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What is the difference between expat and immigrant?

March 21 , 2021 by: Leah Martin

Expat vs immigrant – people often confuse the words expats and immigrants with each other. Like everybody else, I also didn’t know the difference between expats and immigrants until my father refused an offer to be an expat in another country.

It is a bit shameful to admit that as a college student, that was my first encounter with the word but at least I am now better equipped to tell the difference.

So what is an expat? An immigrant?

When I did some digging, that’s when I realized there’s a whole conversation to be held about the usage of the two words. When you ask an average person to point out what makes an expat different from an immigrant, I bet they won’t be able to provide a definite answer.

I don’t blame them. The distinction between expats and immigrants is often difficult to pin down. But there is common theme in all the articles I’ve read about the topic. Basically, the difference between being an expat and being an immigrant boils down to perception.

That means, in technical terms, there is little to no difference between an expat and an immigrant.

An expat is someone who may or may not reside permanently in another country. An immigrant is someone who permanently resides in another country. Very little difference.

The word expatriate used to refer to someone who has been banished or exiled, according to dictionary.com. But the word is now used to refer to someone who is usually a wealthy Westerner living in another country.

Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, an editor from The Guardian, raises an extremely important question: “why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?”

I asked myself that too. My father is a Southeast Asian, very brown man who happens to work for an organization that has a lot of white expatriates so I guess he would have earned the title ‘expat’ by association. I am confident though that had he accepted the offer and lived in another country, he would’ve been labelled an immigrant by the people of that country.

Mawuna Remarque Koutonin in his article mentions the experience of an African migrant worker: “I work for multinational organizations both in the private and public sectors. And being black or colored doesn’t gain me the term “expat”. I am a highly qualified immigrant as they call me, to be politically correct.”

Therefore, expat has become an exclusive term for white foreigners. Asians or Africans will always be immigrants regardless of whether they hold high positions or not.

A top diplomat of Asian descent will always be regarded in a less awe-inspiring manner than his white counterpart whose occupation may not be as prestigious, which sends the message that white people are superior by default.

People are left asking themselves, what is the use of trying to make a name for one’s self in a new country when society decides that you can’t share a label on the mere basis of your skin color?

Misha Ketchell, an editor from The Conversation – the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis, provides another interpretation. He explains in his article that individuals identify with the word expat or immigrant based on choice – or lack thereof.

A person who willingly chooses to move to another country, usually retirees, identifies as an expat. A person who is forced to go abroad in search for better opportunities they couldn’t find in their home country identifies as an immigrant. The contrast seems completely innocent at first.

Yet the undesirable connotation for the word expat still remains. Malte Zeeck of InterNations says that for expats living abroad is a lifestyle choice than borne out of economic necessity. In other words, an expat enjoys the same privileges regardless of where they are.

Misha Ketchell cites the viewpoint of one of the participants to his research: “an expat to me is someone who is sort of wealthy and a bit of a snob.”

Interestingly, another participant to the research who is decidedly not wealthy does not identify as immigrant despite being a permanent resident in Germany “because [I’ve] made no attempt at all to become German.”

So there is a belief that in order to be an immigrant, one must assimilate into the culture.

In the end, it is harmful for people to be caught up in labels as it reinforces negative stereotypes. One class of people is protected by their privilege and wealth. The other class of people is not only burdened by economic challenges but by social pressures as well.

Words and meanings have power. They have the power to influence how society views certain groups of people.

That is why, it is high time to start changing how we understand the meaning of expat. In the same way that the definition evolved from exiled individuals to white foreigners, it is possible to transform expat into a more inclusive term.

Whether white, black, or brown – everyone should be allowed to identify with the word expat. People who temporarily work in other countries for money to send home should be able to freely call themselves expats as well. After all, they also share their wealth of knowledge and experiences with their host country.

Finally, the desire to travel to or reside in other countries is inherent in all humans so we must do away with divisive labels. They also prevent people from seeing that they have more similarities with each other than differences.

If we can’t, then we should change how we define such labels. In that way, all of us will be able to live in a more harmonious world.

Discussion about the differences between expats and immigrants is rather complex but it is ultimately unhelpful to emphasize the difference between people who have all left home for the same reason: to look for greener pastures.

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