Question: What is An Expat?

According to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) – for me the only font of knowledge when it comes to definitive explanation of all words English – ‘expatriate’ is defined as, ‘To expel, remove oneself from homeland; withdraw oneself from citizenship or allegiance’ or ‘Expatriated person living abroad’.

A broad and loose definition, encompassing a diversity of people who label themselves, or are labelled as, expats.

I got to thinking about this after reading an article by Efthymios Kotronias, a Greek who moved to the Netherlands in 2010. In The Word ‘Expat‘ he defines expats in the broadest sense as foreigners choosing to live in a country other than the one of their birth and the problems arising from that.

Kotronias makes a valid comment that the word expat, ‘… has not only entered into our modern-day language but it has also gradually replaced the word immigrant’. However, an expat isn’t necessarily an immigrant; generally an immigrant is someone who chooses to live in another country permanently for the remainder of their life.

Most career expats do not stay permanently in any one country, they move for work and usually repatriate to their home country eventually. There are also people who chose to live abroad for most of their working life, sometimes in only one country, but who will ultimately ‘go home’ to retire.

The expat experience will differ depending on life circumstances. Kotronias, a young single man (I think!) has a different outlook and attitude to a family on their fourth international move. Yet both regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as expats. Taking it a step further, the length of an expat’s stay in a foreign (to them) country will impact their attitude to integrating into another culture.

Most expats stay for a limited time and have a leaving date from the moment they arrive. It’s difficult for them to fully integrate with the language and culture when they know within a few years they’ll be moving on again – to a new country, with a new language and the process will start over again. In the limited time frame available most expats expend emotional energy on making friends and finding their way around geographically and bureaucratically, rather then immersing themselves into the culture.

Then there are others, like me, who know our stay is not permanent but have no idea how many years it’ll be before we leave. We integrate, take the best of the Netherlands and work with it, accept we are the foreigners, take responsibility for ourselves and adjust our attitude accordingly.

That said we are still outsiders and however positive our attitude, occasionally weariness can creep in. Weariness not negativity. Caught in the shadowy area between expat and immigrant. Yet there is something about living in, yet not a complete part of, your host country; observing, watching, listening. It’s a unique place, and one I enjoy immensely.

As the world changes (socially, economically and politically) and the global movement of people within it adjusts to those changes, maybe it’s time to reassess how we define an expat.

Any thoughts?

About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
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5 Responses to Question: What is An Expat?

  1. donwreford says:

    I have never really understood expats, or what they are? are they on holiday? they seemed as if they were either mysterious, or that and deviant, or sort of on the run, maybe from a crime, legal or moral. I have been in a town for twenty years, never so long anywhere else, I have become a recluse as I find it unauthentic to talk to anyone, this may be the beginning of a expat becoming to be born.

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  4. Good points, I’ve been considering this issue for awhile. I really do believe there is socio-economic element to the distinction that others make. As one person tweeted, ‘expat by choice, immigrant by need’ or something to that effect.

  5. Jane says:

    I have lived in 4 foreign countries (England, Northern Ireland, USA and Netherlands) but only in the Netherlands am I an expat.

    In England I remained a kiwi, even though I got a British passport and married an Englishman. Perhaps having an English grandmother gave me the right to be both local and foreign at the same time.

    In Northern Ireland we were one of the few “blow ins” (with the implied suggestion that we were not very settled or permanent… one neighbour who had moved from another part of Ireland confessed to it taking 18 years before they lost their “blow in” status).

    To the US authorities we were non-resident legal aliens, in the US on a very fixed term. To our friends and neighbours we were the family with the British accents (yes, even mine). But as Europeans we were the minority and we never heard the word “expat”. “Immigrants”, yes, but that was never used to describe us because we were not permanent and we didn’t have the required Hispanic roots.

    But here in the Netherlands we are definitely expats. Here for a defined period of time because of a job. Likely to move on somewhere else for the next job posting. But, most importantly, in a community of similar people in exactly the same situation. The fact that “expat” is often used in the same breath as “community” perhaps suggests that you need a group of more than one to be an expat.

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