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Why we should stop using the word "expat"
Journal Post #36: September 2023, Treviso Italy
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Recently I have seen a lot of mentions of the word “expat”; in news articles, blogs, facebook groups, etc etc. The exclusivity of the word - who gets to claim the title versus who doesn’t - has always bothered me. This is why I consciously try to avoid using it, and writing about it is my attempt to appeal to you to stop using it too.
To start, let’s do a little exercise. Picture an expat in your mind. Who are they? How do they look?
I am going to guess you pictured someone… white and wealthy! Maybe a young man working for a transnational corporation in Hong Kong? or an older couple having margaritas under palm trees in Puerto Vallarta? Or a woman working out of her laptop in Medellin?
The official definition of an expat is “an individual living in a country other than their country of citizenship, often temporarily and for work reasons”.
But, who cares about the actual definition? Colloquially, the word has become associated with wealth and whiteness, regardless of the reason or length of the stay in the foreign country.
I know people who have built their entire careers outside of their birth country, people that have married, bought houses, and have been for decades somewhere else, people who have no intention to return to their country of origin, and they would still call themselves expats. Of course they are all white, wealthy, and living in a “poorer” country that their own. In reality, they are simply immigrants.
Immigrant is defined as “someone who has moved to another country permanently”.
But, being an immigrant also has a meaning outside of its definition. Expat is sophisticated, classy, associated with wealth and status. Immigrant is stagnant, without a choice, in search of better opportunities. So it’s no wonder people want to be expats, not immigrants.
Even when people fit the “official” definition of an expat - someone who left their country temporarily for a job - they will be called differently depending on how they look (race and social class), how much they make (economic status), and which country they are coming from (poor versus rich).
Take a British man who works in an NGO in Kenya for five years. Expat.
Take a Malaysian woman who works in a bank in London for two years. Immigrant.
Take a Mexican man who picks apples in Washington for a summer. Migrant worker.
And of course we know a job really has nothing to do with how the word is used today. The retired German couple in Chiang Mai are expats while the Nigerian man working in high-tech in Amsterdam is an immigrant.
The truth is that formal definitions are irrelevant. What matters is how the words are used today. And the word expat is loaded, hierarchical, and used to impose an outdated social order. Language is powerful, the words we use matter.
Perhaps a more accurate and less outdated definition of expat is simply “an immigrant who has privilege”. The privilege of a top notch education, the privilege of freedom of movement, the privilege of a specific skin color, the privilege of being born in a rich country, the privilege of choice.
In a world where words carry immense power, we need scrutinize the language we employ and the connotations it carries. The term "expat" may seem innocuous at first glance, but its implications are far from neutral. It's a label that has been burdened with privilege, linked to wealth, and often intertwined with notions of race and social class.
In the end, we are all immigrants, so perhaps it's time to acknowledge that the term “expat” may need retirement.
Together, let’s bid adieu to "expat", shall we?
Where are we now?
We arrived to Treviso today! A town very close to Venice and where my mom’s family is from. It’s our last destination in our 15-month full-time travel trip, and I still can’t believe it. We will be hanging out with some of my family, dropping the car here (to be picked up next year for a roadtrip through the south of Italy!), and taking a flight to Cancun in a few days. Although we are sad the sabbatical is officially coming to an end, we are extremely excited to go home to Tulum Mexico (read: tacos, mezcal, tropical food, and the Caribbean, how could we not?) and we have some really cool (slower) travel plans for the next few months! Stay tuned!