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?