Expatriate: What’s in a name anyway?

I’ve been watching the ongoing debate about an article haranguing the world at large for racism in calling white people expatriates and brown people immigrants.  When I first saw the article linked in Facebook, I wondered what the deal was.  I read the article and found that it didn’t really meet my experience in any way.  I was very pleased when an exceptional blogger I’ve been reading for years decided to tackle the topic here.  I find that Rachel’s experience in Djibouti is much closer to what mine overseas has been like.  Mind you, Djibouti is much less expat filled and her experience is far more third-world, if you will, than Jordan.  Jordan is much more second-world (is that even a thing?).

But thinking about the term expatriate and thinking about both countries I’ve lived in has been interesting.  Reading Rachel’s piece pushed me to give it even more thought as the community I inhabit here is very different from the one I inhabited in Jordan.  In Jordan we were, if anything, more like immigrants.  After all, El 3atal is from Jordan.  Giving up our house in the US and moving lock, stock, and barrel to Jordan was very much an immigrant-like experience.  While I never expected to live there forever, I did expect to be there until… you know until some unknown time in the future.  In Jordan, we put our kids in local schools, not the fancy all-English expat schools.  I went to local vegetable shops and grabbed fruits and veggies using only Arabic (because, yes, the fruit vendor did not speak English better than I spoke Arabic).  While I had friends who were part of the expat community, they were more distant friends.  Most of my close friends were like me, immersed in the community.  They were married to local men or ministering to local people.  They weren’t living apart from society.  In short, I wasn’t an expat – at all – in Jordan.

Once we moved here, we became clear and obvious expats.  Among other things, everyone here is an expat, no one is an immigrant.  In this country, you can not become a citizen by virtue of being born here, living here for a long time, or buying property here.  If you marry into a local family, you can become a citizen. Otherwise, you cannot.  It is really that simple.  So the rest of the population, 90%, are expats.  And those expats are an entire rainbow from deepest black to brightest white.  There are NO immigrants here.  None.  So, the idea that brown people are immigrants here wouldn’t be on anyone’s mind.  Having said that, although I had never thought of it, I’m not sure I would have used the term expat for our wonderful HelperBean.  Nor would I have used it for the exceptionally hard-working laborers who build the buildings.  So, why not?  Is it inherent racism?  Is it classism?  Maybe.  But I expect, it’s more about the fact that I haven’t classified anyone beyond the stereotypical expat as anything.  Based on my experience in Jordan, I see being an expat as being very “other” oriented.  In Jordan, I WAS the other.  My kids were the kids with the foreign mom.  I was foreign.  I am foreign.  Immigrant or not, I was the foreigner.  That wouldn’t change.

Expat has always seemed a slightly fancy term that must refer to slightly fancy people (which makes it hard to think of myself as one).  And yet, in our current locale, I am definitely in the expat category.  My kids go to an international school (of course they can’t go to local schools, but you get the idea).  We don’t blend into the local population and we don’t try.  We live in a world that is almost halfway between Jordan and the US.  And what about HelperBean?  A quick look at salaries tells me that she earns more than engineers and even many doctors back home.  So, compared to the folks back home, she’s a fancy expat too.  So, in giving it a bit of thought, expat fits everyone here fairly well.  And since none of us are immigrants… well, it’s as good a term as any right.  Because after all, skin color doesn’t change your goals and desires in life.  But here in this expat haven, no one’s an immigrant, so no one will be offended by that term.  Perhaps we’ll have to think of another term to rile folks up?  Suggestions anyone?

Happy Expatriation!


5 thoughts on “Expatriate: What’s in a name anyway?

  1. Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog. It was nice to see you blogging again 🙂
    This article was a hit on my Facebook feed too. I have never thought of expat and immigrant the way described in the article. But, somehow after reading the article I think I tend to slightly agree that white people are called expat and brown people are called immigrant. Nevertheless, I noticed all my white Facebook friends didn’t agree.
    Since I was born in Kuwait to a Jordanian father I am an expat since born 🙂
    As a foreign student in the USA I was neither referred to as an expat nor as an immigrant. On immigration documents I was an alien 🙂

    • Jaraad, I’ve found the conversation about expat and immigrant an interesting one all around. And context is so important. Really, though, while people may not use them differently, an expat is moving somewhere for good. We weren’t expats in Jordan and are here. After all, we’ll never be citizens here. So, interesting to see how some feel so keenly that even the terminology is used against them. Hmmm.

  2. Hi I saw your post on my reader feed on wordpress. Not long ago I wrote a post about more or less the same thing, in which I mentioned my husband who is a very white English men and has never denied being an immigrant. In any case, well written.

    • Thanks. It’s interesting to have been, effectively, something closer to an immigrant and then absolutely an expat. Perhaps it gives a different view on terms? I’m with you, whatever color you might be, denying yourself as an immigrant when you have moved permanently makes no sense. I look forward to seeing the conversation continue.

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