Sunday, March 14, 2010

falsely distinguish between (white) expats and (non-white) immigrants

This is a guest post by Daniel Cubias, who blogs at The Hispanic Fanatic. Cubias also writes a column for the Huffington Post, and he writes of the Hispanic Fanatic, who may or may not be an alter-ego, that he "has an IQ of 380, the strength of twelve men, and can change the seasons just by waving his hand. . . . the Hispanic Fanatic is a Latino male in his late thirties. He lives in California, where he works as a business writer. He was raised in the Midwest, but he has also lived in New York."

The waiter approached our table and recited the specials in a flowery French accent. Because I live in Los Angeles, I assume that every waiter is an actor, especially ones who are speaking with outrageous inflections.

But as it turned out, he was the real deal. Over the course of the dinner, he informed us that former Parisians constituted most of the restaurant’s staff. Evidently, the owner was from France, and he liked to help his fellow countrymen get started in this country.

“So you’re an expatriate,” I said.

“Oui,” he answered.

Now, I’m certainly not going to claim that the French are wildly popular with Americans. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that people in this country were ordering freedom fries.

Strangely enough, I don’t recall anybody asking for a freedom kiss. But I digress.

The point is we can all agree that Europeans, in general, receive kinder greetings here than do people from Latin America. In fact, it’s in the very terms we use.

The French waiter was an expat. It’s a word that evokes a daring and exotic nature, an upscale sensibility. It’s a positive term.

In contrast, we refer to Guatemalans and Colombians and Ecuadorians as immigrants. That word conjures up a lot of connotations, but most of them, alas, are not positive.

What is the reason for this dichotomy?

Certainly, legality has something to do with it. I presume that the French waiter has a work visa. The Mexican busboy, in contrast, may not. But as I’ve written before, the self-righteous screeching over the “illegal” part of the phrase “illegal immigrant” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s a point, yes, but a minor one.

The differentiation, according to one unimpeachable source, “comes down to socioeconomic factors… skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual laborer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labeled an ‘immigrant.’”

It’s an arbitrary, even unfair, definition. But it’s accurate.

Still, that doesn’t explain the difference fully. For example, we would never call someone a Mexican expatriate, even if she were a successful businessperson like the owner of the French restaurant. She is forever an immigrant.

At its most basic level, the reason that we view Frenchman and German women and British people as expats, rather than as immigrants, is because we like them better. We respect them more.

It’s right there in the language.

It works the other way too. Any American adult who chooses to live abroad is an expatriate (with the possible exception of Peace Corps volunteers). It really doesn’t matter if you bum around Europe for years or head up the international office in Hong Kong. If you’re an American living in a foreign land, you’re an expat. You won’t be called an immigrant unless a native resents your presence, and even then, you’re more likely to be called “gringo,” “yanqui,” or “member of the invading imperialist army.”

There is, of course, a long history of Americans moving abroad to have their art better appreciated, or at least to sleep with people who have more interesting accents. It’s the Lost Generation of Hemingway, and the Beat Generation of Kerouac, and the Brooding Generation of Johnny Depp (he lives in France, you know).

So perhaps I will do my part and live out that dream I have about moving to London. It might be amusing to see the British try to figure out if I’m an American expatriate or a Latino immigrant.

Perhaps I would be both.


  1. I think part of what is going on is an (often racist) judgment about the so-called "value" of that person's country in relation to the US.

    American exceptionalism and other factors mean that most Americans* take as a given that citizens of other countries want to live here, and that if given permission to forsake their other citizenship and stay here permanently, they would leap to do so. (Of course that's not always true.)

    So if we meet a German or a Swede, our society's biases lead us to think of their countries as relatively developed and appealing places to live, and thus we think of their exile as voluntary and possibly temporary.

    But if we in the US meet a Nigerian or a Malaysian, our society's biases are more likely to lead us to think of their countries as less developed and less appealing palces to live. Thus we think of their presence in the US as a permanent "step up," and if we're especially racist, we think of them as greedy and undeserving, coming here to take "our" jobs.

    In this ugly paradigm, they're not well-off Europeans taking a sabbatical from their established lives, they're African and Asian strivers and even schemers who are trying to permanently move in on "our" territory.

