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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Another Look at "Expatriate"

I've written posts before on the Immigrant versus Migrant versus Expatriate debate (here and here). It's not a secret that I think these terms are used in some pretty nefarious, not to mention ignorant, ways.

Over the weekend I was part of a debate over these terms.  Nothing like an alcohol-fueled discussion in the shade of Osaka castle under the cherry blossoms.  Tell me how you really feel.  And they did.

In one corner was an individual living here in Japan (not an American) who agreed that the use of the word "expatriate" was racist.  I'm white, he/she said, and that means that I'm an "expat."  Not his/her fault, that's just the way it is, he/she said.

In another corner was an individual from Singapore who strongly disagreed.  He/she (also a Caucasian anglophone) said that race had nothing to do with it.  In Singapore, people from Asia, Africa and other places are  considered to be "expats."  It's not race that makes the difference between a migrant and an expatriate.  It's money, status, profession, skills.

My contribution to this was something I've been hearing a lot in Japan.  "Expat" is a derogatory term for someone who doesn't learn the local language and lives in a expatriate ghetto complete with segregated international schools for the kids. These are people who are not integrated and they may be richer but they are lower than those who live in the "real" Japan.

Well, well, well.  The intersections here between race, class and status are fascinating.   In France I would add history to the mix:  "expatriate" brings up a vision of the great creatives like Hemingway who lived in Paris in the 20th century. The more I look at it, I see how the context in which the word "expatriate" is used is everything. It's not a neutral term.  In one context it can be used against you. In another it's an expression of a certain status. In yet another it's just a word everyone uses without batting an eye and they are genuinely confused if you point out the connotations in other contexts..

Furthermore, I think that time changes things.  The world moves on.   Read Pauline Leonard for a look at how things have changed for the "expats" in Hong Kong.  As Asian countries became rich, as their citizens began to travel widely and work as professionals in North America and Europe, the relative position of the Western "expats" in societies changed.  The days of Charisma Man in Japan are not entirely over, but it's not what it was in the giddy days of the Japanese economic boom when Western foreigners were really exotic.  I have friends here who have a lot of  nostalgia for that era.   Those were good times.

So I'm learning to stop and think and listen to the locals before I use the word "expatriate."   Engage brain before opening mouth.  Come to think of it, that's not a bad idea anywhere, anytime, any place.

9 comments:

Inaka Nezumi said...

Was the person who considered the definition of "expat" to depend on race from the UK, by any chance? I get the impression that this may be a dialectical thing -- I recall there was some article a little while back (that perhaps you mentioned?) from the UK making that claim. It may be a real difference between how the word is used there and how it is used here in Japan and, apparently, in Singapore.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Nezumi-san, Not UK and I can't say more here because I respect the person's privacy. What he said, however, is something that is being said all over the world - that there are racial assumptions behind migrant, immigrant and expat. Pei-Chia Lan wrote about this as did Pauline Leonard, C. Lundstrom and many others. There is an article here by M. Koutonin in The Guardian which has been read and cited many times. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration. There were people in the survey who said they were uncomfortable with the word "expat" for these reasons. There is greater awareness of how the term might have racial connotations. My sense is that it's mostly the younger generation but I could be wrong.

What was fascinating was how this person was challenged and I thought the person made an excellent point how the term might be evolving to be more about status and wealth which is exclusionary in a different way. Under this definition anyone who is middle or low-income and living a regular life doesn't qualify.

Not my place to tell people how to use those terms. The safest definition of migrant is the one used by the United Nations. "Expatriate" isn't clearly defined by anyone though ahve a looks at the literature around Assigned versus Self-initiated Expatriates. The use of "expat" as an epithet, I confess, was new to me. Is that only Japan?

Clearly there are real differences in how the word is used in different countries. I think that the meaning is also changing as the world itself is changing. I resolve to be a lot more careful about how I use it and withold judgement about how others use it until I get a better grasp of what meaning they have ascribed to it. And it might just have something to do with age and date of arrival. Make sense?

Inaka Nezumi said...

Oops, I meant "dialectal" above, not "dialectical." (Pity the soul who tries to count on me to fix their English!)

Yes, the Guardian article, that's the one I was thinking of.

As far as whether the derogatory nuance to "expat" is unique to Japan, I really don't know. I don't think I had ever really hear or used the word much before moving here, so my sense of the nuance behind it was probably picked up here to begin with.

But you're right, since it is such a loaded word, in different ways depending on who/when/where it comes up, it is probably a good idea to ask the speaker what they mean by it before reacting too strongly to it. May also be a good idea to avoid the word when speaking, since no idea how it may be taken? I would hate to intend a scathing insult, only to have it be taken as a compliment!

pat mathieu said...

you could also examine the meaning of "where are you from?" which often has racial ethnic overtones if you look or speak differently than the local population.

then there is the differences among maternal language, native speakers and fluent speakers also subject to where and to whom you speaking.

Andrew said...

I am tending to use the term "non-resident" Canadians, Americans or whatever given that expats has an association with the Westerners living overseas, and migrants used for other groups.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Another difference between 'expatriate'and 'immigrant'is that the former cannot describe someone who has naturalized, while the latter can.

Inaka Nezumi said...

'naturalized' -> 'naturalized to the country they are living in'

Maria said...

To me the term expatriate describes someone gone into self-exile who does not look to fit in with the local population. An immigrant will try to blend in because he wants to be accepted in his new society, while keeping within his private sphere aspects of his original culture. But that's just my personal vision.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Pat: Absolutely. I have a friend here whose daughter was raised in Japan and Canada and speaks both languages without an accent. In Canada she is often asked, her mother said, "So, where are you from?" "Uh, here. I'm Canadian." "No, where are you *really* from?" Yep, that's another one can is not always neutral. I see it in France too. "Where are you from?" "Paris." "No, what region of Africa do you come from?" "I was born in France and have never even been to Africa."

Andrew, Non-resident? I like that. I've always favored migrant but while that has a pretty netural definition according to the UN most people aren't aware of it and migrant used in everyday speech again is not neutral.

Nezumi-san: Which is why I think expatriate can be used as a king of signal to the home and host countries. I'm just here for an indefinite period of time. I don't want to be a citizen here. On the other hand I have heard naturalized citizens used the word "expat" in certain contexts. Distancing maybe from the "real" immigrants".

Maria, I've seen it used that way. International retirees might be a good example. Though perhaps a retiree reading this might take exception to that. Or a women I met in Paris who was taking a year off to write before she went back to the US.