Why “Expat?”

I’ve often felt that busy periods of work leave little opportunity to think. Before I decided to give writing a good ol’ shot, I’d been used to working long hours in emotionally taxing jobs. I’d come home at the end of the day, watch nonsense T.V. and then off to bed. Netflix was my comforter and the usual novels were shelved for emotionally gratifying articles about the adoption of really sad looking dogs. I was capable of consuming little more, even avoiding the news, with tales of horror, corruption and war. I’d regularly cut myself off, in a grand act of self-involvement. I soon learned to utilise video’s featuring happy swimming otters (or some such other cute critter) as a chaser to the six o’clock news. It’s like the lime after tequila or watching Friends after a horror movie!

There has been no small amount of radio silence from me recently, mostly because I haven’t done anything noteworthy, but mainly due to my current workload. However, I haven’t found myself unable to think and I’ve been desperate to put pen to paper with a whole variety of half-baked ideas. Writing itself can be emotionally taxing, but it’s very dependent on the task at hand. My commissioned work is a lot of fun. I’ve been researching aviation and I’ve learned an awful lot about an area hitherto a mystery. My novel is a labour of love. There are days it makes me want to cry and throw my laptop from the balcony. And there are days I want to cradle it like the hopeful new born that it is.

I’ve found that I’m now able to actively flex my thinking muscles all the live long day and on Friday, I realised I’d been chewing over the following question for some time: “Why Expat?” I often listen to the radio and read a variety of articles from UK papers. Immigrant and migrant are two words that are repeated again and again in the news. The word refugee is used less and less when its definition is far better suited to the individuals who have recently been re-defined, as immigrants. Refugee is defined as ‘a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.’[1] How on earth could this not be a fitting description for the people of Syria, escaping war and disaster, death and destruction?

Instead we hear about “thousands of immigrants arriving in boats” like it’s a fleet of large cruise ships. Arriving doesn’t seem like a particularly fitting word as a boat collapses underneath an overcrowded ship of starving, wounded and terrified passengers. An immigrant is ‘a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.’[2] This re-fashioning of the refugee as immigrant has devastating consequences when the term softens the reality. Refugees do not simply choose to live somewhere else, they flee their homes for fear of death. This reality is lost in the translation of immigrant. It simply does not define the circumstances.

After thinking this over for some time, that the definition of refugee has been hijacked by the word immigrant, I ask myself; why expat? When I think on it further I’m astounded that I haven’t questioned it much before. Expatriate is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘A person who lives outside their native country.’[3] This definition is pretty much the same as immigrant and it is difficult to understand any logical demarcation between the two words.

I am an immigrant. I have ‘come[..] to live permanently in a foreign country.’[4] So why am I an expat when a Syrian refugee is an immigrant? Surely if I, an expat, are in reality an immigrant then the Syrian refugee can also be called an expat? If we insist on calling refugees immigrants then surely it’s better to just say expat. After all, the word expat is looked upon much more favourably than immigrant. It’s all pretty ludicrous, but why the distinction?

I believe it all comes down to a hefty helping of cultural conditioning and a warped western ideology. That us economically advantaged, and generally white, Europeans need a word to distance ourselves from the Syrian refugees on the 6 o’clock news. As politicians strive to undermine the desperate reality of the refugee crisis, refugee suddenly becomes immigrant; subtly and quietly warping the word immigrant with a confused and misleading understanding of both the word immigrant and refugee. To parody the current trend: “foreigners are coming into our country to steal jobs and benefits. These people are called immigrants. Immigrant means ‘a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country’[5] so they have no good reason to come here. I therefore do not like immigrants.” UKIP, in particular, peddled this beautifully in their recent campaign.

This extreme, UKIP like view was legitimately published in a British newspaper with a massive readership. I don’t really know what to call Katie Hopkins, perhaps just a scary person with a microphone? On April 17th she defined the vulnerable ‘migrants’ fleeing aboard boats to UK shores as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans.’[6] Further adding on LBS radio that she would deploy ‘gunships’ to ‘tow them back to where they came from.’[7] These people were not migrants or immigrants but refugees with legitimate claims for asylum under the 1951 Geneva Convention. The confusion of these terms coupled with such extreme views serves to mislead and anger the general public into an anti-immigrant frenzy.