    In addition, implicit in the idea of expat is someone whose money goes farther than the locals'. Certainly the stereotype of Americans in Mexico, or Panama, or Thailand, etc. is one of rich folks who can afford to buy cheap labor (having housekeepers, laundry done, etc.) and nicer houses than many of the people they are living among. In constrast, for residents of many countries, coming to the US does *not* mean that their money stretches farther than Americans, so the term expat is particularly ill-fitting.

    *"American" in the colloquial sense that means "citizens of the United States."

  2. Very interesting post. This is a question I've thought about a lot, as a white American living in France for a (set length of a) year. Even though I don't want to set myself apart by calling myself an 'expat' and people from less affluent countries 'immigrants', the fact is that there is a huge difference, privilege-wise, between my situation here and that of the Algerian or Chinese families down the street. I have the money and stability to work here for a set period of time, and then return to my 'normal' life in the US. Most immigrants here-- many or most of whom are POCs-- have, rather, made a huge sacrifice to come here and have a vastly more tenuous living situation, even if we are required to fill out all the exact same papers and go through all the same rigamarole.

    I was invited recently to take part in the French version of the 'Day Without An Immigrant' protests which, I believe, began as a Latino/a immigrant solidarity movement in the US. Even though I obviously sympathized with the cause, claiming it as my own would feel to me like drawing a false equivalence.

    Basically this is the long-winded way of saying thanks for the thought-provoking blog post. And while I agree that there is a certain hypocrisy in the way we call people either 'expats' or 'immigrants', it can also be a useful way of understanding the differences between people with more or with less privilege.

  3. Thanks for this one. Having lived abroad, it's something I've thought about for awhile, but which recently popped back into my mind after hearing--more than once--a Chinese academic referred to as an "expat." Although the roots of what you described here are something I'm aware of, I couldn't help but be surprised to hear it.

    Generally speaking, I do think people tend to categorize "immigrants" as people who come here out of necessity and who are seeking citizenship and "expats" as temporary residents, and yet, as you wrote, the exceptions show that to not be entirely true.

    Thanks for writing this.

  4. I'm also living in France for a set amount of time. I'm coming up on the end of a two year stint as a language assistant, and then I must leave for immigration reasons.

    I was thinking about this the other day at the bank. There was a long post-lunch break line. I was at the end, and at the front after a row of (white, probs ethnically French) ladies, was an older lady, an immigrant (I imagine) of Arab descent, in hijab, struggling with her French to set something up with the receptionist. I heard so many sighs and saw a few eyerolls that would simply NOT have happened had it been ME (white, young, blonde, 'cute' american accent) up at the front of the line struggling with the receptionist.

    That said, people often ask how long I will be staying in France, it's implicit that I won't stay forever, why would I when I can live in GLORIOUS AMERICA?

  5. cluelesswhitebitchMarch 14, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    Interesting! Where I come from in Canada, I haven't noticed much use of the word "expat" except in reference to Canadians or Americans living in other countries, yet the word "immigrant" is also rarely ever used in reference to white people. We simply say "they're originally from the US, but they live in Canada, now" or something to that effect. There are some exceptions, however. White people from non-English speaking European countries, especially in Eastern Europe, are often called "immigrants".

    The distinction definitely has to do with the value judgements that we place on other countries. "Immigrant" is a loaded word. It implies that the individual left their native country because they were facing some kind of oppression or poverty. We don't like to think of people who have left Canada as "immigrants" because we'd like to believe that systemic oppression and poverty don't exist here. Similarly, a lot of white people consider countries like the United States to be politically and economically better than, for example, China, thus an American who comes to Canada is here because their career brought them here, or they married into a Canadian family, while a person who comes here from China is assumed to have come here because they were unhappy with their "obviously inferior" home country.

    As Josh said, these words can offer insight into who has privilege and who lacks privilege in a certain country. White people, and especially English-speaking white people clearly have privilege in Canada. We tend to assume that non-white "immigrants" cannot speak English, and will be unfamiliar with the history and cultural norms of our country. The word "immigrant" attaches the same value judgement to the PoC as to the country it's used in reference to. Unfortunately, I think a lot of white people use the word "immigrant" to indicate that the PoC in question still has the inferior traits of their home country ingrained within them, and needs to be assimilated. In contrast, a PoC who is born here is assumed to be "white on the inside", which is a whole problem in itself that I don't want to get into. What's really disgusting is that Canada is extremely self-congratulatory about its immigration policy. We like to believe that Americans are fearful and suspicious of immigrants, while Canadians are welcoming and accomodating. This concept would be laughable for anyone with experience in the Canadian immigration system.

