What’s wrong with the word ‘expat’

expat_immigrant_linguisticpulse1The piece I wrote two days ago (‘A warning to all expats in Rome!!!’was mischievous and frivolous but was also intended to make a serious point. It sought to draw attention to the fact that people who call themselves expats are also immigrants, just ones who enjoy – and, crucially, don’t tend to question – certain privileges. It therefore provoked a furious reaction from people whose status as ‘expat’ is one of the most important aspects of their self-identification.

The post was partly motivated by my genuine surprise at how many people here in Rome wear this badge with pride. I guess (and I’m aware that I am generalising enormously) that Rome has something in common with Paris, in that both cities tend to attract the kind of people depicted in later Woody Allen films: urbane, mobile and well-heeled North Americans and middle class ‘Brits’ attracted by the postcard romance of the place but with little actual commitment to or knowledge of the society they’ve chosen to make home. The prevalence of self-declared expats here contrasts with previous places I’ve lived in. In Portugal the only people who were happy to be called expats lived on the Algarve and played golf or lived in Lisbon and were part of rugby clubs. In a Spanish context I immediately think of monolingual retirees on the Costa del Sol. In Mexico I only heard the word in relation to places like Puerto Vallarta and San Miguel de Allende. Most people I’ve known there and elsewhere wouldn’t call themselves expats. It’s not cool to be an expat and I think there are good reasons why this is the case.

I want to make clear that I know and respect some lovely people who may call choose to label themselves expats. I also enjoy the work of the Canadian graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who depicts beautifully the tribulations and contradictions involved in moving to distant countries with his wife every couple of years. It’s also true that those who try too hard to fit in, disavowing entirely their own background, can be deeply annoying.  While I have little problem with individuals who call themselves expats, when it’s manifested in a cluster, the expat mentality starts to look ugly and sound really quite whiny and arrogant. Facebook groups are rarely nice places to hang out, but anyone interested in how unpleasant the expat worldview can get is well-advised to temporarily sign up to one called ‘Expat Moans’. It’s hard to read more than three posts in such a group without getting a distinct whiff of actual racism.

Does that mean I’m calling all those who describe themselves as ‘expats’ racist? No, of course not. But with the help of this Guardian article, I want to enumerate those things about the category ‘expat’ which make me feel uncomfortable. I must also say that a) I’ve been guilty of several of these things in the past and b) that I’m trying to characterise a way of thinking and behaving. This is not written as an attack on a particular group of individuals. I’m also conscious that some of these criticisms are made of immigrants in general; I hope it’s clear that I am not presenting them here in such a way.

These are the features of the ‘expat’ attitude that I find distasteful:

1. A belief that whiteness and westernness makes one exempt from social responsibilities. Some expats engage very little with what’s going on around them in their host society -paying no attention to local and national news, for example.

2. A failure or refusal to recognise one’s privileged position and its historical roots.

3. A disavowal of one’s status as immigrant, to the point of failing to express solidarity with less privileged foreigners. A lot of so-called expats would not be inclined to express solidarity with the plight of immigrants if they had stayed in their own country.

4. A political identification with local elites, including the taking-on-board of class-based and racist prejudices.

5. A failure and/or refusal to integrate and learn the language. This is particularly prevalent among English-speaking expats. It’s both fortuitous (in terms of finding work) and unfortunate (in terms of encouraging our sense of superiority) that our belief in the primacy of our language is shared by people all over the world.

6. An attitude of being a permanent tourist, continuing to treat the host society as little more than a source of photo opportunities: charming but without substance.

7. Some expats have a tendency to complain about what surrounds them – particularly service and services – but without seeking to understand the social, political and economic context.

8. In a lot of cases, expats live at a distance in economic terms, only frequenting ‘international’ establishments. It is also common for self-declared expats to inhabit a cultural and social bubble in which they only mix with others of their kind. I’m not just talking here about corporate immigrants – the same is definitely true for many who work for international NGOs and the UN. The Green Zone extends far beyond Baghdad.

9. An uncritical attitude towards one’s own country. Expats often think of themselves as enjoying a temporary absence from an unchanging homeland which will always welcome them back. In the case of both Brexit and Trump, this complacency has been cruelly exposed. The post-1992 tide of open European borders is retreating, and it may well leave some long-standing emigrants in EU countries stranded.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I’m aware that in relation to any given individual’s set of circumstances some of it may be unfair. For example, having lived in China and spent time in Thailand, I understand that there are some countries in which immersion in the host society is infinitely more demanding in terms of time and effort. The language is much harder to learn and the culture much more difficult to get to grips with, making it so much more difficult to participate in social life unless one has sent a substantial portion of one’s life there. In other countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, expats are servants of the elite, little more than a caste of privileged servants, and as such are more socially dependent on their English-speaking patrons. Increasingly, many countries have a preexisting infrastructure to facilitate the expat lifestyle. Mike Davis’ book ‘Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism’ reports on the iconic example of modern Managua, where a high-speed road network whizzes elite citizens and visitors between the business district, the gated communities and the airport, leaving poorer parts of the city untouched and deteriorating. The annual Mercer Survey of the world’s ‘most expensive cities’ is a regularly bizarre read, featuring locations such as Luanda and Kinshasa in the top 10. While life for most people in those cities is certainly a struggle, the survey isn’t about them, but the Randian superheroes who (or whose companies) think nothing of spending $100,000 on a prime apartment in the most desirable areas.