The Wall Street Journal writes that ‘Some arrivals are described as expats; others as immigrants; and some simply as migrants. It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat … Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats … It’s a double standard woven into official policy.’[8]

After further research I have found that the word expat is bound up in government policy; how the movement of people from different places can be labelled. I have also read that the demarcation, ‘isn’t an “outdated supremacist ideology” which labels white people living in a foreign country as expats and all others as immigrants; it’s governments. Simple as that.’[9] I don’t believe it is quite that simple.

As we have seen with the refugee crisis the words which are used by government officials profoundly shape our world view. Language is the way in which we navigate our world, our sense of self and our culture. If a ‘double standard [is] woven into official policy’[10] it filters on through to the consciousness, or sub-consciousness, of the people who live within that official policy. In this way the word expat does serve an “outdated supremacist ideology”[11] where we separate ourselves from immigrants (whom we tend to assume are African, Syrian, Filipino, Mexican…) because we were lucky enough to be born in wealthy and privileged place.

Passports pack a punch and those of Finland, Sweden, Germany, America and the United Kingdom are the most powerful in the world. We have access to 174 countries without a visa[12] while both refugees and immigrants will be denied free movement simply because of where they were born.

It astounds me at how fortunate I am. That I am able to come to this beautiful place, to work and prosper, and to write for a living in my own language. So many refugees are forced to flee to a strange land. One where they have to learn the culture, to speak the language, to work within foreign systems, often in low paid jobs no matter how educated they may be in their homeland.

When they are able to integrate and settle within the UK, for example, they are still called immigrants. In contrast, we have a tendency to move to a foreign country, getting by just fine with English, not willing to culturally integrate… Yet we get to be called expat, with its connotations of the grand old British Empire; neatly glossing over bloody colonial history to be replaced with pride and patriotism. It just doesn’t seem fair. Does it?

When I first moved to Spain I was nervous about what to call myself and followed suit when most other brits defined themselves as expats. I always felt a tinge of guilt as I uttered the word; the term reminding me of our colonial past. I now remember that the first time I encountered ‘expatriate’ was through the study of Rudyard Kipling. He was born in 1865 and writing in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s a pretty ancient term with a bad legacy.

I’d like to describe myself as a citizen of the universe, although I understand how idealistic that may seem. Even though I’m sure it would make for a pretty epic passport, decorated with planets and stars, although I’d admittedly miss the unicorn on my current one. If I can’t be a citizen of the universe then I’ll settle as a Scot and an immigrant. I will continue to learn the Spanish language and perhaps someday I’ll be adopted as an honorary Spaniard too.

[1] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/refugee (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[2] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/immigrant (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[3] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/expatriate (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[4] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/immigrant (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[5] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/immigrant (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[6] Katie Hopkins, quoted in Jon Stone’s, ‘Katie Hopkins’ migrant ‘cockroaches’ column resembles pro-genocide propaganda, says the UN,’ The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/katie-hopkins-migrant-cockroaches-column-resembles-pro-genocide-propaganda-says-the-un-10201959.html (date accessed: 13/09/16).

[7] Katie Hopkins, LBS Radio, http://bcove.me/rjlfkl22 (date accessed: 13/09/16).

[8] CHRISTOPHER DEWOLF, In Hong Kong, Just Who Is an Expat, Anyway? The Wall Street Journal, http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2014/12/29/in-hong-kong-just-who-is-an-expat-anyway/ (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[9]Yaël Ossowski, ‘The Difference between Expats and Immigrants? It’s Passports, Not Race,’ PanAm Post, http://panampost.com/yael-ossowski/2015/03/26/the-difference-between-expats-and-immigrants-its-passports-not-race/ (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[10] CHRISTOPHER DEWOLF, In Hong Kong, Just Who Is an Expat, Anyway? The Wall Street Journal, http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2014/12/29/in-hong-kong-just-who-is-an-expat-anyway/ (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[11] Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, ‘Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?’ The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[12] According to the Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index of 2014. https://www.henleyglobal.com/files/download/hvri/HP%20Visa%20Restrictions%20Index%20141101.pdf (date accessed: 12/09/16)

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