Are You an Expat or an Immigrant . . . Revisited

Nine years ago I wrote a blog post where I posed this question, mostly to myself: Are you an expat or an immigrant? That post was the summation of a couple of years of self-reflection navel-gazing; i.e. expat blogging. Being an expat–or a “serial expat”, as I started calling myself when we seemed unable to stay in the same country for more than a few months–began as a grand adventure. I think one way to describe those years is to say that I spent a lot of time back then seeing myself through other people’s eyes. It is almost impossible not to do that when you suddenly uproot yourself and move halfway around the world. After all, most of your friends and family are still back home, watching you with concern, horror, envy, or whatever, but at the very least with interest.

Your life becomes a bit of a Netflix series, whether people are following it via social media, email, or you agreeably start a blog. Being an expat makes you a celebrity of sorts back in the place where you came from. People tell you they’d love to do what you do. Lots of people. People you know, and strangers alike. You get written up in the paper. It’s easy to start feeling like there’s something exceptional about your life. Of course, it’s also easy for people to think you’re doing all this–packing up your whole house, flying for ten hours with preschoolers, struggling to figure out how to shop for milk with toddler-level language skills, starting over again and again with no friends–for attention, or that your life is an ongoing vacation. But I digress.

Why did I do it then, though, if not for attention? For adventure, really. To find meaning in my life. Because the comfortable middle class American suburban existence I was born into wasn’t enough for me. If that sounds privileged, quite frankly, it was. One of the favourite topics for expats to discuss when they get together is how misunderstood they are, and how little they fit the expat stereotypes: servants, bridge parties, cushy benefits packages, luxury international vacations. It’s true, to a certain extent. Companies find it a lot easier to get people to move abroad these days, and therefore often don’t compensate for international assignments nearly as well as they used to. It’s also true that unless you’re expatting in order to marry foreign royalty, there are probably people more privileged than you.

Which is not to say that expats aren’t in general a relatively privileged bunch. There’s a weird paradox of international mobility: the more you need to move to a different country, the more difficult it is likely to be. The bigger the disparity between your quality of life in your home country and the one you could achieve in your destination country, the more solid the wall between the two. If, for example, you are an American with a savings account and a good corporate job, find a similar job abroad and the country in question is likely to have absolutely no objection to your change of scenery. If, on the other hand, you are from a desperately poor developing nation, your entire family has been killed by a gang that runs your hometown, or your country is engulfed by war, you won’t find international borders nearly so porous.

All the usual privileges (race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, etc.) tend to apply when it comes to moving abroad. But to that already formidable list is added perhaps an even more significant item: passport privilege. Passport privilege means that for me, as an American, there are a whopping 165 countries I can visit without needing to apply for a visa beforehand. For someone from Pakistan, that number is 33. And those 33 aren’t European or North American countries; they are places like Azerbaijan, Rwanda and Samoa. Visas require money, time, and often ridiculous amounts of complex documentation. Sometimes they also require hours if not days of travel to a foreign consulate. And they can always be denied. In practice, for many people who happen to have been born in countries with less passport privilege, this makes crossing international borders for any reason prohibitively expensive, difficult, or even impossible.

It’s those from relatively privileged backgrounds who tend to self-identify (or be identified) as expats. Everyone else gets lumped into the category of immigrant and then maligned by populist right-wing governments everywhere. There have been many (laudable) attempts to divest these two broad categories of their historical and political baggage. For example, my friend Mariam writes beautifully about being a brown Muslim expat from a developing Asian country. For three years my PR job at the Expatriate Archive Centre consisted largely in constantly explaining that our definition of expat was simply “anyone who lives temporarily in a country other than his/her ‘home’ country”. From this point of view, an immigrant would be anyone who lives permanently outside his/her ‘home’ country. A useful distinction, this contrast between temporary and permanent? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I mean, who can see that far into the future? I have no way to even think about where I fit between those two options. I have no desire to move back to my country of origin, and no immediate plans to leave the country where I currently reside. But “permanent” seems a bit of an exaggeration for my current state.

