Are You an Expat or an Immigrant?

What is the difference anyway? Expats and immigrants are both people who’ve left their own country to live in another. The words are synonyms of a sort. Only I suspect that if you conducted a poll of everyone you know from a different country, most would be able to easily self-identify as one or the other. In fact, you could probably tell without even asking.


The differences seem to lie mostly in the motivation for leaving your country to move to another. Immigrants usually move for economic reasons. Work is scarce in their native land, and they move to somewhere they see as a land of opportunity. That’s why most immigrants are from developing countries. In San Diego, they were mostly from Mexico or the Philippines. Here in Italy (as in Ireland), there are more Africans, Arabs, and Eastern Europeans. But you will find Italian and Irish immigrants in the United States, and many more here who dream of immigrating.

Since everyone seems to consider the United States as the ultimate land of opportunity, being an immigrant from the U.S. becomes somehow oxymoronic. My African, Arab, and Eastern European friends from the line at the immigration office in Italy shake their heads over the fact that I’ve left California for here. I can explain it away by telling them I’m married to an Italian, but only until they’ve met my equally American “Italian.”

Expats switch countries for lifestyle reasons. They want adventure, relaxation, excitement, or cultural interchange. They might follow a job, but they’d never go in search of one. Sometimes they move for love. They sometimes move from a more developed country to a less developed one, often hoping to paradoxically find a better, more meaningful lifestyle in a poorer, simpler place.

Expats and immigrants also behave differently once they’ve arrived at their destination. Immigrants try to fit in. They learn the language immediately, send their children to local schools, and often do their best to look and act like locals. Maybe this is because they have more riding on the success of the experiment, and consider it to be more permanent. Expats, on the other hand, often continue to shop at the commissary or international grocery store. They send their children to international schools. Sometimes they don’t even feel like they need to learn the language. They’re often more transient. They might be temporary expats planning to return to their home country eventually, or even serial expats, spending a year or two in each new country before moving on.

Our initial reasons for moving to Europe were definite expat reasons. We love the challenge and the poetry of living somewhere unfamiliar. We knew we’d like the food, the lifestyle, the language. We weren’t even sure which country we’d like to end up in. Mainly our vague criteria had to do with things like castles and cuisine.

Then our business failed, and we had to go back to the United States to tie up loose ends. We did a very short round in Corporate America and realized suddenly that we had more reasons than ever to move back to Europe. Shortly after arriving back in Italy, though, we realized that contract projects were too stressful and sporadic to make the kind of living we wanted. So for the first time, we moved somewhere as immigrants. To Ireland, where jobs in my husband’s field are easier to find. Happily, he soon received an offer from a company in Italy, so we were able to move back.

Now that we’re here, I find that my expat to immigrant switch seems to have flipped. When we first moved to Italy two years ago, I thought it was just incredibly exciting for us to be here, even though it drove me crazy that stores and restaurants were never open when I wanted them. I thought we were so adventurous and cool to be Americans in Italy. Something has happened to me since coming back. All I want is just to melt in and become indistinguishably Italian. And it’s not because I’m embarrassed to stick out. It’s just because I’ve become completely obsessed with having my own Italian version of the American Dream.

From an intellectual point of view, I hold to my opinions about the virtues of looking at different cultures objectively. But emotionally, I just can’t think of a single reason not to be Italian. Maybe it’s an infatuation, and perhaps it will eventually pass. But I suddenly feel a stronger connection to our immigrant roots. And I wonder about them . . . Did they look back with regret, or were they proud to be American? Were they happy for their children to grow up as native English speakers? Did they mind giving up their culture and way of life to embrace a new culture and way of living? And are the Italian ones looking down on us now, and smiling that their children have finally found a way back?

3 thoughts on “Are You an Expat or an Immigrant?

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  • October 5, 2010 at 7:33 pm
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    I found this a fascinating read as I am always curious to know why people leave their homelands, as I have. (I'm an American who lived 10 years in Naples and now 11 years in Auckland, New Zealand.) Yours is an interesting story and I applaud you for following your "Italian version of the American Dream" (well put!). We who come from economically privileged backgrounds should indeed take advantage of the opportunity to mould our future the way we dream of having it: so many others just don't have that option.

    I look forward to hearing more about your adventures in real life in Northern Italy, now that I've been so lucky to find your blog.

    From expat turned immigrant Heddi

  • October 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm
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    Very interesting post. The hard thing I've found in living overseas is that in places where I do not look like the natives, I've never felt I could be the immigrant you describe. No matter how long we stay in the Middle East, I will never be Arab, you know?

    Now, Russia – that was somewhere I could have felt like an immigrant. Which is interesting because it was from Eastern Europe that my ancestors emigrated to America.

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