Upon embarking to live overseas, I was surprised to learn that what I would call myself – and what others would call me – as a person living abroad has a long history of debate and can be deeply political. It’s important for members of the international community understand these complexities and to respond humanely to the issues.
I never really identified with the term “immigrant” or “migrant”, because to me they denoted a degree of permanence in the UK I don’t have (because my visa will run out in 2020) and I’m not sure I want (in case I want to live somewhere else in the future, or move back home). Terms like “tourist” and “traveller” have the opposite problem. “Expat” is not a term I use for myself very often (despite blogging for a site called “Expat Coffee Club”!) although I think it fits best.
But “expat” isn’t simply a term that describes my visa arrangements. It describes my age, my profession, my socio-economic status, my race, the conditions of the country I came from and its relationship to the country I live in. “Expat” has a deceptively simple definition but a ton of political connotations which makes the label a very privileged one. Although privilege is like a built-in blindfold that makes it easy to ignore issues, ideally privilege should be countered responsibly – through listening to others and being an ally.
An “expat” (or “expatriate”) is defined as a person who lives in a different country from where they are a citizen. According to anthropology news blog, antropologi, there’s a bit more to it though. It’s usually applied to skilled professionals. Manual labourers, for instance, may fit the definition of an “expat” but are often referred to as “immigrants”.
The blog quotes Andrew Kureth, who says, “An immigrant is an unwanted job-stealer, while an expat is a foreigner who could be leaving any day now. An immigrant is on a desperate search for a better life. An expat is on an adventure.”
In a similar vein, expats who are students are usually referred to as “international students” (or “foreign students” when they’ve done something wrong) but it depends. I spoke to my husband – who is an international student – about it and he says that he usually sees himself as an “expat” until he gets volumes of paperwork designed to restrict and track his movements. Expatronage connotes freedom and the conditions of student visas don’t exactly cultivate this feeling.
Locals’ judgement about whether or not you’re an “expat” will usually incorporate prejudice. As German website, The Local, explains, people from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, and countries in the Middle East living in Berlin are labelled “Ausländer” (immigrants) and those from the US, Spain, and other western countries are “expats”. Expats are seen as “a better class” – they are less threatening, they are from countries that locals may understand or even admire, they are not touted as a political “problem” in the tabloid press.
These linguistic points aren’t just conceptual, they really matter. Over the last few months I’ve seen Britain gripped by Brexit – the referendum to decide whether the UK should leave the European Union. The leave campaign was predominantly fuelled by the fear of “immigrants”. Each time I passed a newsstand, I passed another headline about the scourge they bring on society. It’s a niche view, perhaps, but it was one that got a lot of coverage. Around the time of the vote, the racism and hatred for outsiders culminated in a number of acts of abuse, violence and intimidation against people branded as “immigrants” – people held signs saying “refugees not welcome” and “fuck off to Poland”; people left excrement in the letterboxes of migrants; gangs of people roamed the streets and demanded that passers-by demonstrate their English-speaking skills; there were assaults and arson attacks; people racially abused and scared young children; a man ripped off the headscarf of a Muslim woman before shouting racist and misogynistic abuse at her; swastikas were sighted across the country. The label of “immigrant” has been heinously used to justify acts of extreme hatred.
I know that they aren’t worried about people like me – young, white Australian women who speak the language and haven’t “stolen” employment. And yet, I don’t believe for a second that there are any material realties that make my tenure in the UK any more valid than those who have been targeted by hateful attacks. The fear is not of outsiders – otherwise I’d be feeling it too. It’s of outsiders of “a certain type”. Anti-immigration sentiment is just racism and classism in the disguise of border protection and concern about employment opportunities.
I believe that the community of people who easily slot into the label of “expat” have a responsibility to use their relative privilege to stand up and say, “I am no different”. Anything we do to further reinforce the false binary of “immigrant” and “expat” contributes to the problem of the degrading way in which some people born overseas are treated in the country they reside in. It’s important to listen to that experience, pay attention to it, and do whatever small thing you can to help create a world where degradation doesn’t happen.
Sometimes I experience myself as distant from UK politics. Although I’m living here, I feel untouched by it – like I’m a witness to it rather than a participant in it. I’m not sure that I have much of a right to say anything about the politics of a country I’m not a citizen of. This is not an excuse to keep the blindfold of privilege on though. Wrongdoings are wrongdoings, and it’s necessary to call them out when they are in motion. You don’t have to know everything about a country to do this, but you do have to listen to, and care about others.
Nobody in the international community should stand for our members being attacked like that. There’s no “us” and “them” – all expats (and here I mean anyone who meets the actual definition, not just those people who are awarded the label) need to be concerned for the rights and safety of all expats and demand for better, even if their own are not under threat.