Immigrant or Expatriate…Which am I?

So a long while back a friend of mine from the UK had posted a rather heated opinion piece about using the word Immigrant as opposed to Expatriate.  It was her opinion that the word “immigrant” was only used for people of color while “expatriate” is reserved only for white folks.  Her point was to say that everyone who moves to a different country should simply be called immigrants. Period.

I thought about this for a good long while and I decided to put in my own two cents.  I don’t know the political landscape of Great Britain but I can definitely say that as an American I disagree with the opinion that these words only adhere to people based on their skin color as well as calling myself an immigrant versus an expat.  And I will tell you why:

1. Most immigrants who have come to America throughout the course of my Nation’s history were white (Irish, Scottish, German, Swedish, Italian, you get where I am going with this). What they did also have in common was the why they came to the US: to seek a better life than what their country could offer them.  My own mother was an immigrant and she is whiter-looking than I am! So I have to disagree with the assessment that the word immigrant is only used for people of color simply because we Americans have seen the entire color of the human rainbow come to our shores as immigrants.

2. The word expat for me is something completely different.  An expat is someone who sees the world a little smaller than the average person and simply moves to another country like they would to a different state.  There is no promise of a better life of an expat – just a different one in a different country.  There is also no guarantee that they won’t go back to their home country.  An immigrant a lot of times will leave with no intent of going back, an Expat is more fluid.

I feel that the difference between an immigrant and an expat has nothing to do with skin color or what’s more chic – it has to do with where you came from and where you are going at that point of your life.

You see, my mother was an immigrant when she came to the States.  It may not have happened right away but she has more opportunities in the States than she did back in Peru; however, if she came to live with us in Germany then she would be an Expat.  This has nothing to do with skin color. The same goes with the Germans.  The ones who came a few generations ago were immigrants but the ones I worked with in Chicago were expats. An old high school friend of mine Cody Kuroda is an expat living in Japan….did I mention he is black and fabulous?

Like I mentioned before, I don’t know the political climate of the UK but if it is the case and that’s how these words are perceived then I also agree with my friend.  Anyone can be an expat and anyone can be an immigrant.  People move to other countries for different reasons.  You wouldn’t call a refugee an immigrant because they are two VERY different things and I feel the same applies between immigrant and expat.

So what am I?

I don’t think I have the balls to be an immigrant.  As Americans we are raised with the idea of immigrants crossing the ocean and arrive at Ellis Island hungry and tired and scared but with this little flame of hope in their hearts of a new beginning in America because that’s what they heard in whispers in their homeland.  The immigrants I have had the pleasure of knowing are some of the bravest people I have ever met. Me? I just asked my job to transfer me to their headquarters in Germany.  I feel like I had it easy compared to them.  It’s not that what it didn’t take courage – but it was courage of a different kind.

What do you folks living abroad think? Do you see yourself as an expat or an immigrant? Also, why?

2 thoughts on “Immigrant or Expatriate…Which am I?

  1. I suppose some words mean different things to different people, but I think you nailed the difference here with “I don’t think I’d have the balls to be an immigrant.” For me that’s the difference – an immigrant is taking huge risks, traveling into the unknown, leaving behind a hard life with little hope and heading for a new country where life might be better (and maybe not!). I did none of that; my decision and my journey were easy, so I would not call myself an immigrant although my move is/was permanent.

    I noticed while in Scotland that the newscasters and newspapers kept referring to “the migrant crisis” rather than “the refugee crisis”. Language is very powerful.

  2. As to my understanding an expat is someone who lives in a foreign country for a limited time until he returns. As immigrants I would mark people who live in foreign parts with the intention to stay. Colour of skin, creed, or gender doesn’t refer to this at all.

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