Expat vs. Immigrant: What’s in a name?

I’ve been living in East Africa on and off for about 3 years now, and with each new country I go to follows the expectation from friends and family that my stay there will be temporary. Until now, their expectations have been met — 4 months in Ethiopia, a year in Malawi, 4 months in Tanzania, with brief stays in the US in between. But with no end to my current year-plus stint in Uganda in sight, my friends, family, and even co-workers seem a bit dismayed, as if I’ve long passed my in-country expiration date. I mean, I am an expat, after all…

Interesting word, “expat.” It conjures a wide array of stereotypes, from the bright-eyed volunteers, to the slightly jaded, Rav4-driving 20-somethings, to the borderline neocolonialist oil and gas Old Guarders. Yet, regardless of differences in age, profession, and level of cynicism, they’re all referred to as “expats”, whether they’ve been in-country for two years or twenty.

Why is that? Why after 5, 10, 15 years living and working in Sub-Saharan African countries are most foreigners still referred to (and refer to themselves as) “expats”? Back in the US, someone from another country who has lived and worked in the US for that long would be labeled an “immigrant.” Why the difference in terms? Where is the line drawn — and why is it drawn at all?

I’m not the first person to question the meaning and implications of the expatriate label, a word that comes from the Latin ex (“out”) and patria (“native country”) and which is defined as “a person who lives outside their native country.” In a March 2015 piece for The Guardian, Mawuna Remarque Koutonin argues that expat is an inherently racial term “reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.”

Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.

It’s a powerful and provoking argument, as white European or North American expats tend to be the most visible and numerous. But, having met my fair share of Indians, Nigerians, Japanese, Ecuadorians, and Singaporeans living and working in Sub-Saharan Africa — all of whom were referred to, and referred to themselves, as “expats” — race does not seem to sufficiently demarcate “expat” vs. “immigrant.”

Nor does socioeconomic or intellectual class seem to fully encapsulate the differences between the two. Malte Zeeck, co-founder of InterNations, the world’s largest network for people who live abroad, argues that what most expats have in common “is that they have higher qualifications, some kind of university degree background and that they are going abroad for a certain period of time.” Yet, if that were the case, we wouldn’t see the the highly credentialed engineers and software developers recruited from India and elsewhere to work in the vaunted halls of Silicon Valley being lumped together with other American “immigrants.”

Ruchita Tulshyan comes close to identifying the source of the expat/immigrant split in an April 2015 post on The Wall Street Journal’s Expat blog, arguing that the difference lies in the comparative economic strength of the origin vs. destination country.

“[P]eople assume that someone coming from a country with a weaker economy to a country with a stronger economy, must be fleeing their socio-economics status and therefore immigrating in hopes to find a higher status.”

Tulshyan is on to something here, but her argument falls short when we consider the economic strength of, say, Denmark (US$ 335.9 billion GDP as of 2013) versus to that of Nigeria (US$ 521.8 billion GDP as of 2013), or the recent economic rise of China. I guarantee that any Dane in Nigeria is still labeled an expat, and that 10 years from now, when China’s GDP overtakes that of the US, recent Chinese transplants to the US will still be called immigrants.

It’s not the comparative economic strength of the origin vs. destination country that separates expat from immigrant. It’s the comparative value placed on life in — and the lives of those that come from — the country of origin. Inherent in the expat/immigrant split is a higher assumed value placed on life in Global North (North American and European) countries compared to the rest of the world.

One need only look at the definitions of each term for proof.

Expatriate: v. banish, exile; to withdraw oneself from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country; to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere or to renounce one’s allegiance to one’s native country

“Expat” is a noun derived from a verb that implies an active choice to “renounce” one’s former life, an inherent act of self-sacrifice. It is difficult to believe that those moving from Global North to Global South countries would willingly give up their privileged position as a resident of “superior” country for long. And so the expat is temporary, transient, existing under the assumption (theirs’ and others’) that one day, inevitably, they will return from whence they came.

Immigrant: n. a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence

“Immigrant” is a noun that also implies an active choice, but with none of the self-sacrifice implicit in “expat.” It seems obvious that someone from a Global South country should want to move to the Global North and that the value of whatever they are leaving behind clearly pales in comparison to the opportunity that awaits them. And so the immigrant is permanent, fixed, existing under the assumption that they couldn’t possible ever want to go return from whence they came.

Both expats and immigrants sacrifice family, friends, the familiarity of home for the opportunity (and, often, the adventure) of the unknown. Yet the perceived value of that sacrifice — the economic, social, political, and personal opportunity costs — for those coming from the Global North are automatically assumed to be of a much higher value, and thus inconceivable to willingly renounce for long.

“Expat” and “immigrant” are terms heavily laden with (superior and inferior) connotation, so what labels, then, to use? Some have suggested “global citizen” or “international migrant” as alternatives, but both fall short, implying an impossible level of legal recognition on one hand and a strictly economic motive on the other. Why not dispose of all the underlying value and motive judgment and call it like it is?

Hi, my name is Jen. I’m a resident of Uganda.