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You Say “Immigrant,” I Say “Expat”

Why do some communities claim one label, while some groups can’t shake the other? This Thanksgiving, let’s call the whole thing off.

In many ways, I come from a classic American family. My parents—who moved to the United States from Britain 30 years ago for work and became citizens nearly two decades later—have no intention of ever leaving their adopted homeland. Over the years, their first-generation American children have had to explain to them the finer points of U.S. culture: the significance of a homecoming game, what a grade point average is, and why it was necessary to take a limousine to high school prom. Much to my surprise, they even pronounce “tomato” with a long “a" these days. Despite all that, I do not consider my parents immigrants. Moreover, I’ve never heard them use that word to describe themselves.

Thanks to several centuries of ruthless empire building, the narrative of plucky British immigrants ‘making it’ abroad is one you don't hear very often. Rather, when Brits move abroad they’re far more likely to be called “expats,” a label that conjures up images of sunburned British skin not used to a warm climate and a career in industries like diplomacy, media, or finance. So, if Brits who move to another country aren’t “immigrants,” but rather, “expats,” what exactly is the difference between the two terms? Does the answer lie simply lie in the country one started in, or does it have to do with one’s intention when they arrive in a new place?

In an informal poll I took among friends—many of whom consider themselves immigrants, expats, or some other term in between (such as my favorite, technomads)—many suggested the difference has to do with intention: immigrants stay while expats eventually leave. And it’s true, an immigrant is classically understood as a person who is staying permanently whereas expat derives from the verb “to expatriate,” which has more to do with leaving a homeland than settling in a new one. In other words, that tie back to the homeland is not lost, and an expat seems to possess the option and means to go back whenever they please.

If you think about it, this slight difference is reflected in the narratives attached to each. Successful American immigrants such as Indian Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo or Ukranian Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp, are heralded for “making it,” but they never fully shed the “immigrant” label or a mention of where they came from. With an Anglophone like, say, Rupert Murdoch of Australia or Tina Brown of Britain, their countries of provenance seem less relevant. In those cases it seems intention doesn’t as much matter as arriving from a former colonial superpower.

Or take an Arab Gulf country like the United Arab Emirates, where there are a staggering 7.8 million non-citizens out of a total population of 9.2 million. The vast majority of those foreigners are migrant workers building the shopping malls and luxury condos that make the country appealing for the small slice of affluent “expats.”

With more than 3 percent of the world’s population living outside their native countries—a number that’s steadily increasing—it seems that an eventual critical mass will mean that borders will become more fluid and roots less deep. Perhaps the fuzzy line between the two terms will fizzle. Or maybe things will get even more complicated as travel and technology increasingly make global citizenship the way of the future.

Perhaps for now, a new word is in order, one that doesn’t hold heavy implications of one’s background, race, or class. The more inclusive word “migrant” is proposed by the U.S.-educated, Pakistani-born, British-residing author Mohsin Hamid, and I’m inclined to agree. After all, if you look back far enough, we’re all migrants of some sort. That’s something nearly everyone at the Thanksgiving table can agree on.

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