Expat VS Immigrant: a matter of language aesthetics

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I have noticed a confusion of terms regarding people who choose to live in other countries than where they have been born and raised. I find it interesting to see how each person identifies him/herself. 

Therefore, dictionaries are helpful. I am using here the English Cambridge dictionary, which has straightforward definitions for both terms:

An “ex-pat” is someone who does not live in his or her own country. 

An “immigrant” is a person who has come to a different country in order to live there permanently. 

I believe that in our modern times, it is difficult to say if you are going to live in one country for the rest of your life. This is because the borders are quite open and it is easier to travel. Various visa possibilities allow people to stay in one place from a couple of weeks, up to three months or more. This gives the opportunity to many people to travel and see the world, work remotely, and not necessarily decide if they will live in one country for the rest of their lives. Perhaps, if they have the opportunity, they will do so by the time they get citizenship, and then they can make different decisions when it comes to the country where they want to live. 

I also think that the confusion is primarily aesthetical. For example, “Expat” sounds better than “immigrant” does.

Suppose I am looking into why “ex-pat” can sound better. In that case, it may have to do with the fact that an expatriate or ex-pat is an individual living and working in a country other than their country of citizenship, often temporarily and for work reasons. The ex-pat was sent to work abroad by organizations from the country of origin; they did not necessarily choose it themselves. I’ve heard this explanation quite often among diplomats. A website called Investopedia.com also says that an expatriate can be an individual who has relinquished citizenship in their home country to become a citizen of another. 

I have also encountered the term “ex-pat” associated with skilled workers. People who have a level of expectation to return to their own countries, after finishing their work contracts. Ex-pats are people who provide an area of expertise in the new country and are granted different foreign expert visas. It does not matter where you’re from or what race you are. If you are a Vietnamese engineer working in the Netherlands, then you’ll be an ex-pat because you provide your expert skills. If you are Norwegian picking strawberries in Spain, then you’ll be an immigrant. If you are an African lawyer working in China or in the USA, then you will be an ex-pat. 

From all this, I guess ex-pats are those who are expected to move to their countries of origin after a while. They are people on limited work visas and do not generally naturalize in the new country. 

Coming back to the term “immigrant”, I find it mainly used for unskilled people who come to other countries as refugees or simply looking for any work, unqualified work. But, again, it is expected that these people come from third world countries, because people from first world countries do not like much being called “immigrants”, but prefer the term “ex-pat”, even if they do unqualified work, doesn’t matter in which country. 

A while ago, I did an experiment on social media. I have created a group called “Immigrants in my hometown”. I have written in the description of the group I wanted it to be for, and I have invited all the people in my list of friends who I know are immigrants to join. Not all of them did, and I have found out later that many of them did not see themselves as immigrants but as ex-pats. They were not necessarily skilled workers, but they had ordinary jobs that any other person could do. 

So, why is it difficult to navigate between these two words? Why can the word “immigrant” sound more “shameful” than the word “ex-pat”?

I would assume that perhaps people from countries that were and maybe still are great powers in the world do not believe themselves to need emigrating to live a better life. Probably “the superiority” still sits in the backbone, and the concept of being a citizen of a country from the first world does not need to emigrate but is “ordered” to go and live in a third world country. Even if we live today with the borders, we have today, and with many countries, which gained their independence, that is not the case anymore. People choose to live wherever they want, and many choose to go where they can buy most for the money. That is in the third world countries. 

On the other hand, skilled people who come from third world countries to work in first world countries do not have any problem identifying themselves as “immigrants”. 

A category, which I believe is more entitled to use the word “ex-pat”, belongs to the people who are not allowed to live in their own country for political reasons. Their lives are in danger because of their beliefs and for the freedom of expression. In the old times, we find them sent “in exile” as a punishment for crimes committed against the king. 

Some people do not care about any of the terms, even if they have lived in many countries for shorter or longer periods of time. It is a lifestyle either they have chosen themselves; either they have inherited from their families. So many people in the world have moved because of their parents who have moved. These people did not have a say in the matter, and they grew up with this nomad lifestyle. They continue it because this is what they have become good at through their upbringing. So how do we call them? I would go for “global citizens”. 

I would love to hear how you identify yourself. So, please leave a comment under or, you can let me know in confidence by signing up here.  If you’re thinking of moving abroad and do not know where to start planning, I have a guide about what you should know before you make that step, and you can access it here

Wishing you safe travels!

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