Expat or immigrant?

9 Mar

What is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

I guess to some extent, there may not be a difference. I’ve heard two common definitions. One is that an expat is someone who one day plans to return to their home country, while an immigrant intends to stay in their new country permanently. The second is that expat is the term used for middle- to upper-class white people who are enriching themselves with other cultures whiles immigrants are poor people from third world countries looking for a better life.

I think the first definition is fair enough, though a lot of people who call themselves expats don’t intend to return home, or at least don’t have any plans to do so. If that’s the case, then I would be an immigrant, not an expat, and so would a lot of other people who call themselves expats.

Due to a recent turn of events here, I think it is extremely unlikely that we would be able to live in America at time in the foreseeable future and it’s possible we may not ever want to, depending how things go. I’m applying for a permanent residency visa, which rather indicates I intend to put down roots here.

The second definition is one that I find a bit insulting and I don’t really like it. It implies that expats thinks of themselves as superior and just out for a good time while “real immigrants” have it tough.

Anyone who moves to a new country has it tough. It doesn’t matter where you came from or what your background is. There is almost always the challenge of learning a new language and culture. You often go to a new place with nothing. That wealthier people from developed countries have the means to get on their feet quicker doesn’t negate that. And poor immigrants often receive a significant amount of help not available to people from wealthy countries. You leave behind your friends and family and everything you know and there are a lot of challenges.

I also dislike making a distinction between immigrants and expats on the basis of a desire and willingness to enrich and immerse oneself in the local culture. That is not snobbery, which the second definition somewhat disdainfully implies. It’s called integration and it’s what one should do when moving to a new place. You learn the culture and you participate in the culture. Integrating is something all newcomers to a country should strive for, regardless of their background. It is not exclusive to a certain class of people from certain countries, or shouldn’t be.

Expats or immigrants? Hard to tell. They look poor, but they also seem to be on one hell of an adventure.

Nor do I care for the implication that expats are just having some sort of grand adventure, out for a good time.. Nobody makes an international move just a for “good time”. That’s what vacations are for. Or study abroad, if you’re a student. Everybody who makes a major move does so looking for a better life. Some people will immigrate from a poor country to a wealthier one because they want to raise their standard of living, but that is not the only acceptable marker of a “better life”. Many expats/immigrants from developed countries move for jobs or for love or for family and these are all things essential to being happy and having a good quality life. One doesn’t need to be escaping from war-torn impoverished country to seek a better life.

So I think the better definition is that expat is simply someone who eventually intends to return to their home country, whose stay in another country is only temporary, even if long-term, regardless of whether or not they integrate into the local community and put down roots there, where an immigrant is some who plans to stay permanently. I think the other definition uses the word expat in a somewhat derogatory way and also implicitly removes the expectation that immigrants from poor countries should integrate into their new host country, which I don’t agree with.

Thus, I will officially be an immigrant once my permanent residency visa is approved. Until then, I guess I am an expat, since Australia could theoretically kick me out at any time that pleases them.

3 Responses to “Expat or immigrant?”

  1. julienleyre March 14, 2012 at 6:45 am #

    Good luck with the application! I remember going through the process – the paperwork was not too bad (compared with what I had grown to expect in a French bureaucracy), but the wait for final PR really got on my nerves. It’s a great step towards integration when you finally get your visa processed. Something about the word ‘permanent’, as your blog post wisely suggests.

  2. Cosette May 18, 2012 at 10:07 pm #

    Interesting. I hadn’t given this any thought. I’m Cuban and a naturalized American citizen so I’ve always thought of myself as an immigrant. It’s only recently since I’ve been exploring blogs from Americans living in Oz that “expat” has entered my lexicon. I only ever thought of expats as artists living in France during the early to mid 1900s, lol, the Henry Millers and Gertrude Steins of the world.

    • housewifedownunder May 19, 2012 at 12:08 am #

      In that case, you might just have to start calling yourself a global citizen.

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