Are people from the Philippines expats? Or from Bangladesh? What about Senegal? In a way, given that so many people from those countries work abroad out of necessity, it would be nice to think they were part of the club. However, it’s hard to imagine the average British financial services worker in Dubai regarding her pool cleaner as part of the same social class. In the case of the Italian expat Facebook groups, the members are almost exclusively white Americans and ‘Brits’. There’s little direct racism but a lot of griping about Italy and the Italians, and little solidarity with African or Arab victims of Italian racism. As for the Expat Moans group, it’s a bit like a vision of what Facebook would have been like in the middle of the 19th century. I know that similar dynamics operate in the French and Portuguese-speaking worlds, and similar attitudes are probably expressed among highly-paid Chinese workers in African countries.

I earlier mentioned the historical roots of expat privilege. If we want to (as we must) make an effort to understand where those roots lie, we have to talk about colonialism and imperialism, that ‘corner of a foreign field’ that is to be regarded as part of the metropole. This is our history as westerners. It’s helpful – indeed, as a white Westerner living abroad, essential – to be aware of the critiques of writers such as Camus, Fanon, and Orwell if we want to be aware of our implicit modes of thinking and behaving in relation to the world around us. We are hardwired to regard poorer societies in a condescending and/or hostile way and to expect that the locals defer to our needs, our values and our lifestyles. For centuries we have been taught to believe that we have an automatic right to be spoilt. As I mentioned earlier, the English language in particular encourages this mentality. It’s common now to hear references to ‘international’ food as opposed to national cuisine, and it’s not implausible that this way of thinking extends to people. Those who call themselves expats aspire to belong to a global elite in a world increasingly divided along lines of mobility, between those who can live and work wherever they want and those whose movement is, by dint of class or birth, infinitely more restricted.

Calling oneself an ‘expat’ encourages a certain mentality and way of behaving, a sense of superiority and entitlement which we have to be vigilant of and challenge in ourselves and others. At a time when immigrants are being scapegoated, locked up and deported around the world, from LA to Rome to London, all migrants – regardless of the colour of our passports – have an absolute moral duty to stand up for one another.

(P.s. Anyone still inclined to think that there is no difference between how the words ‘expats’ and immigrants’ are used is well-advised to do a google image search for both terms.)

9 thoughts on “What’s wrong with the word ‘expat’

  1. I actually have a blog about “expat life” but I’m not particularly attached to the term. This reminds me of a recent video of an old British guy living in Spain, who explains how the British are never foreign, no matter where they go. Foreign is other people. Anyway…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just took the liberty of tracking it down, it’s an enjoyable read! Which I tend to think is the first virtue of blogging. Makes me miss Madrid. Which always felt slightly Irish to me in the same way as Lisbon is quite English.


  2. Yep. Thanks for the effort to articulate these ideas. Hope this piece is widely disseminated in “expat” circles. Twenty-plus years living out of country and I catch myself making these mortifying errors of privilege time and again. In fact, the complacencies (of caucasian/”first world”/English language elitism) to which you refer are the rule, rather than the exception. We imbibe the legacies of imperialism/colonialism in our mother’s milk. In general, it never occurs to us to claim solidarity with the other sojourners in the countries that host us. The highly fortunate among us, & that’s anyone who has spent stretches abroad for paid or unpaid white collar work, medical tourism, retirement, or just plain idling… we really do need to monitor our sense of entitlement on a regular basis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very well expressed. I always think one key element of Englishness in particular is disavowal, especially of one’s own history and identity. Took me years to work out that my awkwardness around my national background, which manifested itself in wanting England to lose at sport etc, is in a way more typical than the opposite attitude.


  3. Meh. I agree that there is baggage to the terms. But as a language stickler, I have to point out that if you look up “immigrant” anywhere you will find that it includes the idea of a “permanent relocation”, but “expat” does not. There is not just an artificial difference between these words. They do mean different things. Or, specifically, “immigrants” are a subset of “expats”.

    Anyone living outside of their country is an expat. The ones who have permanently relocated are also immigrants. There is a useful distinction there. Just as there is a useful distinction between “refugee” and “immigrant”. Refugees who plan on relocating forever will at some point stop being considered a “refugee” and instead be an “immigrant who came as a refugee”. All of these people are free to call themselves “expats”. Although, since the term is an English one, I think many non-English speakers just aren’t thinking about the label so much. And I think that is part of the issue right there. It is an English term, so it is English people and the people around them who use it.

    But why do we have to stop using these useful definitions?

    I’m also not sure about all the “crimes” you lay at the feet of expats. Being “exempt from social responsibilities”, “A failure and/or refusal to integrate and learn the language”, “not integrating with the country”, “complaining about the country”, “not frequenting local establishments” .. these are exclusive to “expats”? Is this not also a problem with “immigrants”? These problems seem to actually be common to both communities, as opposed to something that separates one from the other.


    1. Thanks for your comments. To be honest I’ve never heard Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen or their followers make such a distinction. If you do a google image search you will see there’s a dimension to the distinct use of the terms which you’ve sidestepped. In terms of community, while the term ‘expat’ is certainly an attempt to create and claim membership of one, calling someone an immigrant involves labelling them as an outsider per se. People are less likely to label themselves as such because it’s so often nowadays used as an insult – see the results of the corpus survey above. White people get the privilege of calling themselves expats, others don’t. It’s one we should abjure. Wrt the bad behaviour of some self-declared expats, I’ve witnessed such actions countless times, from others and (occasionally, shamefully) from myself. Obviously I’m not accusing all white people who live abroad of acting like that all the time, I’m just idenitifying a particular way of thinking and acting which is unfortunately widespread, whether among Westerners living for a year or two in the Middle East or self-identifying ‘Brits’ who have retired permanently to communities of conationals in the south of Spain.


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