    I think it's equally damaging to refer to white people who have left their home countries as "expats" instead of immigrants. This distinction implies that the WP in question doesn't need to learn the language and cultural traditions of their new country, because that new country, in the eyes of white people, is inferior. It's a for the WP to come to a new country, where they are now the racial minority, but still retain the privilege they had been accustomed to enjoying at home.

  6. wow, good point.

    Funny thing is, I think of "expats" as Westerners who move to non-Western nations, such as Americans or Europeams who move to China, India, Dubai, or Brazil for good work opportunities. I have a lot of Muslim American, Indian American and Arab American friends who have moved to Dubai and they call themselves "Expats."

    I really don't consider Europeans as "Expats" in the United States, I see them as immigrants!

  7. Yes ! It's something that always bother me when I read "expat" blogs, whether they're about french people in the US or american people in France. If the company you worked for in your country sent you abroad, you're an expat. If not, you're an immigrant. It's not a dirty word !

    (says the son of portuguese immigrants to Brazil and then France)

  8. My (white, Russian, Jewish) family was always "a family of immigrants". Reading this (great post, by the way, I completely agree) makes me wonder why.

  9. Personally (as a resident alien), my use of the terms would have to do more with the framework of the conversation. Here in the US, I would call myself an immigrant. However, if we were talking about my home country of Canada, then I'd consider myself an ex-pat.

    But, that's just me.

  10. Thanks for the post. My experience with the word 'expat' is not a particularly good one. For me, the word conjures up images of Westerners (of whatever color, though mainly white) going to another country and acting like they own the place. And if they don't do that, then they're just 'a person'/'an individual' to me.

    On a slight tangent, I think the automatic assumption that a poc in the US is an 'immigrant' as opposed to 'expats' closely resembles the underlying reason why Scott Boehm assumed in his post about UCSD that most of the Asian students who don't speak English well at his university are "first or second generation Americans" [italics added], as opposed to 'international/overseas or exchange students' who plan to go back to their passport country once they get their degree (with perhaps a little bit of work experience for good measure) because not all Asians think life is better in the US. (Note: I think according to their website, about 10% of UCSD students have non-American passports.) It's a different story, but same principle at work, IMO.

  11. Thanks for this post.

    I'm currently a Korean-American living in Korea as an English teacher and married to a (white) Brit. I've been thinking a lot on how I will be recieved when we move to England next year and the state of race relations there.

  12. I do agree with the general point of the post, and how these words are used.

    However, I've always thought that 'expat' means someone who chooses to temporarily move to another country for a while, whereas an 'immigrant' is someone who has permanently moved to a country. So there is a slightly different meaning to the terms...?

  13. Is it not partly to do with permanance? I lived in Indonesia for three years and was an "expat" (I had no plans to settle down there forever; "expat" was also a word not exclusively applied to white people); on the other hand my (white South African) father emigrated to Australia permanently in the early 70s and was never called by that word - he was an immigrant (and fairly quickly accepted as a naturalised Australian, too, something that certainly would not have been the case if he had been black, but that's another topic).

    Is there perhaps also a difference in the treatment of expats in majority white countries like the US and Australia, and developing nations? As Fromthetropics said, "expat" carries connotations of bwana white man and his straw hat, even if that's not always the case.

  14. The word 'expat' is commonly used to refer to people who get sent by companies to another country and is there temporarily. But formally speaking, it means:

    An expatriate (in abbreviated form, expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person's upbringing or legal residence. The word comes from the Latin term expatriātus from ex ("out of") and patriā the ablative case of patria ("country, fatherland").

    to leave one's native country to live elsewhere; also : to renounce allegiance to one's native country

    I think what the post is taking issue with is that white people are often automatically thought of as an 'expat' because the word (based on common usage) connotes that we assume they are not from some sorry little impoverished country out there somewhere who came here (e.g. US) to take our jobs because that's what 'immigrants' do. They are the 'nice, respectable' kind of foreigners. Whereas pocs are often automatically assumed to be 'those immigrants', and with that they are also slapped with all the negative stereotypes that come with the word 'immigrant'. You know, the kind that really should go back to where they came. [sarcasm]

  15. I've noticed this before. I'm noticing it especially in the way my father's German wife is sailing through the American immigration process. Must be nice.

