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Expats vs. Immigrants

Terminology matters.

As someone who self-identifies as an expat, I felt a little guilty when I read the article “Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” in the Guardian. As Mawuna Remarque Koutonin points out, the term “expat” is generally only used for white westerners living abroad. If you are non-white or from a different part of the world, you generally get the label “immigrant.”

At first, when I was thinking about these terms, I objected. I wanted to point out that I identify as an expat because being an immigrant is such a permanent status. I wasn’t an immigrant in Germany — I was living there, but I didn’t plan to stay forever. But I’m still willing to use the term “immigrant” more loosely for other people. Many people who seek legal residence in another country, even if they don’t plan to stay permanently, get that label. The only other category I could think of is for students, who often get the label “international students” when they study abroad.

Christopher DeWolf described it well in his article “In Hong Kong, Just Who Is an Expat, Anyway?” in the Wall Street Journal:

Some arrivals are described as expats; others as immigrants; and some, simply migrants. It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. But in most cases, the nomenclature is outdated, rooted in a time when voyages involved a one-way ticket on a steamship.

I often feel like most of the world doesn’t understand what it’s like to move to an entirely new country. And in a time when both communication and travel across oceans is more accessible than ever, moving to a new country doesn’t necessarily mean completely giving up ties to your home country. I like the term expat to describe who I am now, but that could change — and I wouldn’t want anyone forcing a label on me that doesn’t seem to fit, just because of where I’m from or how I look.

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