As I mentioned in my original post, when I thought I had moved to Italy permanently, I considered myself an immigrant. I wanted to really become Italian, or as Italian as it is possible to become when you’re originally from somewhere else. Nine years later I’ve done enough work (and accumulated enough personal experience) around the intersection of national and individual identity to know that the reality of international migration–of whatever sort–is far more complicated than that. No matter how much you try to integrate, assimilate, or otherwise blend in, there will always be people who see you as not belonging. And indeed there will always be parts of you that still do belong to that other place (or other places, as the case may be).

Now I find myself four years into an open-ended stay in the Netherlands, and increasingly sceptical about this ideal of swapping out one national identity for another. I guess I’m a little ambivalent about the whole concept of national identity, in fact. During the past 18 years of being in and out of various foreign countries, I don’t recall ever telling someone I was from the United States. It was partially to dodge the inevitably ensuing unpleasant political discussion, but partially also because for whatever reason the place I really feel like I’m from is California. Off the top of my head I know the state flower, the state bird, the state fish, the state mammal and the state motto. When I was 9 or 10 we took a family trip down the coast to visit the California missions and bring the traditional 4th grade state history class to life. It was a formative experience that left me with a somewhat whitewashed version of state history along with an indelible feeling of belonging. I wasn’t actually born in California, but in another U.S. state which will remain unnamed, a fact that for no apparent reason I have always found both distressing and embarrassing. Maybe that was the beginning of my sense that you can be “from” one place and feel like you belong somewhere else.

I also don’t tend to say I live in the Netherlands. I live in Amsterdam, and probably now feel as much loyalty to my adopted city as I do to my childhood state. I follow the mayor on Instagram, know the exact political composition of the city council, and was crushed when I realised last election that I’d lived here just short of the required three years to vote in local elections. I have an actual map of the Amsterdam canal ring tattooed on my body. And my nerdy little heart swelled with civic pride when design podcast guru Roman Mars opined in a TED talk that Amsterdam has “the most badass city flag in the world”.

I’m pretty sure that one thing that endears me to both Amsterdam and California is that they offer a sense of geographically-anchored identity without restrictive legal definitions or divisive national loyalties attached. I am an Amsterdammer simply by virtue of the fact that I live here. I can say I’m from California and conjure up the beaches and golden poppies and family events I actually miss, while neatly sidestepping wearisome political discussions. While I have applied for an Italian passport since that’s what’s on offer, I am rather more enamoured of Italy as a “geographical expression”, and love the historical and still somewhat current Italian propensity for civic identity over national identity. I belong to all these places, to varying degrees, and to other places as well.

Am I an expat or an immigrant? Both. Neither. Does it matter? I am a citizen of Earth with a series of complicated attachments to different places I’ve lived and visited. I have exactly the same right to exist and thrive on this planet as any other human; no more, no less. And in the end, my cultural identity–like everyone else’s–is a unique and intricate amalgamation of love and loyalty towards an endless list of tangibles and intangibles like coastlines, trees, food, languages, art, and perhaps most importantly, people.

5 thoughts on “Are You an Expat or an Immigrant . . . Revisited

  • February 12, 2019 at 10:59 am
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    I feel this so much! Thank you for this post.

  • February 11, 2019 at 6:20 am
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    Yes, the question “where are you from” is so simple and yet so difficult to answer!

  • February 10, 2019 at 11:17 pm
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    Heartfelt, Sarah! Thanks for writing. And I want to hear so much more on places as geographical expressions!

  • February 9, 2019 at 9:21 pm
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    Sarah, your accompanying photos are beautiful. I totally agree with your last paragraph. Carry on!!

    • February 11, 2019 at 4:15 am
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      Thanks, Vickie! I intended for the photos to be of different places, but with the exception of the kintsugi ceramic piece, which was at the British Museum, they all ended up being from Italy. Go figure.

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