Expat, Immigrant or Foreigner?

I was nineteen years old when Elizabeth Gilbert published Eat, Pray, Love. At the time, like the rest of the country, I was enamored with Gilbert's international journey of self-discovery and emotional healing. For the four of you who don't know the tale, Gilbert spent four months in Italy, India, and Indonesia respectively grieving failed relationships and learning--for the first time--how to take care of herself.

While she never intended to stay in any of these places permanently, she befriended many people who did; particularly in Bali. It was among these people that she met her future ex-husband at a party for...expats.

During this section of the book, this word was repeated over and over again. Expat, expatriate, expat, expatriate. And try as I might, I just couldn't discern the meaning from the context. A few years later when the movie came out, I thought that it would offer some clarification. But alas, no. It wasn’t until many years later when I moved away myself that I decided to look it up.


The definition goes as follows: "a person who lives outside their native country." This very clear in simple definition did not give me an ounce of clarity. "Huh," I thought, "How is that not an immigrant?"

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I had known many people who fit this definition; yet, I had never heard this word used to describe them. Instead, I heard people referred to as immigrants. As, a young child, my neighborhood, was often described as a working-class area peopled by Italian immigrants. As I grew older, this was changed to Caribbean immigrants, and then finally, to Latin American immigrants.

In the nearly 30 years that I lived there, I never once heard someone referred to as a Haitian or Peruvian expatriate.



So what was the difference between an expat and an immigrant? Again I went to the dictionary. And I found two more definitions. The first insisted that it was one who was living outside of their native country temporarily. While the other insisted that an expatriate was one who had been exiled from his or her native land. Although, all sources except "dictionary.com" defined this usage as archaic.

So, now I was clear, at least somewhat, about why Gilbert defined her friends on the beach in Bali as expatriates. But still, I wondered, were they also immigrants?

Well, that would depend. According to the dictionary(ies), the defining characteristic of immigration was permanence. As in, an immigrant was one who intended to live outside of their native country for the rest of their lives.



So what then was I? Eleven years later, I found myself pondering this as I was on my own journey abroad in Spain. As I had intended on living here for only one year, I started with expat. It is a title I am clearly comfortable with as I spent years working for a platform called ExpatPost.

As I had no intention of staying permanently, immigrant didn't seem to fit. Moreover, because as I was living in Spain, I rarely talked about my identity with locals in English. When I did describe myself, it was often as estadounidense, American, or extranjera, foreigner.

This term, foreigner, felt the most accurate, descriptive and frankly, neutral. All the non-Spaniards were extranjeros regardless of whether or not they came from the United States, Switzerland or Senegal.

But my comfort in describing myself this way was due solely to cultural relativism. While the term extranjero/a was one that I embraced, I made sure to communicate to my Spanish friends that it was not a term that could be so easily translated into American English. While the denotations were the same in both languages, the connotations were completely different. In America, calling someone a foreigner was not something done lightly. When doing so, the speaker is usually trying to imply that not only are you not from here, but you don’t really belong here. It some regards, in this day and age, it feels almost like a slur. Suffice it to say, it is not often a word that one uses in polite conversation.


Which One Are You?

While foreigner may not be as loaded a term in Spain, it was not one that rubbed off easily. From my experience, people who were of Asian, West or North African descent were still considered foreigners regardless of their citizenship. I learned this the hard way when I was scolded by a man at a salsa club in Madrid.

For a little background, Salsa music and dance is Latin American, not Spanish and has nothing to do with Spain culturally. But due to the Latin American population in Spain, it is somewhat popular in the larger metropolitan areas.

But here's the thing, as it is not something that people grow up with, Spaniards learn by taking lessons in a dance studio. I am not Latin American either, but I learned to dance in Cuba at a club and honed those skills in more clubs back in New York City. I had never taken a lesson and was rather unfamiliar with the more performative style of dancing popular in Spain. It seemed to rely on steps and tricks, rather than intuition and rhythm. I had picked up the latter from people who had been dancing this way their entire lives.

Herein lived a conflict and great potential for stepped-on toes. At the club, a Black man asked me to dance, and I agreed. Despite his amiability, he was a terrible dancer. We just couldn't get it together. So, I asked him a question that I thought would help: “where are you from?” Here is where I made the mistake.


Where Are You From?

I asked him this because I was trying to figure out if he had learned to dance at home with his family, por la calle, or in a class, los estudios de baile. But that isn't what I asked him. And he was offended. He stopped dancing (thank goodness) and started lecturing me. He told me that his parents were from Equatorial Guinea, but he was born and raised in Spain. And he didn't appreciate me questioning his identity. It was then that he walked away.

I empathized with him. To me, the sternness of his reaction was a clear indicator that this was something that he had been asked many, many times before and he was over it.

Interestingly enough, while we shared a similar phenotype, our respective relationship to the concept of foreignness could not be more different. It was both a difference in perspective and privilege. While I was a foreigner, I was not an immigrant. As in, as an American, I was not considered to be one of "those people” who were coming here taking jobs and consuming resources. I was there to provide a resource--the English language.



And there it was. The definitive concept distinguishes the three terms: privilege. Passport privilege to be exact. The association with exile or banishment had long since been disassociated from expatriate. But in its place "first world" and/or "wealthy" had been placed.

In fact, while the definitions of expat mention nothing of nationality, the examples do. "American expatriates in London," said Google.  "Expatriate French voters queue in Lausanne, Switzerland for the first round of the presidential election of 2007" was presented on the Wikipedia page about expatriates.

Meanwhile, the immigrant page on dictionary.com mentions, "The driver, Amadou Diallo, was a courtly African immigrant who made it a point to wear a tie as he worked." This is an excerpt from an article entitled "The Mad Shooter of Paris is a Natural Born Killer."  There are two other articles one entitled "Meet the Original 'Fighting Irish" and one from which the excerpt "The Lazarus Project involves the 1908 shooting death of an immigrant" was taken.

Amadou Diallo is also the name of an unarmed Guinean immigrant who was shot 41 times by police in NYC in 1999 if you didn't know.


So, just so we are clear: expats come from France, England or America, while immigrants come from Senegal, Ecuador, and Thailand. Unless of course, those from Senegal, Ecuador or Thailand are wealthy. Maybe then an exception could be made for them. According to these same sources, immigrants also have a penchant for violence, as either the subject or recipient.


Who Am I?

As a person from a first world country, I have the privilege of always defining myself as an expatriate when abroad. And to be honest, it is something that I exercise at times in order to shrug off the racism or xenophobia that comes with being viewed as an immigrant; especially a Black/African immigrant in Europe. I don't particularly like doing this, which is why I am more comfortable with foreigner. But as my friend in the club showed me, that doesn't work for everyone.

Those of us who can choose or reject the labels that suit us best are probably considered expats. And we become so by going on international trips eating, praying and loving until we finally return home or move on to another place.

Expat, foreigner, immigrant: all, one or not at all. It is partly up to you. And partly up to the passport you carry.

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Candace Fykes