An anonymous wag once observed that a farmer who has sex with a sheep is a pervert, but an aristocrat who does the same thing is an “eccentric”. I’ve always loved this joke for the humorous (if slightly crass) way it bares a fundamental truth: social class and privilege profoundly affect our perceptions of people, and these biases are reflected in the language we use to describe them.
A case in point is the recent flurry of pieces discussing whether we who live overseas are more appropriately labeled immigrants, expats, or something else.
Some have argued that factors like social class, economic status, and country of origin are the more relevant determinants of who gets to be an “expat” and who gets saddled with a less glamorous label. Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, editor of SiliconAfrica.com, has argued that the words ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ are primarily racial distinctions. Writing for The Guardian, Mr. Koutonin notes that “expat” is an example of a “hierarchical” word “created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else.”
When it first appeared in English as a noun in the early 19th century, expatriate referred to a person who has been banished from his country (it comes to us via the French verb expatrier, meaning “to banish”).
In its current usage, it more often refers to people who have chosen to live abroad, but it still carries the old sense of exile, whether voluntary and romantic (think Hemingway) or involuntary and sad. Expatriate still has negative connotations among stateside Americans (some of whom mistakenly parse it as “ex-patriot” and draw the inevitable conclusion) because as any avid reader of American bumper stickers well knows, you can “love it or leave it” but apparently can’t do both.
While a word derived from Latin “ex” (outside) and “patria” (fatherland) should ostensibly apply to anyone who resides abroad, Koutonin claims that “that is not the case in reality; expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.”
I can’t speak to the truth of this in Europe, though I think right away of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, celebrated African-American writers whose “expatriate” label has never been challenged. Whatever the case, it doesn’t completely square
with the situation here in Korea, where “expat” is the general term that white-collar professionals use to describe themselves, regardless of color.
This is not to say that people of color don’t experience discrimination in Korea – they do, and it’s unfortunately not very hard to find recent examples of that – but merely to suggest that the “expat or immigrant” question, at least in Korea, is moot. Foreigners here are free to call themselves whatever they please, but the Korean language lumps us all under the term waegukin (literally, “outside country people”), which, as far as Korea is concerned, is the most salient fact about us: we’re all from somewhere else.
Koutonin’s call to deconstruct these terms is well-taken, but it’s hard to get on board with his remedy. Rather than extend the “expat” label to anyone residing overseas regardless of race, color, or class – a suggestion which would have the virtue of being both egalitarian and linguistically precise – he encourages readers to “deny [white expats] these privileges” and to “call them immigrants like everyone else.”
It’s not clear exactly what type of ‘expats’ he’s referring to but it’s important to recall that immigrant means (from Merriam Webster) “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.” Expats then are a free-wheeling, mobile bunch, while the immigrant plants his stake and settles in for the long haul.
“Immigrant” also raises the question of intention. I’ve talked to a lot of Western expats over the years about why they came to Korea, and I have yet to meet even one who has said, Yeah, you know, I figured I’d go to Korea and spend the next forty years there. I mean, why not?
I have however met many expats who have no plans to return to their home country, and to be fair to Mr. Koutonin, a lot of us do end up not going back. One more year leads to one more year until you reach a point where you understand that the effort required to pick up start over far exceeds the effort required to stay where you are. For better or worse, this has become your life.
Many expats will say that they remain open to the hypothetical cushy job that could lure them back (but which never comes looking for them); others give repatriation a go and come scurrying back when they get tired of substitute teaching or suburban monotony; still others stick it out in Asia and resign themselves to being blown in the winds of a global economy that requires more of us to migrate to where the jobs are and doesn’t always enable us to end up back where we started. To the extent that it is predicated on choice, calling oneself an “expat” may turn out to be a privilege after all, and the uncomfortable truth is that after so many years abroad the path leading back to the West for some of us is radically narrowed or effectively closed.
Does this then make me an immigrant, if only with the benefit of hindsight? Or can I claim to be an expat as long as I occasionally entertain idle thoughts of moving on? Other phrases like ‘international migrant’ and ‘global nomad’ strive to capture both this uncertainty and the willingness (or necessity) to flee to more promising shores.
As I quietly figure out where my life is headed or not headed, I find myself not concerned with labeling that experience. I realize that this stance may itself be another form of privilege – that of not caring – but it’s also part attitude, which may best be summed up by paraphrasing another old joke:
Call me an expat or call me an immigrant; just don’t call me late for dinner.
* Are you an expat? An immigrant? Late for dinner? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
**This piece originally appeared in Haps Magazine.