Expat vs. Immigrant

I’m English and I live in Portugal. Since it’s very common for researchers to be working in countries other than there homeland, I would usually just define my status as “post doc”. Now, I was looking over things at Facebook (which I had more or less forgotten existed until they sent me an email yesterday) and I noticed they have a lot of expat groups. I have to confess that the word “expat” squicks me. It always brings up thoughts of Eldorado and of rich Brits in the Algarve who’ve lived there a decade and are proud that they have avoided learning any more Portuguese than “por favor” and “obrigado/a”. Since I have a Portuguese wife I don’t really relate to this. This isn’t actually very fair since I think a fair number of those (Brits, Germans, Americans…) who would self-identify as expats in Portugal don’t fit stereotypes of cultural arrogance or any other such nonsense but it’s what the word triggers in me.

My personal response to the word isn’t really the pint of this post though. The thing is that Facebookers abroad, who are typically university students or else graduates with highly specialised skills working in a global job market, are easily thought of as expats and the Africans and Brazilians serving at food hall in Vasco de Gama aren’t. Neither are the Central and Eastern Europeans doing manual jobs all over Western Europe and neither, for that matter, are Portuguese waitresses in London or fruit pickers in Holland.

There doesn’t seem to be anything, except class and/or ethnic nonsense, behind this distinction. It’s not (as I’ve sometime heard) about whether the person involved remains primarily attached to their motherland and continue to see it as “home”. I know this because I’ve seen polls of Poles in the UK and the vast majority intend to earn some money and return to Poland, and yet politicians rarely seem to argue over levels of expatriation from the EU accession states; they talk about immigration. The function of the word “expat” seems to be to exclude middle class people from the stigma of being an immigrant, which leads me to my main point.

I’m an immigrant. I’ll say it loud, I’m an immigrant and I’m proud. And when people start hating on immigrants, be it PNR skinheads over here or the Daily Mail back in Britain, I’m taking it personally. If you bashing immigrants you’re bashing me and you’re bashing every post-doc in my department (right now) and bashing the viability of any research group in a small country.

Now I’ve got that off my chest I might actually join some of those Facebook groups.


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12 Responses to “Expat vs. Immigrant”

  1. notedscholar Says:

    It is good to be proud of one’s status! I salute you.

  2. mattheath Says:

    notedscholar: I honestly can’t get my head around how sincere anything you write is, but I’ll take this at face value. Thanks

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  4. Anonymous Says:

    The function of the word “expat” seems to be to exclude middle class people from the stigma of being an immigrant, which leads me to my main point.

    I mostly agree with you, but I do see one frequent distinction between immigrants and expatriates. Immigrants have voluntarily chosen to reside somewhere, perhaps not permanently but at least indefinitely, while expatriates are often there at someone else’s request. For example, diplomats, businesspeople serving a limited assignment in one of their employer’s foreign offices, missionaries, etc. are expatriates but typically not immigrants. It’s not a clear-cut distinction (many immigrants call themselves expatriates), and I agree that class plays a large role in the use of the word.

  5. ho Says:

    i think there is alot of racism, and classism involved with using the term expat or immigrant. they dont call mexican migrant workers expats. they say expats are people who dont try to assimilate to the local culture, but this is the very thing that many locals complain about. its what they do in germany about the turks. do we call turks expats? they complain about turks not blending in, but are welcoming americans expats with open arms. when an american doesnt speak german, its ok, we’ll all just speak english instead, but when a turk doesnt speak german, then all of a sudden hes an evil villain. i think you will find a lot of people who are labeled immigrants want to one day go back to their country. i frequently hear stories from immigrants who say that when they make enough money, they will go back to their country. i hear american born colombians in america refer to colombia as their country and not usa. my aunti is a chinese in america, and she has never learned the english, never associates with americans, and only eats chinese food. would you call her an expat? because she is always talking about if she ever wins the lottery, she will go back to hong kong. i used to know a chinese woman who immigrated to canada, just to get a canadian passport, so that she can travel to countries visa free. she had no intention of staying in canada. she wasnt even in canada half the time, and just wanted to fulfil the 2yrs in order to get the citizenship. she had a house in china, and her husband and kids were there also. would she be considered an immigrant? they say that an immigrant is someone who is settled in a foreign country, and burned all bridges with their country of origin, but you will find that in fact many mexican americans go back to mexico quite frequently and for long periods of time.

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  7. Ian Says:

    Hello,hope you don’t mind me throwing in two pennies.. Couldn’t expat and immigrant just depend on who, or more importantly which nationality, is talking about you? I live in England, so to me, you are an expat, you have been/are expatriated from this country. To the people of Portugal, you are an immigrant as you have immigrated into their country. To be honest I should probably use the word emmigrant, not expat, to describe you. What do you think? I don’t see any need for there to be a racist undertone to the use of either term.

  8. mattheath Says:

    All of those that pointed out legitimate differences in the meaning of the 2 words are, of course, right but it is very often the case the case that 2 situations will be symmetrical except for ethnicity or class and that then defines the choice of word.

  9. Little Me Says:

    Totally agree with you – blogged about this myself just the other day. Used to refer to myself as an expat, until I realised I was technically an immigrant, and proud of it.

  10. kobi Says:

    I just came from Little Me’s blog, too, although I noticed this post is over a year old, so don’t know if you still receive notifications for it. An interesting post and interesting commentary. Semantics can be a sticky subject, can’t they? Words, and how we choose to use and perceive them, can be very powerful.

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