you are. Expat or immigrant. It informs others as much as it forms your purpose. Given that, it’s time for me to drop the expat and go full on immigrant. My ancestors left Sweden and Ireland to become Americans. They were proud, I am sure, of their heritage but I highly doubt any of them referred to themselves as hyphens. Irish-Americans or Swedish-Americans. They were just Americans (although before the Civil War, I guess that state would have trumped country). Therefore, I am a Canadian in the making. No hyphen.


11 thoughts on “In Another Country are You an Immigrant or an Expat?

  1. Ok, I’ve read your post, I understand the content and I believe that my initial question is slightly related to the topic. In my opinion, your post is well written but what strikes me was your division of Europe into “Europe” and the other Europe with the adjective “eastern”. Your argument that there are differencies between each country is not legit as there is even wider difference between each country in Eastern Europe than in the Western part (well, there is a huge difference between Spanish and let’s say Norwegian and English too). But what makes people European is the heritage they share on the European continent. Same would apply to Koreans, Chinese and Japanese. They are three completely different cultures but for the expositional simplicity, many people use the term Asians. So if you would use the term Western Europe and Eastern Europe instead of using Europe and Eastern Europe, it would be correct and not offensive. Peace.

  2. What’s the difference between European as you state in your article and Eastern European? When I look at the map I see only one Europe. You might have Western, Central, Eastern Europe local division but all are on one European continent. There’s not such thing as Europe and Eastern Europe in this kind of division. Romanians or Latvians are europeans equally as Spanish or Swedes.

    1. The sense I get – via the media which is questionable as a source – is that in spite of the Eurozone, there is a definite distinction depending on where one originates in Europe, a class system – so to speak.

      Given the coming economic upheaval and the dicey state of the Euro, the idea of a united Europe might still be only a reality on a map.

      1. I am not talking about European Union, but about Europe as a continent. You cannot deny the right of people who live in Europe to call themselves European. In this matter, there’s not such thing as Eastern European and European. We are all Europeans.

        1. Semantics. All people living on the American continents should be able to refer to themselves as “Americans” but the USA probably won’t be okay with that.

          While I don’t disagree with your point, people are weird about their “tribal” labels. Humans, generally, don’t go in for the “we are the world” thing but prefer to self-segregate. And govts, for obvious reasons, like nationalism.

        2. You’re totally wrong and have no idea what you’re talking about. You cannot compare Latino America and Northern America with Europe as these are two continents whilst Europe is one continent that shares its history. Also, You cannot compare 40 years of Cold War division with thousand of years of shared European history!

        3. My understanding of history is that the European nations have never easily integrated based merely on their geography. Language, ethnicity and religion – to name a few things – have been one of the reasons that no one has ever successful held the continent together for long.

          Geographically speaking there are six or seven continents (which are merely land masses) and this depends on whether or not you count America as a whole or divide it into North and South. Strictly speaking, Canadians cringe when ppl from the US refer to themselves only as Americans b/c we are also Americans – continently speaking. But, the Americas do have a shared and complicated history thanks to colonization.

          You do seem passionate about schooling me on such a small point when the post itself is about emigration, being an immigrant and how the US seems to allow this only in the form of intake and not outflow.

  3. I hadn’t thought about this before, but I think you’re right. “Refugees” who aren’t so interested in assimilation are still called “Immigrants.” I think it’s more that the dominant culture wants THEM to assimilate.

    It seems, just off the top of my head, that if you go from the 1st world, then you’re an ExPat… and if you go to the 1st world, then you’re an immigrant. So you’re probably right that it’s an elitist thing.

    If you’re born in Korea and move to New York, you’re a “Korean-American Artist,” but if you go the other way, I think you’re “The American Artist”

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