Expat, immigrant, migrant, nomad or what?

orange question mark in lights

Should we find an alternative for the term expat?

In searching to name my blog, I have found myself challenged by others and myself about using the term ‘expat’.  I have to admit it is not a word that I would use to describe myself, but I can’t think of another term that fits.  On further research, it seems that I am not alone.

So, what is an expat?

Originally the word expatriate comes from the Latin terms ex (‘out of’) and patria (‘country, fatherland’)”.

The dictionary definition is:

 Expat:

A person who lives outside their native country.

So technically, based on this simple description I am an expat, being British born and now living in Spain.  But to me, and increasingly others, it is a much more loaded term.

The word ‘Expat’ seems to mean different things to different people.  For some it evokes the somewhat old-fashioned name for a colonial Brit (usually a diplomat) who goes to work and then has a few gin and tonics at the club.  More recently it has transmuted into any number of combinations.  From someone that gets a (usually) short-term corporate assignment with all expenses paid in a foreign country to someone who decides to move to another country without any job or company benefits to a nomad that moves from place to place.  Within all this some people might choose to live in an ‘expat bubble’, whilst others might renounce their nationality of birth and completely integrate with local life.  And, of course, many variations in between.

gin and tonic expat with cut glass

There are obviously other words that can be used too – immigrant, refugee, nomad or migrant being a few.  Which then brings me to the more challenging part of my research.

Aren’t ‘we’ all really immigrants?

Technically an immigrant is actually the closest description for many of us:

Immigrant

  • ‘A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country’ (Oxford), or
  • ‘one that immigrates: such as a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence (Webster’s).

This word certainly applies to our family when we chose to move to both Australia and here to Spain, but would I honestly use the word ‘immigrant’ to describe myself?  I have to say before today, no.  Not that I would use the word expat either.  

This leads me to ask the following questions:

  • Would I, as a  British person, moving to Spain be normally called an ‘expat’ and why?
  • Would a Spanish, Indian or Mexican national moving to another country be more likely to be called an ‘immigrant’ and why?

If I am being totally honest about it, the answer to both of these questions would probably be “Yes” for much of society, the why certainly leaves me uneasy.  It does seem that the use of the words expat or immigrant depend on where you are coming from, your background and sometimes the colour of your skin – so this is then a subtle form of racism, right?  

Does it also depend on your class or your type of work? 
If I work in IT or education am I an expat, but in hospitality or service, an immigrant?

Do you see the contradiction?

Does the use of expat or immigrant really matter?

These are tough questions to ask and to answer. And we could shrug it off and say what does it matter, it is just a word?   It would certainly be easier for me as a white middle class person to do just that.  But as it is highlighted  in  this BBC article: 

“The classification matters, because such language can in some cases be used as a political tool or to dehumanise.”  

Even as I searched for pictures of expats and immigrants for this post I noticed the bias.

Expat had images like this:

expat on a sunlounger working on a laptop

Immigrants images like this or of refugees:

Hispanics talking in a graffitied neighbourhood

See how this can end up with all sorts of prejudices?

So, what are the alternatives to expat?

Some neologisms (new term that is yet to be commonly used.  Yes, I had to look it up too!) have been coined, including:

  • flexpatriate, an employee who often travels internationally for business 
  • inpatriate, an employee sent from a foreign subsidiary to work in the country where a business is headquartered
  • rex-pat, a repeat expatriate, often someone who has chosen to return to a foreign country after completing a work assignment;
  • sexpat, a sex tourist. (See this term did exist even before my blog name mistake!)
  • Gringo – in Latin American countries (usually US citizen or general foreigner) can be used as an insult and in jest.

But I don’t feel that any of these terms fit the bill either, nor have I heard anyone else use them.

How many expats, immigrants, migrants, refugees are there?

The mass movement of people around the world is arguably one of the biggest stories of our time.  As of 2019, according to the United Nations, the number of international migrants globally reached an estimated 272 million, or 3.5 percent of the world population.   Approximately 5 million Brits currently live overseas.   By 2050, the number of international migrants is expected to jump to 405 million.    

I would argue that the terminology is going to be increasingly challenged in the future. So, back to the drawing board?

blank page of tablet with pen to start again

Is there a difference between an expat or immigrant’s motivation or behaviour?

There are obviously differing arguments, which I think also depends a lot on where you move to, live and your background.   Warsaw based American journalist Andrew Kureth offers an alternative definition:
“An immigrant is on a desperate search for a better life. An expat is on an adventure.”

But for us, I would argue we were looking for both, although I would omit the word ‘desperate’.

