I never heard the term expat until I moved to South Korea in 2012. Suddenly, my life was full of expat bars, expat friends, and guides for expats. The people around me – my fellow expats – were mostly like me; early to mid-twenties, recently out of college, from English-speaking countries (because being an English teacher is pretty much the only job for a foreigner in Korea) and overwhelmingly white. I never looked up the formal definition of expat, but at that time I took it to mean someone who moves abroad to work, but intends on returning to their home country someday, even if it’s in the distant future (while writing this blog post, I asked a few different people about this meaning and they pretty much agreed on it). In Korea, you have a lot of people who come and stay long term, some who stay even six or seven years, but I didn’t meet many people (if any) from other countries who came and permanently settled down. At the time the definition seemed to fit.
Now I’m in Hong Kong and I still seeing the word expat everywhere: expat networking events, articles on the best places for expats, Facebook groups for expats. I have friends who have come to Hong Kong and left after a couple of years. I know people who have been here long enough to gain their residency cards and become permanent residents (which takes seven years) and then moved back to their home countries. I’ve known people who moved their entire families over and have settled down and established a life, people who have married Hong Kongers and started families, and people who were born and raised in Hong Kong but are white.
So, why are they still called expats and not immigrants?
I finally looked up the term expatriate today, for the first time in the four years I’ve been abroad, and the dictionary definition is a person who has either been exiled/banished from their country, who has withdrawn themselves from residence or who has even withdrawn their allegiance to their home country.
I haven’t been banished from America, and I guess it still has my allegiance, even with all its bullshit. I have only “withdrawn myself from residence” – a fancy way of saying “moved away.”
Meanwhile, the definition of immigrant is a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.
I can’t say for sure if I’ll stay in Hong Kong forever. It was always my intention to move back to the US, but every day it feels more like a foreign place to me and like something that, if it did happen, would be so far in the future that it’s not even worth talking about. I could even move to another country that I haven’t even considered yet.
Why am I an expat and not an immigrant? Is it because of my indecision on where to settle down and the possibility that I’ll leave? Is it because of my pasty ass, easily sunburned, melanin-lacking skin? Is it because I have an American passport? Or, is it a socioeconomic thing, related to profession and qualifications?
The last link I provided, which links to a Forbes article titled, “In China, who is an expat and who is an immigrant?” has this quote:
Warsaw based American journalist Andrew Kureth offers an alternative definition: “An immigrant is on a desperate search for a better life. An expat is on an adventure.”
1. That sounds super douchey.
2. The very fact that one can seek adventure by moving abroad also has ties to money and privilege. Even though I’m drowning in debt, I’m fortunate in the fact that I have a university degree and was able to just up and leave my home. I’m also aware that my skin colour gives me a lot of advantages in Asia, especially as I get preferential treatment in the hiring process (point 6) (another article details this here).
Hell, considering the fact that I’ve moved between a few different countries for work, could I even be called a migrant worker?
What makes Hong Kong unique to other countries is the fact that we have a lot of foreign domestic helpers, women (usually from the Philippines or Indonesia) who move to HK on two-year contracts and live and work with a family, helping with childcare and housework. There’s a lot of potential for abuse, most notably in the case of Erwiana, who in 2014 successfully took her employer to court for physical abuse.
These helpers can never gain permanent residency in Hong Kong. While I can get it after seven years here on a work visa, they can stay 20, 30 years and still not be eligible for their P.R. They can spend half their lives in Hong Kong and never be accepted as a part of the general population.
There’s a lot of unrest in the U.S. right now, and it’s made me take a step back and look at myself and my life carefully. I grew up working class in America, with a single mom and a disabled brother. Times were tough and we lived paycheck to paycheck, but I still had the opportunity to go to university and try to do something with my life (what that thing is, I’m not sure yet). Hell, I moved to the other side of the world! In the end, I don’t care what people call me. I can be an expat or a migrant worker, I don’t care. But I think it’s important to take a closer look and examine WHY one person is labeled an expat and another one isn’t, especially as labels like “expat”, “immigrant” and “migrant worker” have completely different assumptions and meanings in society.