Some things in life have become so familiar to us that we don’t even question it. I’m thinking about queuing 2 hours for Berghain, waiting too long for a Döner at Mustapha’s or giving up on the idea of ever buying real butter (no margarine) at Lidl & Aldi. Those things exist and we won’t challenge them.

One could also say the same about how most of us define ourselves. The term probably comes up in your conversations once in a while back home or here.  We are expatriates, expats part of the expat community.

  • “What does it feel like to be an expat?”
  • “Aren’t you tired about all those expats ruining the city?”
  • “I can’t believe how many expats just don’t want to learn the language! Right?”

But why exactly do we favor that term? Surely, as foreigners, if we left our countries in search of a better life abroad, should we not be immigrants? It would seem to make sense after all. So who is an expat? Who is an immigrant? What does that say about us? And is there a better way to call ourselves? These things have been in my head for a while now, and i will make my own attempt to try to answer to these questions.

Trying to source meaning behind the words

The term “Expat” has become ubiquitous over the years. With the world becoming increasingly inter-connected and globalization creating an equally globalized workforce, the term somewhat lost its original more restrictive meaning.

The word comes from the Latin verb “expatriat” made from terms “ex” (‘out of’) and “patria” (‘country, fatherland’)” as mentioned by Oxford Dictionary. For a long time, that term was synonymous with a situation of exile, forced or voluntary, when being condemned to stay abroad following events in your own country. We see a somewhat negative tone here but it seemed to have changed in our recent history.

I think the main reason for “expat” for becoming a lot more positive is probably taking roots in how it used to define a more elite fringe of the population that in the very early days of globalization (colonization era), was more bold, adventurous, or privileged than the rest of the normal population. Those few chosen ones were explorers, business people, diplomats (often aristocrats too), officers, preachers and scientists. They were an inspiration for the rest of us as their lives were filled with excitement, status and wealth. After their extraordinary time abroad and having fulfilled their goals there, they could come back to the homeland to tell their tales of success.

expat immigrant digital nomad

Suddenly, expatriates were not in situation of exile anymore. They were extraordinary people that left their country by choice with an ambition to conquer the unknown and come back into society with a higher status than when they left.

Whether that was true or not is a different story, but it’s maybe what remained in our collective mind until today: ambition, adventure & success. Those 3 little words are certainly hinting at a more elite consideration of oneself when spending time abroad. This is maybe why it is more favored over the term “immigrant” which doesn’t bear the same story for people raised in the so called “western world”.

[DISCLAIMER: I do not imply here that most people in Europe consider immigration to be bad for their country, but the word itself still rings with the economic motivations immigrants did have after second-world war in Europe for example. It was a time when a lot of workforce when was needed for construction and industries to rebuild the continent, often in manual lower-paid jobs. This generation of immigrants came to Europe in the hope of improving their economic condition. This is of-course a very rough/quick summary but i want to avoid any misunderstandings while supporting the point of this post.]

Oxford Dictionary defines the migrant as “A person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions.”

This is maybe why the word “Expat” has been criticized so much as it does symbolize some sort of privilege almost exclusively held by people coming from “western” countries. We can understand the controversy, especially in areas of the world where colonization has left durable traces in the local economy and power structure, tying into the infamous “white privilege” syndrom.

Being an immigrant or an expat puts you on a different level in that blurry hierarchy system, often regardless of your qualifications. Coming from Tunisia, Ivory Coast or Thailand with a doctorate degree in Engineering? You are a “qualified immigrant”. Coming from France, the U.S or Finland with nothing but A-levels and a barista job? Still an expat.

So what about simply using “Foreigner”?

Using the word “Foreigner” is also not the best as it lacks this element of time and choice in it. A foreigner can define tourists staying a few days and German-resident of 50 years alike. It also sometimes carries a negative subtone to it (different from language to language i guess), if we are to believe some slogans used by some political parties of over the years.

Mix identities (source: Folk – Craig & Karl)

Attempts to go beyond the word expat

Digital nomad

Investopedia defines Digital Nomads as:

Digital nomads are people who are location independent and use technology to perform their job. Digital nomads work remotely (telecommute), which is now economically possible due to cheap internet access, smartphones and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) to keep in contact with clients and employers.

Digital nomads are usually young people and can be found working in most industries in the knowledge economy: marketing, design, IT, writing, media, tutoring and consulting, among others. They may either be remote employees or knowledge process outsourcing employees.

This idea was first pinned down by Tsugio Makimoto in his 1997 (!) book “Digital Nomad” and later revived by the hugely popular “The 4-Hour Workweekby Tim Ferriss.

We see here a qualified workforce that takes full advantage of our world’s ultra-connectivity to perform jobs remotely. As the name suggests, mobility is a prime motivation leading to change locations on a regular basis. This characteristic may qualify a lot of expats for that term since there is no clear indication of how long a person should stay in one location. It does however probably leave a lot of others aside since a lot of us are not working remotely, or not working in the knowledge economy.

Existential Migrants

First defined by Greg Madison in 2006 in Existential Analysis, this qualifies “voluntary emigrants” who supposedly have an “existential” motivation, unlike economic migration, simple wanderlust, exile, or variations of forced migration (Wikipedia definition). In others terms, it is an attempt at shaping identity and finding existential answers to one’s life. This rings a bell for many people in Berlin and it might also be the case for people elsewhere.

Another aspect of Greg Madison’s definition is “Home as interaction”, which states that the feeling of home can come from a specific set of interactions with the environment, which could happen anywhere or at anytime. The feeling of home is suddenly not tied to geographical location, bur rather to a spectrum of possibilities and where they happen. I find it quite compelling too.

How many times did i hear people moving here because it felt like home?

Anyway, does all this labeling really matter?

Some of your reading these lines might simply not care about this debate. Some will argue that this debate is probably not so important after all. It however raises interesting issues on measuring how we approach immigration. Undeniably, we are biased and those words convey the bias too. So while we don’t need to put ourselves in boxes and we might live different lives simultaneously, being aware of it is probably a good way forward.

For a lot of us also, moving abroad and building a life there, temporarily or not, is an important part of our identity construct. Putting words on our experience participates to that too. So even though they are important only to some degree, thinking about how and when we use them can help to build that identity.

What do you think about this issue? Were  you are of it and does it matter to you? What do you think about the analyis and solutions delivered here? Feel free to post in the comments.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

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