A few friends have pointed out that they strongly dislike the term expat and that they would not use the term to describe themselves or us.  They cite that we are learning Spanish and are trying to integrate as much as possible with local activities, travel locally, kids go to an international bi-lingual school, rather than a British one (albeit not a Spanish one either), etc.   That said, as much as I hope we will ‘fit in’ at some point in the future, I know that it is likely to always be a challenge.  To become fully fluent in Spanish, make mainly Spanish friends, understand the culture and the humour might never be within our reach. So we might always feel like outsiders.  Is that what a foreigner overseas will always be?

I have to say, I was a bit shocked when I read some comments about expats on Twitter.  They were overwhelmingly negative about expats behaviour, lack of respect for locals, attempts to integrate or even understand the culture or language.  Admittedly many of these comments were from SE Asia or the Middle East, but I suspect there is an element of antagonism at worst, and friction, at best, for all expats or immigrants all over the world.   

Expats or Immigrants in Spain?

When we were looking to move to Spain a couple of years back (our full story is here), I was pushing for any part of the country other than the Costa del Sol.  Having visited here (for my classy hen do!) All I could really recall was lovely weather, tacky bars and egg and chips along the seafront.  I was totally snobby about Brits wanting to come here just to live a sunny Britain and not experience, let alone integrate, with Spanish life.  And of course, where do we end up?  In the Costa del Sol.   And of course some people do choose to live like that here, and everywhere else in the world for that matter, and others don’t.   Does it make some of us expats and others not?

What I do believe is that if someone from Spain or anywhere else moved to the UK looking for work, but didn’t know the language there would be a lot of judgment from us Brits.  Yet, many English speakers moving to Spain, Italy or wherever and asking the same question seem to expect a different response. 
Is this another subtle form of elitism or white privilege rearing its’ head?

Admittedly the initial reason I was even thinking about all this was just to name this blog. Having researched the word and meanings behind ‘expat’ further it has highlighted to me how language can convey a subtle form of bias and even racism, that we are sometimes not conscious of.  And that makes me feel pretty uncomfortable.

Everyone is welcome painted on a graffitied wall expat immigrant

So, what should expats or immigrants call themselves?

I honestly don’t know.  If I was to follow the dictionary terms I could call myself either, but I now know I feel more comfortable using the word immigrant;  I have chosen to live in Spain permanently (as much as anything is in this life) . That said, I don’t feel ready to call this blog ‘This immigrant life’.   I just don’t think it will resonate.  I think there are some questions we all need to ask ourselves about why that is.   

I also don’t particularly want to use the word expat as we have seen it is such a loaded term and raises so many contradictions and inconsistencies.  But, I also can’t think of a suitable alternative.  

A new name for expat / immigrant?

Should we all just put our heads together and think of a new name that encompasses all immigrants / migrants / expats that we feel comfortable with?
My friend suggested ‘replants’ which feels pretty accurate for what we are trying to do, but I can’t see it taking the world by storm!

Do I just have to stick with the word expat for now until the world catches up?

Who leads this change?

Shouldn’t it be us?

What do you think?  Do you use expat or immigrant to describe yourself or others? What do you see the differences are between expat, immigrant and migrant? Do you think it matters or not?

Photo credits: Gin and tonic Mathias Tonnesson, Expat: Humphrey Muleba, Immigrant: Toa Heftiba, Question mark: Simone Secci, Everyone is welcome: Katie Moum, Drawing board: Kelly Sikkema

2 comments on “Expat, immigrant, migrant, nomad or what?”

  1. Heather says:

    I definitely feel like an expat these days. I am on country number 5 and it’s actually harder to integrate now than 20 years ago when we had no children and plenty of time for language learning. COVID is definitely not helping with integration – we are really in a bubble of 4 these days.

    I do see a difference in your choice of moving to a new place with a sense of permanence, whereas we know we are here temporarily. I also believe that the negative connotations of immigrant as a word should be challenged. I recall years ago when living in Budapest having a conversation that me working in Hungary was not different from the Hungarians moving to the UK for work. None of us would have moved if not for career opportunities and money.

    No solutions from me for the naming of the blog, I am resigned to being an expat for a while longer and do need to get the Romanian lessons sorted out, then I may be able to call myself by a different name.

    1. Emma Lees says:

      Thanks for the comment Heather.

      You make a good point about duration, it does make a world of difference if you are on a short-term assignment or know it is not forever. I also think it is very different once you are on country number 5 and working AND with kids! COVID on top certainly does not help with anyone’s integration whatsoever right now. Here’s hoping you can squeeze in the lessons at some point soon and we can find a name we feel comfortable with 🙂

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