I Have Lived Abroad for Years. So Why Do I Not Call Myself an Expat?

Bouri Diop
Aug 18, 2018 · 7 min read

Language is a powerful tool, not least because of how subliminal it can be. The societal gaps that exist between peoples is reflected in our use of language, often so subconsciously that it can be difficult to notice the rifts we create with our words. ‘Lame’, for example, means ‘disabled’ yet it is more often used to describe something that is disappointing. ‘Sinister’ stems from the Latin word for ‘left-handed’, and ‘upper’-class is assigned to those with money and wealth while ‘lower’ class is for those who have fewer opportunities.

It might seem a small thing, vocabulary. Yet it can make a big difference in how we perceive the world, and in the policies that our elected officials pass.

I have not lived in my native United States for more than five years, with no intention of returning. I consider the United Kingdom home, though currently live in China (more on that in a minute). Despite the fact that I live outside of the country I was born in, I do not refer to myself as an expat. Instead, I prefer the more ubiquitous term: immigrant.

Six immigrants enjoying the London life — representing Denmark, the United States, Germany, Bosnia, Georgia, and Turkey

There are three main terms ascribed to people who have willingly chosen to leave their home country (and before we go any further, I want to emphasize that this article refers to certain colloquial uses of these words rather than their dictionary definitions): immigrant, migrant, and expat. ‘Migrant’ refers to those who have immigrated for economic purposes, while ‘expat’ tends to refer to immigrants from developed countries. ‘Immigrant’ is a term that encompasses both, though is typically only conferred colloquially upon migrants from developing countries.

It is here that we begin to see how language is used to reflect the disparity between groups of immigrants — expats are adventurous jet-setters, while migrants are portrayed as economic competition and harbingers of cultural wars.

However, in terms of policy impact, expats are no different than migrants. By using the term “expat”, we not only reinforce the idea that rich, white immigrants are somehow different from poor, brown people, but we also reinforce the (false) notion that if westerners were to try and move abroad, they would not be impacted by the anti-immigrant policies that countries have recently imposed.

For a personal example, I was an immigrant in the United Kingdom and was forced to leave the home I had made for myself because of strict-and-getting-stricter immigration laws. But while my life has been greatly and negatively impacted by these policies, I can appreciate that, due to my skin color and native tongue, I was a privileged immigrant while there. Only once was I on the receiving end of an anti-immigrant rant (I was transferring money and NatWest lost the funds. While I was discussing what to do with the branch manager, he began to talk about how great banking would be after Brexit, once the bureaucrats and immigrants had left. When I pointed out that I was an immigrant, instead of looking ashamed he simply asked me why I didn’t go home to be with “your own people.”).

In the weeks leading up to the forced abandonment of my entire life, and in the months since, I have lamented my situation to countless people on both sides of the Atlantic. Almost always comes the same response: shock that I had to leave the UK and an assumption that all I need to do is apply for a new visa to go back. This reaction is partially due to the fact that few people realize just how difficult it is to immigrate, but it also very much occurs because few think of expats as immigrants.

Citizens of rich countries must realize that they too would be immigrants if they ever tried to move abroad. I have lost count of the number of times I have explained my situation to Americans, incited their sympathies and outrage, only to then have them turn around and discuss moving to Canada in order to escape Trump. You guys. You can’t move to Canada on a whim. They have immigration policies! What were we just talking about?? Or in the summer of 2018, The Times ran an article that said up to a quarter of working-age Brits might move abroad after Brexit in order to find work. This article was widely shared amongst the Remain crowd on social media. But after Brexit, the UK will (probably) lose the EU’s freedom of movement. So please, explain how this supposed 25% will get past the strict immigration policies that nearly all Western countries have enacted in recent years.

To give you a better understanding of just how strict these policies have become: I have a distinction master’s degree from one of the world’s best universities, with over a decade of professional experience, and I speak three languages. Yet the British government still deemed me too unqualified to warrant an extension of my visa. In fact, during the month of April 2018, not a single British work visa was granted for anyone making less than £50,000.

So no need to worry that a quarter of the British workforce will leave the country. The short answer is: they won’t because they can’t.

In another debatable take on the colloquial usage of ‘expat’: an often-used defense of the term is that it refers to short-term immigrants — in other words, immigrants who intend on returning to their home countries. However, many immigrants of all types expect to return to their origin country eventually. Refugees often want to return when it is safe, migrants may find that they miss their family after a few years, students tend to want to go home at the end of their studies, and so on. For example, a Pakistani friend of mine, Oz, has lived in London for three years and plans to return to Karachi in the next year or two to start a family. Now, raise your hand if you think anybody would call her an expat. In fact, her only response was laughter when I asked her if she believed that society considered her one.

Oz and I, enjoying a lazy Sunday in Greenwich

This is not to use anecdotes as evidence, but merely to hone in the point that short-term residency is not the main criteria for the colloquial usage of “expat”. This is also to counter the claim that “immigrant” is not an applicable term for those who are not going to settle permanently; until students, seasonal workers, and “expats” (by this definition) are not included in net migration numbers, they are immigrants.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I currently live in China. My fellow teachers typically call themselves expats. When I call us migrants or immigrants, I am met with blank stares. It has never crossed their minds that they are immigrants. One of my British colleagues has gone so far to say that he will never refer to himself as an immigrant or foreigner, because “those are bad words back home.” This despite the fact that he is both.

I prefer to take back control of these words and use them to empower immigrant populations around the world.

Finally, you may ask why I would rather call myself an ‘immigrant’ than call migrants from developing countries ‘expats’. After all, this would raise everybody’s position, as ‘immigrant’ is seen as negative after decades of unfavorable rhetoric from media and politicians alike. Why lower my ranking rather than raise the ranking of others? It’s an intriguing argument and as a premise, I agree. However, we kid ourselves if we think that Western society will accept my Pakistani friend as an expat before it accepts me as an immigrant. Thus, until the day comes when Oz can call herself an expat without laughing at the idea, I will proudly call myself an immigrant. I hope that you will do the same.

Language matters. We are all targets of the policies implemented across the Western world in recent years. As an ‘expat’ who has been diagnosed with PTSD from this ordeal, I can attest to the human destruction of these policies. The true fight regarding immigration is to ensure that all immigrants — no matter where they are from — are treated like the human beings that we are; people who are just trying to go about our daily lives. We do not need the additional battle of tackling condescending terminology ascribed to different groups of immigrants. And so it might seem like a small detail in the battle for immigrant rights, but we must re-examine our usage of various terms in order to further the rights of all.

Bouri Diop

Written by

MA European politics. Focused mainly on UK/EU/US politics, specifically immigration. Senegal RPCV. Photos my own.

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