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Are you an expat or an immigrant? It's "problematic"!

Here's my take on two (unrelated) issues regarding the meanings of certain words that I've been thinking about lately.

1. Are you an expat or an immigrant?

Why would most people refer to an English plumber who has retired in the south of Spain as an expat, while they would refer to a Polish plumber who has retired in London as an immigrant?

What would you call someone from Thailand who works in a restaurant in Manchester to save up for university studies back home? And what about a computer programmer from India who lives and works in Chicago on an H-1B visa?

I don't remember how and why I became aware of the distinction(s) between these two words, but recently, whenever the opportunity arose, I've been chatting to people about it to learn how they see the matter.

It seems that there are three ways, broadly speaking, you can look at it. (There may be more.)

The dictionary meanings


- a person living in a country that is not their own - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

- a person who lives in a foreign country - Merriam-Webster Dictionary


- a person who has come to live permanently in a different country from the one they were born in - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

- a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence - Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

These definitions were news to some of the people I spoke to. No wonder, given how some of them have been using these words.

So, there's a case to be made that, in terms of the dictionary meanings, "immigrant" is a subset of "expat". All immigrants are expats, but only those expats who live in the country they have moved to permanently are (also) immigrants.

If this is so, then the British ex-plumber in Spain is indeed an expat, but it would be more precise to describe him as an immigrant. The Polish ex-plumber is likewise an immigrant. The Thai waiter is an expat. The programmer from India is an expat, although she could later become an immigrant.

However, my conversations with people from all over the world made me realise that these two words are often used to mean things that are way different than what a dictionary, a passport, a residence permit, or a visa says.

"Expat" as a positive and "immigrant" as a negative

This is mostly about socio-economic perceptions on a global level and sometimes (also) about race and xenophobia.

If you're someone from a poorer country who lives in a richer country, you are more likely to be referred to as an immigrant, even though you may only be staying temporarily. Think about that waiter from Thailand. (There may also be some measure of class distinction on an individual level. I guess a banker from Thailand working in London for HSBC on a five-year contract has a better chance of being called an expat than the waiter.)

Conversely, if you're from a richer country and you live in a poorer country, you are more likely to be referred to as an expat, even though you're staying there permanently. We're talking British pensioner in Spain or an American who has moved to Costa Rica to run an eco lodge.

Most of the people whom I spoke to who used the two words like this seemingly have been doing so without realising the apparent inconsistency, and they weren't able to justify it once I pointed it out to them.

I've just realised, as I was writing this, that Spain isn't that much poorer than the United Kingdom (GDP per capita of $29,413 vs. $45,775). Maybe some people regard themselves as "expats" no matter where they are.

"Expat" as a negative and "immigrant" as a positive

I found that most people who used the words like this did so consciously, and they invariably referred to themselves as immigrants.

It has to do with one's attitude towards the country you are now living in. If you adopt the new country as your new home, learn to speak the language (if it is different from one you already speak), and integrate into society, you're an immigrant.

Conversely, if you isolate yourself in an enclave of likeminded people from elsewhere, cling to the lifestyle and culture of the "old country", don't learn the language, and so on, then you are an expat, no matter whether you're living there permanently or not.

There's a hint at this meaning of "expat" in the two dictionary definitions above: "a country that is not their own" and "a foreign country". One might argue that immigrants (as opposed to expats) do regard the country in question as "their own" and do not see it as a "foreign country" anymore.

However, even among this group of people who make a conscious distinction between what these two words mean to them, there are some who still seem to have some biases: When I put it to them that someone from China who is now living permanently in San Francisco's Chinatown, who rarely ventures outside of that area, and rarely speaks or interacts with anyone who is not also Chinese is therefore an expat, some of them balked at the idea.

2. It's "problematic"!

I have no stats to back this up, but it seems that especially people who are into postmodernism and intersectionalism are fond of peppering their conversations (or is it "discourse"?) with the word "problematic". It's a bit of a shibboleth.

In many cases, the use of this word is at best intellectually lazy and at worst intellectually dishonest. It implies that having or causing problems or being a problem is an inherent trait or characteristic of whatever is being described.

As in: "Chivalry is problematic."

No. It is not.

There are many, many people whose attitude towards chivalry is "meh!" and also many, many people who love and appreciate chivalry.

With the word "problematic", the speaker uses verbal sleight of hand to ignore or deny the views of those many people whose attitudes towards chivalry are different from their own.

A truthful and correct statement would be: "I (and some other people) have a problem/problems with chivalry."

Using the word "problematic" like I described above is as presumptious and bombastic as saying "Jazz is boring". One should say "I find jazz boring".

(For the record, I find jazz boring. Chivalry ... meh!)


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