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Are You an Expat or an Immigrant and Does it Really Matter?

A recent entry posted on the Guardian’s ‘Mind Your Language’ blog by sociologist Peter Matanle explores this one man’s dislike of the term ‘expat’ – which is of course widely and commonly used to describe those of us who live abroad.  Whether you’re a British expat, an American expat or an Australian expat for example, the writer of this particular blog entry believes the term is elitist and inappropriate, and that we should all see ourselves as immigrants.

Matanle’s argument is that according to his observations, expats don’t integrate and tend to feel superior to their new nation’s citizens – whilst ‘immigrant’ is the term ‘we’ use to describe anyone else entering the likes of the UK from abroad for example.  So, this differentiation between ‘them and us’ apparently exists, especially among Britons, and it’s wrong.

According to Matanle there is an historic and unpleasant classist issue surrounding the use of the term ‘expat,’ and we should all do our best to disassociate with it.  Instead, we should accept our immigrant status and do our best to integrate.  So, the question today is: ‘are you an expat or an immigrant, and does it really matter?’

The blog post by Peter Matanle is very funny – and in my opinion is says an awful lot more about the author than it does about those who see themselves, or who label themselves as expats.  Matanle has a massive ‘class’ chip on his shoulder, and is so disassociated from his roots as a Briton that neither the term expat nor immigrant suit him.

He admits that for half of his life he’s lived overseas in a handful of different countries; and as a sociologist he obviously wrapped up day-to-day in the minutiae of elements of whatever constituent of society he’s currently exploring.  Therefore we need to forgive Matanle for his confusion about who he is, and who we, as foreign residents living abroad in a new nation are – and how we ‘should’ label ourselves.

For Matanle the term expat: “is too redolent of the days of empire and sipping gin and tonic in the shade while the locals toil beyond the fence.  It is too easily used as a cultural marker to distinguish people from one another, making it easy for some Britons to feel both superior to and separated from the local people in their host cultures.”

One can only wonder at the type of people Matanle associates with for him to draw this conclusion.  He mentions the: “communities of Britons overseas that somehow isolate themselves from their adoptive societies and associate mostly with other Britons, referring to each other routinely as expats.”  And uses this argument as a strong reason for the ‘abolition’ of the use of the term ‘expat’ in newspapers like the Guardian.

Well, we all know that in certain parts of certain nations expats tend to stick together, (think Southern Spain and Southern Cyprus as a classic examples), and in others they perhaps find it easier to integrate.  That says as much about the individual expat (ooops, sorry, immigrant) as it does about the nation they’re living in.

Some people move abroad just for the sunshine and the cost of living, they don’t want to learn a new language or absorb the local culture.  Others move overseas and find a new home abroad; they completely adapt to and adopt their new nation as if it were their own mother country.  It’s up to the individual – commenting on the rights and wrongs of one’s approach to establishing a new life abroad is way beyond the scope of this article!

Now look at the expats living in the UK – there are same-nationality communities in certain towns and cities across England where integration into the British way of life is minimal…and then expats pop up in the most unlikely places across the UK, completely integrated and living like a local.

At the end of the day the word ‘expat’ is just a commonly used term to describe those who move abroad to live, work or retire – it doesn’t label the individual as classist, elitist, superior, snobbish or racist.  An expat is also an immigrant of course, as Matanle points out – however the word immigrant has a very negative connotation.

If you’re going to look at the historical connections and connotations of a term like ‘expat’ you have to do the same for ‘immigrant’ – and it is often used in a disparaging way to describe a person from a poorer background settling in a richer nation.

So, are you an expat or an immigrant?

Well, if you’ve moved to live abroad and left the nation of your birth behind then technically you’re both.  However, looking at it from a taxman’s perspective for example you could also say you’re a ‘non-dom’ and a ‘resident’ in your new nation.

At the end of the day I really don’t think Matanle’s argument carries any weight and is worthy of any further discussion – expat is just a term that’s been adopted so that people who live abroad can tailor Google searches to their status, so that they can find people from home and other foreign residents in their new nation to befriend and discuss the difficulties or otherwise of integration.  It’s just a term to help foreigners feel less foreign.  It’s really no big deal!

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