Immigrant, Not Expat

This week I went to renew my massively out of date US passport. As I took my napping child through the metal detector, passed off my phone to be kept in a compartment for me, and stepped into this tiny (and very full) waiting area, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. Anywhere in the world where official American documents are processed involves such a high level of security.

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And then I began to pay attention to those around me, because of course I didn’t have my phone to distract me for the better part of an hour.

Here I was, in close proximity to a diverse group of people like me. Who, for various reasons, were living far from their land of birth. There was an elderly professorial type gentleman (who was rather snippy and demanding to the poor woman behind the glass), an academic proofreading JSTOR articles, a young family of African descent there to register their son’s birth, a rotund white man with wild hair down to his shoulders applying for his grown son’s new passport,....and me. All of us. Common legal standing. Common nationality.

Immigrant. ‘A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.’

As a white, middle class woman….why do I call myself an immigrant? I grew up in a time when Americans who lived abroad used the word ‘expats’ to describe themselves. The term harkens back to an era of romanticising colonialism, widely understood to signify a person of skilled work, an artist, or a professional who chooses to live outside their native country. People who have been sent by or recruited by companies or governments.

Wealth. Power. Autonomy.

Immigrant? I’m sure the connotations are springing to mind already. They come to leach. Take, not give. Cause problems. Get in the way of our progress. They come, backwards and regressive, to complicated our national identities.

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Traditionally, any white person coming to live in a foreign country has been called, or called themselves, an expat. Including me. Whereas, any person of a different skin tone or class has been dubbed ‘immigrant’ or ‘migrant worker’.

Words matter. What we label ourselves and each other….it matters. Words have power to break down the dividing walls of class, nationality and wealth. This is why we choose to call ourselves immigrants. To identify with the outsider….because, quite simply, we are. 

This is not to say that I want to minimise the struggles, injustices, and traumas that are felt by a refugee or immigrant who is fleeing from oppression….not at all. Of course I do not have an experience of what that feels like, or the courage it takes to journey to a new land that so often wants to reject and oppress them.

But hear me out. When we recognise that some words are rife with colonial oppression and anglocentrism, when we come to see the inherent problems with choosing to define ourselves with labels that set up these dividing walls between each other….we can do one of two things. We can either close our eyes and ears, and get offended and defensive. Complaining of political correctness and semantics. Or, we can come with humility, recognising our privileges (yes), but also choosing to honestly call ourselves what we are....

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People who have all come, with different histories and perspectives, for one reason or another, to a new land. And are attempting to make it into our home.

{Grace}