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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Labelling expats: what should we call ourselves?

Expat, immigrant, foreigner, citizen of the world? You must have heard one of these at least several times. Each of these labels has different associations. But neither of these is perfect. Why?

First of all, let’s look at the names. You must have heard the name “immigrant”. It means, basically: someone “moving from one specific region into a country or region to which they are not native in order to settle there” (Wikipedia). So, an immigrant is somebody who comes to another country in order to live there. Theoretically, anybody who thinks of moving somewhere permanently could call themselves an immigrant. But would we? No, because we tend to think of people from low-status countries who come to a country where they either work illegally or for much lower wages. Hence the tendency to try to use other descriptions. But isn’t it very patronizing? It’s like to say: “we are better than these people so let’s not call ourselves the same way”. I’ve also heard the word “in-migrant” as opposed to “immigrant”, but does it change anything? It is not words we should change. It’s our beliefs. According to this definition, I am an immigrant. That is fine with me.

Many embraced the term “expat”. It refers to somebody who is temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person's upbringing (quote from Wikipedia). Many people I know (including myself) refer to themselves an expat, in need of a better word. I, however have problems with this term. First, if you look at this word, you will see the “ex” in there. Yes, the same “ex” as in “ex-boyfriend” or “ex-girlfriend”. It would mean that our home country is an ex-home, a home that is no longer ours. Which is not true for many of us. Then, there is the fact that the stereotypes about expats is that they wouldn’t stay somewhere for a longer time, and often tend to move from place to place. This may be true for some of us, but not for people like me who came to the Netherlands to stay. And, last but not least, I have problems with this term because of another stereotype: that expats form a parallel culture and don’t “integrate”. While this may be true for some, it is definitely not the case for others.

So, how about citizen of the world? This sounds so positive, so encouraging. It gives us a feeling that there are no limits, that we feel at home everywhere, that we accept and embrace other cultures. But this is not always the case. We do not feel at home everywhere. While for me home means being somewhere with the people I love, there are physical places where I feel strange, and out of sync.

Another very controversial label is “foreigner”. Alarmed by the negative portrayal of “foreigners” in the media and in politics, in Germany and the Netherlands there have been attempts to change this to “person with a migration background”. Does it help? It doesn’t. It’s just not the “bad foreigner” who stole the car, now it’s the equally bad “person with migration background”. Of course, the problem with the word foreigner is that many people from other countries who consider themselves fully integrated into their new culture are still considered being “foreigners” because of their skin colour or language (even though they speak perfect Dutch or German). But for the rest, what’s so bad about being a foreigner? What’s so bad about not belonging to a certain culture? Some people want to belong, others don’t. They just belong elsewhere. But calling everybody a foreigner or even patronizingly assuming that not belonging somewhere, or being different is automatically a bad thing just isn’t fair.

So as you see, none of these labels do us justice, and there are many others. But the fact is that you would find that no expat/foreigner/immigrant story is like another. So, while labels like “expat” could be helpful in trying to explain what you are in one single word, they just don’t cover everybody’s experience.

What you call yourself could depend on where you come from, how you feel about your home culture and your host culture. The fact is that everybody creates their own culture. Maybe we should create a whole new word for what we are? Is it even possible with the millions individual stories and experiences?

What do you think?

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  1. Thank you for the post, I completely agree with your criticism of the terms! I suppose it's always a matter of self-definition but, just as you, I don't really associate myself with any of those terms... And I am definitely not fond of the very German approach of "people with migration background", ewww. I suppose my dislike of all of these terms is why I like the notion of "European", I suppose it's a more comfortable version of world citizen :)

  2. Hi Ilze. The thing with labels is that sometimes they can make our lives easier but they are not enough to show the complexities of a life abroad (or life in general). I also identify as "European" (doesn't the name of my blog say as much?), but many of my readers are raising their children abroad.. but they're not from or in Europe. I also like the term TCK (Third Culture Kid), but I have my problems with that term as well (which is a topic for another post)...And, if I had the choice of being called "A person with migration background" or a "foreigner" I'd rather be the latter- but that's just me. :D

  3. Replies
    1. Although I must add that this term (Vertreibung) is usually associated with being a deportee, a topic that is extremely sensitive in Poland and Germany (becuase of the deportations of Germans from regions that are now Polish). But I think I know what you mean and I often feel displaced as well- more aobut this in a coming post.

  4. Interesting post that raises issues that I have come across in my English classes. I have tried to teach the difference between terms such as 'expat' and 'immigrant' and then the next question is obviously what I am. I usually say I am both and more, but that sounds a bit flippant.

    By the way, 'ex' could also mean 'outside', for example 'exhale' or 'exclude'. So it might mean that 'expat' means 'outside their home country'. This at least sounds a little better but doesn't do anything for some of the negative connotations you mentioned.

    1. Hi Stephen, it is not easy, is it? Oh, and thanks for the reminder of the meaning of the word "ex"- you are totally right and I haven't thought of that!

  5. I don't think that there is a right word.
    That is what the problem is with labels, isn't it?
    Labels throw a whole bunch of people in one box who only have a little thing in common.

    1. Hi Mirjam, that is quite a good definition of the word label! Sometimes, it is the one thing that brings people together. Sometimes, it keeps them apart...

  6. Fascinating post. You could include emigrant (one who leaves their home land to settle elsewhere), but that seems to have a permanence to the word that may not be true for all. Or even if you do settle permanently, it's not as if the ties to your home country are completely severed. As you say, it's a difficult definition to pin down.

  7. Great thoughts on the matter. Agree with Stephen; I think of the word expat as "ex patria" - out of (my) country. But a more weird label has to be reserved for us who have moved back "home" - repats. I have repatriated but how long will I stay a repat? Forever? (Until I expatriate again ;) )


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