Op-Ed: Of Expats and Immigrants
Living outside of your country of origin for nearly a third of your life will inevitably bring your identity into question. There are various words for people like me, ranging from ‘expatriate’, ‘traveller’ and ‘nomad’ to ‘gypsy’, ‘vagabond’ or ‘immigrant’. Of these, the two most common are ‘expatriate’ and ‘immigrant’. I personally tend to use the former as I feel that it better fits my circumstances.
Some time ago, I read an article on the Guardian website which implied that the only reason the term ‘expatriate’ fits my circumstances is because I have white skin. It said that, if I were not white, I would be called an ‘immigrant’ regardless of any other factors. I disagree with this opinion because it does not match my own experiences and, since a very similar point was recently raised by a friend of mine, I thought I would discuss my opinion in more detail.
By way of a disclaimer, I would like to highlight the fact that this is an opinion based on personal experiences. My experiences are very specific to me and other people will almost certainly have other experiences. I am not saying that I am right or that anyone else is wrong. If you have an alternative perspective, you’re welcome to share it in the comments below and we can discuss it politely.
The most fundamental evidence against the fact that only white people are called ‘expatriates’ comes from my time working in Oman. At the time, the sultanate was a country of 3 million people, of whom only two thirds were Omanis. Of those 1 million foreign nationals, about 70 per cent were from India, including the majority of my fellow journalists. At no point did I ever hear them referred to as ‘immigrants’ – they, like my British colleagues, were always ‘expats’.
So, why were those of us living in Oman not known as ‘immigrants’? My first theory was that it was because we had not immigrated. We were in the country on work visas and, once they expired, we would be expected to leave immediately, if not sooner. No matter how long I stayed in Oman and how much I adopted the local customs and culture, I would never be able to become a naturalised Omani. I could never have an Omani passport.
I remember seeing a remarkable westerner at many events I attended in my time there. Despite having lived in the sultanate for over 10 years, speaking fluent Arabic and wearing a dishdasha all the time, he was still in exactly the same boat as me – if he lost his job, he lost his right to reside in Oman. The same even applies to me now, in Thailand. My work permit is the only thing that allows me to remain in the country. My visa classification is “Non-Immigrant B” – a work visa which couldn’t be clearer in its statement that, if I am not working, I’m not welcome.
By contrast, I think of an immigrant as someone whose home is in a foreign country. They can own land (in Thailand, I can’t), receive state support (as an expat, I can’t) and can claim citizenship of their adopted land. No matter how long I stayed in either Oman or Thailand, I would remain a British citizen, just as my colleagues in Oman would remain Indians.
The flip-side of the same coin is nowhere more evident than in my hometown in the UK. Selby has quite a substantial population of Polish people. Without exception, they are white. Also without exception, they are known as ‘immigrants’.
Similarly, I have heard of white friends and family from the UK moving overseas to Canada and Australia. In both cases, they were said to have ‘emigrated’ – a term exclusively used for someone who will ‘immigrate’ into another country. Again, it doesn’t matter how long I live in Oman or Thailand, I cannot be said to have emigrated from the UK because it is impossible for me to immigrate here.
A Question of Class
I said above that this legalistic distinction was my “first” theory. It does have one significant flaw, which also became evident from my time in Oman. Naturally, the country does not contain 700,000 journalists. The majority of those Indians living in Oman were workers, labourers and maids. These, unlike my colleagues, were mostly known as ‘immigrants’ or, at best, ‘migrant workers’. This led to my second theory – that the distinction is one based on class.
Journalism is pretty much the most middle-class profession there is. Frankly, it isn’t paid well enough to be upper-class, but sitting behind a desk for the majority of your day is certainly not a working-class pursuit and the overwhelming majority of journalists have at least a Bachelor’s degree. However, despite the fact that the Indian labourers in Oman and around the world have as few rights as I do when living overseas (arguably even fewer), I’ve rarely heard of such people being called ‘expats’.
I had thought that a potential exception to this rule could be found in Pattaya, Thailand. It’s a major hub for westerners living in Thailand, yet you will never hear the term ‘immigrant’ applied to someone with white skin, regardless of their class. However, none of them are workers. Plenty have a lifetime of manual labour behind them, but none can be found working in factories, fields or building sites, other than as managers and overseers. This is because they are not allowed to – Thai labour laws forbid foreigners doing any job a Thai could do just as well. Whatever they were before, westerners are middle-class in Thailand and are, therefore, expats.
Quite frankly, both of these theories have holes. I still believe that the reason why one person is called an ‘immigrant’ and another is called an ‘expat’ has way more to do with class and especially legal status than nationality and skin colour, but I cannot adequately prove that is the case. There will always be exceptions.
I can absolutely sympathise with the concern of the writer of the Guardian article. The word ‘immigrant’ has become something of a dirty one in the UK and people identified as such are often seen in a negative light. It is interesting to note that the word ‘expatriate’ actually has negative connotations for Americans since it is [inaccurately] thought to come from the concept of being a lapsed patriot – literally an ex-patriot. The word is actually from medieval latin and literally means ‘gone out from one’s country’.
Possibly it is my privileged position as an expatriate that allows me to ask the following question: What difference does it make? Who cares what other people call you or what connotations that word has? Over the course of my life, I have been called ‘mzungu’ in Swahili, ‘farang’ in Thai, ‘gweilo’ in Cantonese and ‘gora’ in Hindi. Two of these terms are said to literally translate as ‘foreign devil’. I do not personally consider myself to be a devil, so these terms have no impact on me. As these words do not harm me, I instead choose to own them. Yes, I am farang. I’m also a mzungu, gweilo and gora. Above all, though, I’m an expat. Why? Because I said so.