One of my readers recently asked me what the whole ‘Expater’ thing was about. In answer to her question, I wanted to create a term which better encapsulated what my fellow land hopping adventurers and I are all about. The term ‘expat’ is rather vague and dull.
It also gets itself muddled in politicized scuffles with ‘immigrant’ and ‘migrant’.
All in all, I’ve felt very welcome in my host countries and I wonder if it’s because I’m considered an expat and not an immigrant?
What’s the difference, you say? For me, it’s about choice and time. Expats choose to move to another country for a certain amount of time. Immigrants are left with little choice but to move and end up staying for a long time, if not all their lives.
Or is it about money and race? I’ve never faced the economic struggles that many immigrants are faced with and I’m white (very white, in fact). In many respects my expat life has been one long holiday.
In a chat with a Swiss neighbour the topic of the ‘dreadful’ foreigners around our apartment came up. I smiled and calmly pointed out that despite my flawless accent I was in fact a foreigner too. (To clarify, another Swiss friend said my accent is as English as Mary Poppins’). My neighbour brushed my comment aside: ‘No, not like you. You speak French, you’re an expat and well, you know what I mean…’ I think I did and I’m also sure the ‘foreigners’ spoke better French than me.
Something similar happened in Angola, but this time it was a black woman doing the complaining. My neighbour was grumbling about ‘all the foreigners’ in the country. Again, I asked if my accent and skin tone didn’t give my nationality away. ‘Well, yes, you’re foreign, but it’s not the same. British, OK. But Lebanese, Congolese, what do they want here?!’ Probably the same as anyone else I reckoned: a better life. However I wasn’t about to get into semantics with a feisty granny wielding a walking stick with a spike.
Am I made more welcome, because as a white expat I’m seen as well off and not a burden on local resources? It’s true that I’ve paid my local taxes, but I’ve also enjoyed my fair share of hospital treatment. Yes, I’ve made an effort to speak the local language, but I’m sure I speak it worse than the average ‘immigrant’.
Sometimes, being perceived as an expat has its downsides. In Luanda, Angola, I was forever receiving demands for gifts, including a $700 mobile phone for a driver and a new iPhone for another coworker, because as an expat I could afford it and it was only fair. Umm.
Mind you, ‘white expats’ get a much better deal that anyone in the ‘mixed race immigrant’ basket. Chatting to a lady on a metro in Antwerp, Belgium, I was told how immigrants were the root of all Belgium’s problems. Then sensing my unease, she put her hand on my shoulder, ‘No, not you. I mean Muslims, not Christians’. Oh that makes me feel so much better.
Perhaps it all boils down to prejudice? Perhaps I should make more of an effort to stand up to such blatant racism? Perhaps instead of merely registering my disagreement, I should try to persuade my neighbours that having foreigners in town can be a really good thing.
Perhaps it’s safer not to use the terms expat or immigrant at all. The star formerly known as Prince changed his name to a symbol, so perhaps we can do something similar. Expaters, are you with me?