The tale of the expatriate and the migrant

“Expats intend to stay in their new country for a limited period. […] Who of the following are expats? An American diplomat stationed in Ghana. A Ukrainian plumber working in London. A German businesswoman living in Shanghai. An Ethiopian medical student refining her skills at a hospital in France. A Syrian professor working in Italy as a janitor, longing to return to his war-torn homeland once it becomes safe again.

As a blog post, which originally asked that question, points out, the above definition would say all of them; most people would not agree. What’s more, by this definition people who retire abroad cannot be expats (unless you stretch “limited” to mean “until death”).”

Stephens, Thomas. 2017. “Pourquoi Un Expatrié Ne Peut-Il Pas Être Illégal?”. SWI Swissinfo.Ch.

“The etymology of the word expat makes it almost synonymous with exile: it’s actually leaving one’s homeland. And then, little by little, it refers to someone who chooses to leave his country for different reasons. It’s a word that was used a lot during colonization, so it’s been associated with European people,” says Laura Calabrese, a linguist. In the 20th century, a new definition appeared, still today considered by some people as the only official one: executives sent by their companies on what multinationals have called “expatriation contracts”.

“These expatriates are rather Westerners because the employees of multinationals are rather Westerners. So that’s why we have the impression that the word is used in a racist way, but I would say that in this context, more than skin color, the word designates a social class,” she says.

In the 21st century, a new generation of expats has been added, who move for a variety of reasons and recognize each other. “To define this expat, you really have to look at the way this word is used. If we stick to etymology and the dictionary, it is not wrong to call them expats or immigrants. The choice of one or the other will rather depend on the connotation. The connotation is the 3rd layer of meaning that also gives the word its definition. […]

“Saying expat is a way to stay close to one’s country of origin, it has a diaspora dimension. Expats have a strong bond with their homeland and there is an idea of return,” says Ingrid Therwarth, editor-in-chief of Courrier Expat, a media derived from the Courrier International newspaper. She explains that this is the logical continuation of what has been the “Erasmus generation”: you leave while you’re studying, and you want to continue the adventure once you’ve entered working life. […]
Laura Calabrese says; “We see in these two words a hierarchy between desired mobility and undesired mobility, whether by the individual or by the state.” She explains that between expatriate and immigrant, usage and connotations have created a difference: “When you put them side by side, you see in these two words a hierarchy between desired mobility and undesired mobility, whether by the individual or by the state”.

Lisa, a multi-expatriate blogger who has lived in Egypt, the UK and Crete says: “I’m navigating between different vocabularies, at times I’ve said expat, at other times I’ve said immigrant. Basically, it doesn’t matter. But what is certain is that being able to be an expat is a privilege. Many dream of leaving their country and can’t because they don’t have the right passport.””

Falquy, Ingrid. 2019. “L’expatriation Est-Elle Un Euphémisme Pour Ne Pas Nommer L’immigration?”. Slate.Fr.

While thinking about it, we always have to keep in mind each life path is unique and cannot be reduced to one word. The willingness to either integrate into the host society or remain among foreigners is also important in my opinion while keeping you can both be integrated in the local community on the one hand as well as get in touch with your fellow nationals in the other hand.

As Laura Calabrese explains, the complexity lies in the three layers of understanding: the definitions, strictly speaking, the linguistic usages, and finally the connotations. Eventually, I consider it is up to each person abroad to define her or himself as an immigrant or an expatriate with tailor-made definitions and following her or his feelings. I do think this is the best solution as long as the breadcrumb trail is not to stand above the crowd.

Jules Striffler

Other sources
“Definitions”. 2020. Refugees And Migrants – United Nations.

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