Call me an immigrant, not an expat

July 09, 2020 - 09:00

I’m far from the first person to say it, but really, why am I called an expat whereas if any of my Vietnamese friends or colleagues moved to the UK they would likely be seen and referred to as immigrants?


Protesters demonstrate against Brexit in London, the UK on April 2, 2019.  AFP Photo

Peter Cowan

Blame it on the heat, having coronavirus on the brain or whatever you want, but when I was asked to come up with an idea for the ‘Expat Corner’ column for this week I was stumped.

I racked my brain, wondering what burning issue or confounding problem was plaguing Viet Nam’s expat community that needed light shed on it.

I had heard a recent Tây Hồ District brunch event had failed to serve a single mimosa (the horror!) but otherwise couldn’t think of much injustice that moved the needle.

Sure, everyone is a bit on edge due to the pandemic and worried about loved ones elsewhere, but if we’re being honest, us foreigners have it pretty great here in Việt Nam for the most part.

Most of us are paid handsomely compared to our Vietnamese colleagues, we enjoy comfortable lifestyles and we’re welcomed with open arms by the local community.

Then I started thinking about the very nature of the word ‘expat’ and wondered how welcome the Vietnamese expats are made in my home country the UK.

But of course, there is no Vietnamese expat community in the UK, no, they’re immigrants.

I’m far from the first person to say it, but really, why am I called an expat whereas if any of my Vietnamese friends or colleagues moved to the UK they would likely be seen and referred to as immigrants?


Brunch is a sacred weekend event for many expats. — Photo


In terms of definitions, the Cambridge Dictionary defines an expatriate as “someone who does not live in their own country”, which one would like to think is broad enough to cover everyone.

An immigrant is defined as someone who has moved abroad permanently but putting aside rigid definitions, many people who only leave their country temporarily are seen as immigrants (seasonal Romanian workers in Ireland for example), while someone who never plans to set foot on British shores again will still be called an expat.

So if the words immigrant and expat aren’t being used as dictionary writers intended, how are they used?

In her book, Expatriate Identities in Postcolonial Organizations: Working Whiteness, Pauline Leonard, a professor at the University of Southampton, argues that to be seen an expat a person must be white, from the West and privileged.

How did this come to be? Blame the British, of course.

“The origins of the word lie in mid-20th century British beliefs and popularity for wealthy or well-known British people to temporarily live in a different country,” wrote Michelle Layton of Wayne State University in Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture.

In a nutshell, expat was needed as a word to differentiate between the well-heeled, gin-swilling former colonial overlord Brits from the oikish locals who travelled the other direction to be immigrants in the UK.

As for the word immigrant, you don’t need to consult any academic studies to see how it has become a pejorative, particularly in the UK where tabloids have made sport (and money) of laying all the ills of modern-day Britain at the feet of immigrants.

End of expats

So with billions of people excluded from calling themselves expats on the basis of factors out of their control and instead have a derogatory term foisted upon them, what should those of us viewed as expats do?

Simply put, I think it’s time we do away with the term ‘expat’.

While we don’t necessarily have the ability to confer ‘expat status’ on Vietnamese in the UK, we can very easily renounce the term for ourselves and go by migrant or immigrant and do our very small part in removing the stigma from those words.

Of course, doing this alone won’t end racism, classism or any other nasty ‘ism’ by itself and it certainly isn’t going to make the lives of those we call immigrants today better, much more needs to be done on all those counts.

But anyway, when you really think about it, wouldn’t you rather be an immigrant than an expat?

Immigrants add to the societies they move to. Immigrants brought curry to the UK and jeans to the US. Do the people we call expats do the same? While there are curry houses from Land’s End to John o’Groats in the UK, fish and chips aren’t exactly sold in every corner of India despite long and bloody colonisation.


While you can get a curry everywhere in the UK, fish and chip shops haven't caught on in India. — AFP Photo

Immigrants work hard and they have to because they rarely get a leg-up from the countries they move to. As for expats? Let’s just say in my experience they have a greater appetite for bottomless brunches than for hard work.

I’m aware of course of the irony of penning this missive in a column titled ‘Expat Corner’, and perhaps it’s time for that to change to ‘Immigrant Corner’, but that isn’t my call.

What is though is how I define myself. So don’t call me an expat, I’m an immigrant. — VNS