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Expat versus Immigrant. Thoughts on Terminology

by Laura on January 7th, 2013

Ah ha. I just love when I didn’t even realize I was being un-PC and culturally insensitive. Here I always thought I was an expat … But maybe I’m an immigrant, temporarily at least.

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.”

I digress.

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.

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7 Comments
  1. I had never thought of the different connotations (or the banish denotation).

    You know, your questions have something in common with adoption. I mean we try to decide if someone is either/or, when we might instead want to see if they can be considered both/and (like your children and their dual citizenship). I suppose they would be unable to be expats OR immigrants in either country, since they claim and are claimed by both.

    • Laura permalink

      Lori, As usual, I agree! Instead of either/or we need: both/and. It applies for adoption, and mixed ethnicities.

      And it's true; I think one of the reasons why they fit in so well here is that they are claimed by Serbs, even before they spoke Serbian. But these days, strangers marvel how they see my daughter chatting with me in English, and then responding to them in what they call "clear" Serbian (a compliment, Serbian that is free of lisps, or other speech impediments that tip-off a non-native speaker). They can see she's not 100% Serbian, but they still consider her "one of ours," which I like.

      Laura

  2. That's the wonderful thing about semantics.

    As an immigrant or an emigrant we become expatriate but rarely an ex-patriot. As an emigre we become an exile and an expatriate but again not necessarily an ex-patriot.

    All adult human females are women but not necessarily ladies! Surely a 'lady' can be of either 'high', 'middle' or 'low' birth – it is the manner in which she comports herself that gives a clue as how to define her …. so Leidi could well have been a lady, but I would struggle to call a Khardashian one!

    Oh that was fun – thank you for getting me started this morning.

    • Laura permalink

      Apple,
      Thanks for jumping in! Yes, Leidi is a lady, but Kim K, ummmm … not so much. I am so interested in semantics, word meaning, connotations, the power we infuse into language. I was also surprised at myself, at how I didn't even question this expat terminology.

      Thanks for the smile you have me with your fun comment!
      Laura

  3. It is indeed understood that the idea was never to take up permanent residence in Serbia. But I would say that your plan to return to the United States was not at all wrong. Thanks a lot for the update.

  4. There are many new things in this article that I have always wanted to know about just for the general purpose of information. But as in this article that woman is supposed to cooperate with jurisdiction.

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