Expats and immigrants–what’s the difference?
Grammatically speaking, expatriate is a verb or adjective, describing a person living in a foreign country. Immigrant is a noun, describing a person who has moved permanently to a foreign country.
Legally speaking, expats have an easier time moving between borders, getting visas, and doing business with multinational countries. Immigrants, as defined by many governments, don’t usually get those luxuries.
Colloquially, expat conjures up images of growing wealth, technology, banking, ambition, education, and success. When I think of the word “expat,” I think of the people living in high-rise apartments in Dubai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and other growing cities. But the word “immigrant” or worse, “migrant worker,” makes people think of illiterate tomato farm workers, poor families fleeing economic hardship, the obstinance of grandmothers refusing to let go of the “old ways,” and a situation I don’t really want to find myself in. As an American, when I hear “immigrant,” I think of Mexican housekeepers, Nigerian janitors, and Indian gas station workers.
That’s a problem, isn’t it?
How we use words matters. Government regulations about visas, passports, and borders definitely add to the problem of Westerners freely flitting from country to country while the Global South struggles to keep up. But they aren’t the only perpetrator. Words matter, because words shape the story we tell ourselves about how the world works and how it got this way. To tell a narrative you need words. To use words you need a voice. So let’s think back to those images of expat and immigrant. Those people in the high-rise apartments, when you imagined them–were they white? And the immigrants–were they anything but brown or Asian?
Basically, white (or those of North American/European descent) get to be expats, but everyone else has to be immigrants. In a few of my grad classes at FSU I had a classmate who was Kenyan. He and his wife had moved to the US to pursue PhDs together. Based on the official definition at the start of this blog post, they should be expats. But they’re black, so Westerners call them immigrants.
And what about me? I moved to South Korea for economic betterment. I needed a job, and Korea would pay me more that the US would. I live in South Korea now, working and trying (and usually failing) to assimilate into Korean culture. By definition, I should be called an immigrant. Actually, I should probably be called a migrant worker (under United Nations legal code, my status is skilled migrant worker). But I’m American, and I’m white. So I get to be called an expat.
One blogger made the point that expats have fewer expectations on them, because they may not live in their host country permanently (as opposed to an immigrant), and that’s fair to make. I’m not expected to learn Korean, have an intimate understanding of the food, or fit seamlessly into the culture. So in that sense, yes, I’m definitely an expat. While lower expectations for expats isn’t necessarily a problem, it does seem hypocritical that expats hail from countries that have infamously difficult expectations for immigrants.
There are (thankfully) exceptions to this social rule that only Westerners get to be expats. But they are only exceptions.
There’s not much I, personally, can do about this, but to admit that I get a fancier title just because of where I was born and the shade of my skin. And though it doesn’t mean much, here’s my words, my tiny voice in the narrative:
I’m a migrant worker.