Friday, November 22, 2013

The difference between an immigrant and an expatriate

What image comes to mind when you think of an immigrant?  Is it different from the image you have when you think of an expatriate?  Why?

Unlike the term immigrant, expatriate implies privilege and the choices that come along with it.  We use these terms to differentiate between those with resources and privilege and those without.  Immigrant has a vaguely negative connotation in American English.  Where I'm from in the Chicago suburbs a lot of people have strong feelings of dislike for immigrants despite being the descendants of immigrants themselves*.   This isn't surprising.  It's a part of human nature to form groups, feel an affinity with that group and exclude others.   Social bonding is an essential part of society.   That doesn't mean we have to marginalize and discriminate against people who are different.  Human beings are not subject to their natures.  We have the ability to educate ourselves and rise above our instincts.  If we weren't able to do this it would be impossible to have a global community.  As we create a new environment we have to change.  

The funny thing about seeing myself as an expatriate is that my host country doesn't give me any special status for being American.  Only foriegn nationals make the distinction between expat and immigrant.  Germans do not have separate words for us, we're all Ausländer to them. 

I have never suffered the same as someone from Iran, Turkey or Africa.  I have witnessed these groups being singled out for discrimination.  White privilege buffers my interactions, as dose my German spouse.  When people know I am from the USA I am further insulated because my country is rich and powerful.  But that doesn't mean that Germans are always happy to interact with me or speak English or be patient with my level of language.  When I am treated unkindly because of my Ausländer status it isn't nice.

Being a foriegn national has given me insight into just how hard immigration really is.  I would have never known what it felt like to see my culture reduced to a caricature in a German language class.  Or look at the embarrassing ethnic American foods section of the a supermarket.  I would not have known how it felt when people treated me badly because I couldn't speak the language or know where to go.   Being an immigrant is hard and often painful.  We gain a new country, language and culture at the price of our own.   You might expect to be granted the same respect you would in your own country but be surprised to be treated instead as an outsider.

Expatriate, immigrant, refugee, alien, migrant or foriegn national, we are people living in a country not our own.  I understand why ethnic enclaves are built and groups cling to their native languages, culture and traditions.  An extent of assimilation and language acquisition are necessary but I think I have much more sympathy for these minority groups than I did before I moved overseas. 

How do you think of yourselves?  Expat, immigrant or something else?

x
Sara

  *Try to think of something more ironic than Americans of European heritage bemoaning how immigrants are taking over America.  :)

8 comments:

  1. I didn't realize how easy a white woman had it living in The States until I moved to a foreign country during Bush's war on Iraq... for the 1st time I understood hate & discrimination and I was on the receiving end. Times have changed but I am highly aware that I am still a foreigner. And you're right there are different standards of foreign, now that Obama is in office things are easier on the Americans abroad. We will always be seen as foreigners but we still receive less discrimination than people from other countries. - Danica

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    1. Oh wow, I totally forgot how much people hated the US when Bush was in office. The first question people used to ask me when they found out I was American was 'do you like Bush?' and I would cringe. Obama did a lot to turn American's international reputation around, thank goodness!

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  2. It is a very interesting question, Sara. I view myself as an expat, but only recently I started asking myself about the differences between my understanding of "expat" versus "immigrant". I am Polish who lived in the US for many years and now I live in France. For me, an "expat" is some body who moves to another country because of work (relocated by a company or hired from another country), while an "immigrant" is someone who escapes the conditions in his/her own country (political, economical). But I understand that there is a big overlap between these two situations.

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    1. It is a really interesting question. If you look up the definition then you see they are almost exactly alike. The difference seems to be in mildly negative social connotation with the word 'immigrant' and little else. :)

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  3. A great article, Sara. I also wonder how to call people who do not meet the expat or immigrant criteria. E.g. well-educated Polish IT developers who take on a freelance assignment in Germany do it for the sake of experience and adventure. We explored this topic further in Polish and allowed us a cross-reference to your post.

    http://karierabezgranic.blogspot.de/2014/11/migracja-poakcesyjna-polacy-w-niemczech.html

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  4. I think that both terms suggest that a person is always of one nationality and that that nationality describes their identity 100%. Even having dual nationality suggests that you are a 100% A and a 100% B. I have found that this isn't the case. Living in 2 different countries, almost an equal number of years in both, I think you start to consider yourself to be something in between, it may be a 50/50 split, it may be 80/20 but one or two words just fail to describe your identity.

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