As an expat blogger and writer, the number one question I get asked is “why do you call yourself an expat and not an immigrant?”
Now, I know that the word ‘expat’ turns people off. When they see ‘expat’, they read ‘privilege’ and imagine me walking with a sign on my head that says, ‘WILL NOT INTEGRATE.’ They imagine a lady of leisure, with business class tickets in her hand, jetting off from one country to another. It’s true; I am privileged, but not in the way that you might think.
So, let’s just rewind here. First, let me explain exactly what kind of an expat I am.
I’m a brown expat.
I’m a Muslim expat.
I’m a ‘I come from a third world, developing country in Asia’ kind of expat.
I’m a female expat.
I’m a child of former expats.
I’m a long-term expat.
In short, I am anything but the kind of white, Caucasian, European expats referred to in the famous Guardian article ‘Why Are White People Expats, While The Rest of Us Are Immigrants?’. By all standards and definitions of privilege, as a 35-year-old, Pakistani expat I am at the bottom of the expat ladder and global hierarchy order.
So first why do I still call myself an expat and not an immigrant?
16 years, 7 countries and 3 continents later, I know I am not immigrating to any particular country – I will just be an expat there for three to four years before our contract is up and we move again. Intention is a key factor in why I call myself an expat – if my intention was to settle down in one country for the long term, I would call myself an immigrant.
Now if the word ‘expat’ bothers you, just remember that according to Wikipedia, “an expatriate is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ‘ex’ (out of) and ‘patria’ (country or fatherland).
Sounds pretty accurate to describe my situation, doesn’t it? I currently reside in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where I have no rights to citizenship – just temporary residence based on my “expat” status.
Here is where the definitions get interesting and shows how fluid our global identities can be.
Expats can be migrant workers too and migrant workers can be expats. After all, both are working in a foreign country on a time-bound contract. Interestingly, an expat can become an immigrant just as a migrant worker can become an immigrant if they both choose to settle down for the long-term in the country of employment. My German husband and the Pakistani gardener who comes to tend to our garden, for example are both in Dubai sponsored by an employer to work on a time bound contract. So, what’s the difference? In my book, they are both expats. Let’s test out this definition a bit further:
Is a Filipino nanny working in Singapore for a few years to earn some money, an expat?
Is an Indian laborer working for a construction company in Dubai and sending money back home, an expat?
Is a German corporate executive working in Vietnam an expat?
The Ugly Connotations of the Word ‘Expat’:
Definitions aside, l think the reason why most people have a problem with the label ‘expat’ is due to its connotations – the word expat is seen to be tied to privilege, race, nationality and status. It reeks of a colonial legacy and imperialism. The word ‘expat’ has suddenly developed an image problem.
Let’s explore some of these connotations one by one before addressing what I think we should really do to fix the image problem, that the word ‘expat’ suffers from.
Privilege: Until three years ago, I traveled the world solely on a Pakistani passport, as a Pakistani expat. Contrary to any privileges received, I had to work doubly hard to source paperwork and submit extra documentation at times to the relevant authorities at government offices, embassies and consulates. My applications were always viewed with suspicion, and subjected to extra scrutiny. I took it all in my stride. But please don’t tell me I am privileged simply because I am an expat.
And if you have been an expat for as long as I have, you will know that not all expat assignments are created equal. In Denmark, even though I was an expat, I still had to pay the local rate of tax applicable on my income (52% in case you were wondering). There was no privilege involved. In Singapore, our “expat package” did not cover a housing allowance or maternity allowance while I was pregnant. In many ways, I was even worse off than the locals there. I paid for my Singaporean birth through my own pocket and was not eligible for any local subsidies. Not to forget there are so many expats who are working abroad but on ‘local contracts’ and are far from living the luxurious lives that their friends and family back home might imagine them to be.
Race: I am not white, I am brown. As a brown expat, I have never received any favorable treatment in any of the countries I have lived in. I represent the new type of expats that have arisen since patterns have shifted in our global world from purely North-South moves to an increasing number of South-South moves. India is a notable example; there are tons of highly educated and skilled professionals working as expats in several African countries in finance related or corporate roles.
Status: It does not matter if you are a blue-collar worker or a white-collar worker – you are still an expat. What if you are a well site engineer at an oil refinery (a very highly skilled and highly paid mechanical job?) It does not mean that you have a lesser status than an expat working a desk job.
In no other country, has the correlation between race, nationality and status been more evident to me than here in the UAE. I could see the clear confusion on the face of the government official processing my paperwork upon our arrival in Dubai. My Pakistani self, did not correspond to my American driver’s license or the residence visa in my Italian passport sponsored under my German husband’s name. A global life on the move has added increasing complexities to our identities, as we acquire new citizenships, or foreign qualifications along the way.
Redefining the Word Expat:
Many writers, thinkers and expats in the international circles have started arguing “let’s stop using the word expat” in our globally mobile vocabulary. I agree that finding our language on the move is important, but my solution is completely different:
Instead of not using the word ‘expat’, let’s expand its use. Let’s expand its definition so it stops sounding hierarchical, colonial or imperialistic. Let’s expand it to include Asians, Arabs, Africans and basically ALL the people around the world who are working away from their passport country on a temporary or time bound contract. In Dubai for instance, I started calling everybody expats – this includes the Pakistani gardeners, Filipino maids, the Indian construction workers and the Bangladeshi taxi driver who picked me up yesterday. To read more on the lives of ‘The Other Expat’, head to Global Living Magazine, where I show you the voices, challenges and struggles of these expats, which never make it to mainstream expat channels or forums.
Fair is not to stop using the word expat. Fair is to include in its definition, all the people who rightly belong in it. This is the way to the take the colonial sting out of the word. This is the way to turn it upside down. This is the way to show that our understanding of globally mobile people has evolved and is ever evolving. And to show that expatriation is not defined by or limited to race, color, ethnicity or nationality.
And this is where my privilege comes in – as a writer and as an expat – to fight for the change that I hope to see and to speak up for those who can’t.
About the Author: Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore is a Pakistani expat and writer. As an expat child, she grew up in Bahrain, New York City and Pakistan. She has been an expat for the past 16 years and has lived in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. She is the writer and founder of the blog “And Then We Moved To’, in which she explores expat life, raising multicultural and multilingual children and world travel.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy reading 10 Ways To Be A Kick-Ass Expat.