Expat versus Immigrant. Thoughts on TerminologyPublished January 7, 2013 , By Laura
What is the difference? Is it a post-colonization thing? Is it a class thing, an ethnicity thing?
Expat or Immigrant?
I once had a nice woman named Leidi, who helped me clean my Los Angeles home. “Cleaning lady Leidi is coming today,” was very confusing for my newly verbal toddler, who soon equated the word “lady” with someone who cleans. Danica would scrub the floor, saying with a serious face, “I’m just a lady.”
Leidi was from a small town outside of Mexico City. She had a young son back in Mexico who was living with his grandma. Leidi sent money home each month, in addition to donating to her local Catholic church. And I considered her an immigrant, not an expat.
But then again, I am a rampant classist, apparently. I didn’t picture Leidi’s spartan lifestyle renting a tiny apartment in skid row to be part of my romanticized image of expat-ism. My stereotypical expat idea was of posh evenings spent smoking and reminiscing about the past, drinking wine (for women) and brandy (for men) in wood-paneled bars. I also pictured berets, but I am unsure as to where this notion originated from.
Come to think of it, this fantasy doesn’t even appeal to me. Wine? Yes. Smoky bars. Heck no.
So, I considered Leidi to be an immigrant, and myself to be an expat. … Even though Leidi eventually returned to Mexico. She was never an immigrant in the truest sense: Starting a “better” life in a different, more economically developed country. How insensitive of me.
Expatriate (abbreviated, expat) according to Wikipedia, is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from Latin ex (“out of”) and patria (“country, fatherland”).
“Expat” would apply to diplomats, military, and workers at foreign companies wherein a one- or two-year assignment in a foreign country needs to avoid interrupting a child’s home-country education and culture. The time frame is finite. The individual worker and his family may have little interest in “assimilating.”
Term has connotations of affluence, the expatriation a temporary status.
Expat as exile … Really?
Then there’s dictionary.com, which generally defines expatriated as having been banished or exiled. Sent away, not welcome in one’s home country.
Hadn’t considered that one before.
Okay, let’s get complicated
Am I the only expat in my little family? My husband has dual citizenship. My kids are half-Serbian. Are my kids expats? Their father’s ethnicity matches where they live.
At what point is one considered a real-live-resident? Is it the hard-and-fast line of gaining citizenship in the new country? Or is it more fluid like speaking the language well? Or, economic, such as buying a home, as opposed to renting? Is it job-related, working for a domestic company as opposed to a foreign one?
There are other areas to consider. … Expatriate vs. ex-patriot—just because I live in a foreign country doesn’t make me more or less patriotic for my country.
We’ve always planned to return to the United States, the idea was never to take up permanent residence in Serbia. And so I considered myself an expat. The terms still stands, but perhaps I should have termed this blog “Temporary-Immigrant Mommy,” but that phrase doesn’t seem to pack the same punch.