    There's also a difference between "immigrant" and "emigré".

    I never though about myself living overseas as an immigrant, though. I did a lot of my growing up in Hungary, and I was a typical immigrant kid: I didn't want to speak English at home, I was embarassed when I had to translate for my parents...the whole thing. But I always thought of us as expats 'cause that's what we were told we were, from the Embassy itself.

    Good post!

  16. JM said...
    However, I've always thought that 'expat' means someone who chooses to temporarily move to another country for a while, whereas an 'immigrant' is someone who has permanently moved to a country.

    This is how I have always understood it as well. When I (white US female) spent four years in Europe, I knew a number of POC's who were part of the expat community. They were clearly short-term residents and never considered assimilating into the local community. For my first two years there, I worked as a nanny, a traditional "immigrant" job, but again, nobody expected me to stay there long-term.

    The US does not have a clear identity for "guest workers," and I think that is because we are a culture based on immigration. Until the last thirty or so years, most European countries were pretty homogeneous and not really open to outsiders. Even foreigners who were married to locals seldom changed their citizenship. This creates situations like the Turkish communities in Germany, where people started out as guest workers, but began raising families and settling in without having any new official identity.

    On the other side of the coin, their are many people in the US who are considered immigrants but live more like expats or guest workers. New York is full of people from the Caribbean who work in low-status jobs (lots of nannies) while retaining strong ties to their homelands. Most come here as young adults and end up retiring at home. They do not seek to assimilate become "American". I've realized that a lot of the Mexican community in my hometown in California is also made up of guest workers and expats. Young people come up to make money doing agricultural work for a few years until they can save a stake that will let them go home and build a house and start their adult lives back in Mexico. Since the agricultural work is seasonal, many of them winter in Mexico, where costs are lower, but return to the same jobs every spring. They maintain strong ties to their homeland; beside the people themselves traveling often and maintaining regular contact with their families at home, much of their media and entertainment culture travels with them. The most popular dance bands of Michoacan tour Northern California every summer. Clearly, these people are also not very interested in becoming "American." It's definitely an expat culture for them.

    I think we have a really weak vocabulary for all the different ways that foreigners experience their residence in the US.

  17. This is a fun one.

    My spouse is an immigrant twice over; first from a middle-eastern country, and then from a european one. We live in the US now.

    People still say the most ignorant shit about immigrants to him, and to me. I can only assume that it's because they see him as European; his accent and whiteness mark him as such.

    Even my parents say stupid crap about foreigners around him, because they mean Asians, Latinos and people from the Indian subcontinent when they talk about immigrants. It's a pretty easy and hilarious way to expose racist crap; just say something like "Are you talking about E!?"

    There's a whole lot of his identity that people in general miss. Like the entire country where he was born, the culture he was born into, and the fact that when they talk about "that kind of people", they're talking about him.

  18. "But if we in the US meet a Nigerian or a Malaysian, our society's biases are more likely to lead us to think of their countries as less developed and less appealing palces to live."

    Society's biases or yours? Excuse me but have you ever been to Kuala Lumpur? If you had I doubt you'd say it's a "less appealing" place to live in. I also find your comment interesting since most of the Nigerians I know that leave their countries have usually very wealthy parents high up in the government. How else would they pay for their ticket, apartment and tuition fees?

    You do get the ones that come to America to "struggle" but trust me a lot of them have wealthier parents than you might think. You should see the houses they live in back home. Then you might not think they live in "less appealing" places.

  19. Awesome concept. I have been thinking a lot about negotiating identities and cultures and behavior while transecting so-called country borders.

    When i was planning on visiting my (now-present domestic partner) dutch sweetheart during the summer, i was asked several times if i was going to become an 'expat' - this being said with the the assumption that i would be a permanent/long-term dweller in Europe with no promise of economic stability since i would be moving for love vs. $$. i moved after i graduated from university so, despite my unemployment, i am still "skilled".

