The Elitist Etymology of ‘Expatriate’

When I moved to the Netherlands in November of last year without a job or a legal address, my first thought was to scour the internet for forums and websites in order to find some leads that might help me on my navigation of these new shores. I was spoilt for choice for pages offering advice and resources to people looking to settle into the country, and it was during this process that I first became consciously aware and familiarised with the term ‘expat’.

Moving from a United Kingdom that was fully in the midst of the serial drama that is Brexit, where a large portion of the debate surrounded the subject of immigration and immigrants, this was quite a change in terminology usage. But it was a change that I simply accepted without question at the time, probably because ‘expat’ sounded like such a cool, prestigious term that made me feel like a part of some exclusive community.

The relevance and implications of this disparity in usage weren’t immediately apparent to me upon my initial arrival, however, the more I heard the term the more I started to question what it actually meant to be an “expat”. This raised the question in my mind of what the exact difference between being expat and being an immigrant was. So I turned to Google for the answers.

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According to Google search results, at least, the distinction lies in the intent, specifically, how long the individual in question intends to stay in the country. The term ‘expatriate’ is therefore used under the assumption that an individual does not intend to stay in the country permanently – a distinction that seems so tenuous as to be almost meaningless. For example, what if someone who is supposedly an immigrant moves to a country with the intent to stay permanently, but then after a twenty years decides to move back to their country of origin? Does that then mean that they were an expat the whole time, but they just didn’t know it? There’s a large continuum between temporary and permanent, and at what point on that continuum is the cut-off? How does an expat’s life compare to that of an immigrant’s? Both would surely need health insurance, perhaps a car, a residence, friends. One could make the argument that immigrants would be more likely to have mortgages, but I know several people who would typically be considered expats who have mortgages, and it’s probably also the case that many people who intend to stay in a country permanently either can’t and won’t be able to afford a mortgage, or don’t even want one.

The most convincing argument that I can conceive of for there being a distinction between the two is the intention to renounce the citizenship of one’s country of origin in order to be able to vote etc, but even this is a distinction that I find to be less than clear. For example, my mother moved from Denmark to the UK approximately forty years ago but still has a Danish passport. She has never voted in the UK and continues to vote in Danish elections, but shows no signs of intending to move back to Denmark any time soon, and I would without question label her an immigrant (although I don’t call her that, I just call her “Mor”, which is Danish for ‘mum’). Now, she may be an outlier case, but I’m certain that there are many people who move to a country with the intention of staying there permanently but who, for some reason (possibly national pride and a desire to retain a sense of identity), decide not to renounce their citizenship. 

It seems clear to me that the only distinction between the terms ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ is not the intention of the individual in question regarding the length of their stay, but the intention of the individuals who popularised the term ‘expat’, whether conscious or unconscious. I’m sure that the majority of people who use the term ‘expat’ when referring to themselves or individuals that they would consider to fit that category are not using it as a conscious social class denotifier, they likely use it simply because it is the common parlance used amongst their social group. But in reality, I believe that the two terms discussed in this post are unconscious cultural Freudian slips about how we perceive people from differing economic and social classes.

When hearing the word ‘expat’, we conjure up an image in our mind of someone wealthy, higher-educated, “skilled”, who works in an embassy or for a large multinational, who lives in a nice house in either the centre of town or the suburbs, and who wears a blazer and tie for meetings, and chinos and a light blue shirt the rest of the week (whoops, I think I just revealed a gender assumption as well!). When we hear the word ‘immigrant’, however, we typically imagine someone with dark skin, lower-educated, unskilled, with a relatively low-income manual labour or menial job, living in a place outside the city centre, in an area with people of similar ethnic and economic backgrounds, and who rarely travels outside of Europe for their holidays, if they go on holiday at all. Perhaps these are merely my own biases that I’ve unwittingly revealed, and maybe I’m the bigot, but I’m confident that these terms are simply euphemistic veils, attempting to conceal our prejudices as a society more broadly. 

When a government releases its national statistics regarding how many non-natives have taken up residence in the country for that year, they usually don’t survey these people and ask them how many years they intend to stay. There’s no such thing as “Expat Statistics”, there are only immigration numbers.

The discourse that I have witnessed in the traditional media and on social media over the last few years following the financial and refugee crises tends to focus on the way in which low-skilled immigrants are undercutting native job-seekers in the employment market, and certain media outlets and public individuals tend to use the unspoken and subconscious stereotypes and preconceived notions that we have of immigrants as a rhetorical tool, whereas higher-income immigrants are rarely mentioned or thought of, because they are skilled and are seen as more valuable to the national economy, essentially creating a protected class. But this is merely a double standard, in my view. I’m sure that if governments cared enough about domestic jobs going to their citizens then they would make sure that skills gaps are being filled through upskilling and retraining the current workforce. 

There’s a certain disconcerting vilification of people who are simply seeking a better life, and who are doing what any of us would do in their situation, and when people use the term ‘expat’ to describe themselves or others within their social group, it appears to me to be just a slick way of separating themselves from the subjects of the immigration debate that is raging in Europe currently. 

It’s not that I think that there’s a global class conspiracy that is perpetually trying to selectively use language that furthers a convenient agenda, I just think that it’s often easy to succumb to the temptations of social class differentiation, and that sometimes we can unconsciously develop snobbish, elitist world views, and adopt language that reveals these prejudices and hypocrisies.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I may fit the criteria for what passes as an expat in most people’s minds – I’m higher-educated, I work for a large, multinational brand, and I don’t really intend to stay here for the rest of my life – but I would consider myself to be an immigrant. I pay taxes to the Dutch government, I use the public transport, and who knows, I may decide to live here for the rest of my life. That remains to be seen.

In my view, it’s unhelpful and unproductive to attempt to categorise people based on their income, under the guise of some transparent and essentially arbitrary parameters. ‘Expat’ is a redundant term. Anyone who’s moved abroad is an immigrant, and I think that if you’ve done that you should take pride in it. I’m proud of it. It takes a certain amount of courage to move away from your family and friends and everything that you know, without any guarantee of happiness or fulfilment, and this is true regardless of how much you earn or what sort of work that you do. Ultimately, we’re all trying to make a better life for ourselves, and we should embrace everything that being an immigrant represents. 

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