Looking around the web the other week for some supporting articles on subjects I was researching for this blog, I kept falling upon ‘ex-pat’ websites. Sites like ‘Expatica’, ‘expat.com’ and ‘Internations’ to name just a few – full of references to ‘ex-pats’ all over the world.
Today I started to look at the kinds of articles they publish, which are often interesting and useful. But the thought of more closely linking myself with the phrase ‘ex-pat’ makes me slightly uncomfortable.
Perhaps I’m shooting myself in the foot right here. Perhaps none of these sites will ever want anything I write after I publish this. Ho hum.
The word ‘Ex-Pat’ is loaded. To me it suggests an attitude of white supremacy, for starters. Maybe that’s not the case for everyone – those who write for The Black ExPat (some great reading there) have clearly overcome that, and claimed it as a term that includes people of all origins.
But what makes us ‘Ex-Pats’ as opposed to immigrants?
In January 2017 the BBC published an article with this very question (I found this after i’d written the phrase’ the word expat is loaded – writer Kieran Nash thinks so too…). In this article, Malte Zeeck, founder and co-CEO of InterNations, the world’s largest expat network , with 2.5 million members (of which I am one) in 390 cities around the world, is quoted on the subject of ‘migrant’ versus ‘expat. He says:
“Just calling everyone who lives abroad an expat won’t really change some political and socioeconomic realities,”
Hmm, no. Of course it won’t. (And he has much more to say on the matter and isn’t at all as flippant about it as this short quote may make out.) But lumping us all together as ‘migrants’ is simply correct, isn’t it? We don’t need to be called ex-pats, we’re immigrants. People who, for whatever reason (and is it relevant what that reason is?) have moved to a country that is not their own. Does it matter our motive, or length of intended stay? Is his statement like saying ‘just calling everyone people, and not referring to the colour of their skin,’ (which, I’m sure you notice too, is generally only referred to when people are non-white, unless they are ‘white supremacist’), ‘won’t change anything.’?
The comment is accompanied by a photo of white Malte Zeeck in a blue blazer and white shirt, smiling confidently into the camera lens. A more stereotypical modern-day ‘ex-pat’ image there could not be.
To me the word expat isn’t something to be redefined, it’s something to throw in the bin. An embarrassing leftover from colonial days when folk like the British thought they could swan around the world taking other people’s countries and telling them they had it all wrong.
I’m a migrant. Or an immigrant. Be it temporarily or permanently I’ve arrived in your country and I’m going to settle in. I’m going to learn your language, eat your foods and try to get to grips with your culture. If I don’t do those things, why am I here? To take advantage of your sunshine, your cheaper housing? To hide behind the walls of a virtual gated community with people from my home land? That seems a little like stealing to me.
…however ideal your motives to integrate, you still need support…a good conversation in your native tongue.
Yes, I need to connect with people from my culture. There are few people who manage without doing that. I’ve lived in other countries enough to know that, however ideal your motives to integrate, you still need support, understanding, a shared sense of humour and sometimes a good conversation in your native tongue. And after that – onwards and outwards embracing the country you’re in. Embracing the new. Embracing the adventure. Enjoying the differences and seeing the positives. Even enjoying the negatives – because it’s all part of the experience. It’s the point of being here.
Born into privilege
Of course, I’m writing from the point of view of someone who is white, and is privileged. That’s what I was born to – we don’t get to choose. But it also means I can’t say what it’s really like to be absolutely forced to migrate, for economic or political reasons. The experience must be very different when you land in another country not by choice. When you’d rather be home, but home doesn’t exist any more. When home can’t support you. When you’re separated from your family and can’t get in touch. When your family is dead. Ex-Pat or migrant, I’m still white and privileged.
But perhaps by using a single term for all of us it gives us a better chance to unite. The privileged reaching out to the less fortunate – as equals who want to help. With more empathy than sympathy. ‘Dear family like mine, from a war-torn country I’ve never visited, how good to meet you, please come and share a meal at our home, tell us about your homeland and we’ll tell you of ours. Let’s find some of your favourite music online to listen to and play you some of ours. Our children can play while we talk. Because children are children and, left to themselves, like each other without question. Let’s watch our children and remind ourselves what it is to be human. Let’s share our migrant experience, however different – because underneath that we’re people, and at some level the same.’
Thanks for visiting my blog. Feel free to comment, and do follow if you like what you’ve read! I’d love to connect with more serial migrants, digital nomads and impetuous wandering mother / writer / other folk.