    6-months in, i am still unemployed and immersed in the government-funded assimilation program ("inburgering") where people in introductory videos tell us to leave our culture behind. my mom is filipina and my dad is okinawan.

    people always told me that people would immediately start speaking english to me when they would see me/hear my accent if i try to speak dutch. but, in reality, if i start/reply in dutch to a dutch-speaking person, the conversation would continue in dutch for as long as i can take it. i found this peculiar since i was prepared for people to always speak english to me. i have been wondering if people simply assume that i am dutch-indonesian ..

    but the impression i receive is that, unless your family has been rooted in NL for at least a couple of generations, you will be always a foreigner/"buitenlander". my dutch teacher is dutch-indonesian, growing up in NL and looking "dutch" but short, and she told us that she is still considered a "buitenlander."

  20. I was just thinking about this issue the other day... how come none of those white folks who lived in Asia for years were called expats and not immigrants? How come we always call foreign PoC in the US living permanently immigrants? Why can't they be expats?

    The way I believe now white society generally sees it is:

    Expats = white people moving to another other country not of their birth, especially a country inhabited by PoC.

    Immigrants = Any PoC living in a white country who can't be immediately ruled out as a local minority.

    Thus henceforth I will start calling myself an expat just to see the looks on white folk's faces. :)

  21. Excellent post once again. I don;t have anything to say. Its all in perception of society and its definition of immigrants and expats.

  22. However, I've always thought that 'expat' means someone who chooses to temporarily move to another country for a while, whereas an 'immigrant' is someone who has permanently moved to a country. So there is a slightly different meaning to the terms...?


    As a non-native speaker of English, I've always had the following distinctions in mind:
    Ex-pat: Someone who goes to a foreign country for a limited period of time with the intention to return to his/her country of origin
    Immigrant: Someone who moves to a country permanently, as opposed to
    Émigré: Someone who has permanently left his/her country of origin. It's a matter of perspective (if I moved to the US, I'd be an immigrant to you, but an émigré to my people. But, as I just found out, I'd probably still be called an ex-pat…). It's good to know that actually, there are connotations to the terms that I wasn't aware of.

  23. I was just thinking about this issue the other day... how come none of those white folks who lived in Asia for years were called expats and not immigrants?

    Or we could just cut to the chase and call them "colonialists."

  24. i didn't read the whole post so i don't know if i am repeating anything or missed the whole point of the post...but i remember watching a show about neo nazis i think on the history channel and one neo nazi jerk off said he wanted to kill the jews, and send the mexicans and african americans back to their home countries...and then he said he is totally fine with people from sweden coming to america. first time i ever really stopped and realized that the whole immigration problem seems to be more about non-whites than immigration itself.

    then i stopped and thought about how i have very conservative views on immigration, and then i realized, whenever i am around a person from europe, i seem interested in wanting to know more about their country but not so much anywhere else (well, not always). it freaked me out.

    i don't know if that is one of those things i picked up from my family or not (they are white) since they are very conservative (i'm the most liberal in the entire family and the only non-republican).

  25. Wow.

    I know I often take issue with a lot of what you write here but this really struck a chord with me. I refer to myself as an American expatriate, living in Australia. I've never viewed myself as an "immigrant" but...I've used the word to describe "Mexican immigrants" when living in the US and "Chinese immigrants" when living in AU.

    I never thought about it like this but you're right that "immigrant" conjures up images of poor people who don't speak English, coming from developing or third world countries, whereas "expatriate" is a word that describes a higher class of people.

    I think too that when you say "expatriate" there's a definite sense of choice - these people left their previous country by choice, rather than economic or political necessity. Expatriates move because they want to, or because they can...immigrants move because their home country sucks.

    I know that I'm having a bit of a culture shock here (you never know how much you take things like freedom of speech and a bill of rights for granted until you realize you're living in a country that doesn't have one and you can be arrested for saying something "offensive") and I think that says something about my status too - the fact that I can question Australian government policies and yeah someone might call me an arrogant yank for it, but nobody is going to say to me "appreciate what you're getting here and if you can't do that just go home" because even though I speak accented English, I still speak it fluently, and my race makes it so that nobody would even question that I'm not Aussie until I talk. I get embarrassed enough trying to make my accent blend, I can't imagine how bad it would be if it was my skintone, that everyone would know I was different just by looking at me.

    This was a really great, thought provoking post.


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