13 Sep, 2016 @ 20:41
7 mins read

Why ‘Expat?’

lily mcnally
EXPAT OR IMMIGRANT? OP blogger Lily McNally

I’VE often felt that busy periods of work leave little opportunity to think.

EXPAT OR IMMIGRANT? OP blogger Lily McNally
EXPAT OR IMMIGRANT? OP blogger Lily McNally

Before I decided to give writing a good ol’ shot, I’d been used to working long hours in emotionally taxing jobs. I’d come home at the end of the day, watch nonsense on the T.V. and then off to bed. Netflix was my comforter and the usual novels were shelved for emotionally gratifying articles about the adoption of really sad looking dogs. I was capable of consuming little more, even avoiding the news, with tales of horror, corruption and war. I’d regularly cut myself off, in a grand act of self-involvement. I soon learned to utilise videos featuring happy swimming otters (or some such other cute critter) as a chaser to the six o’clock news. It’s like the lime after tequila or watching Friends after a horror movie!

There has been no small amount of radio silence from me recently, mostly because I haven’t done anything noteworthy, but mainly due to my current workload. However, I haven’t found myself unable to think and I’ve been desperate to put pen to paper with a whole variety of half-baked ideas. Writing itself can be emotionally taxing, but it’s very dependent on the task at hand. My commissioned work is a lot of fun. I’ve been researching aviation and I’ve learned an awful lot about an area hitherto a mystery. My novel is a labour of love. There are days it makes me want to cry and throw my laptop from the balcony. And there are days I want to cradle it like the hopeful new born that it is.

I’ve found that I’m now able to actively flex my thinking muscles all the live long day and on Friday, I realised I’d been chewing over the following question for some time: “Why Expat?” I often listen to the radio and read a variety of articles from UK papers. Immigrant and migrant are two words that are repeated again and again in the news. The word refugee is used less and less when its definition is far better suited to the individuals who have recently been re-defined, as immigrants. Refugee is defined as ‘a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.’ [1] How on earth could this not be a fitting description for the people of Syria, escaping war and disaster, death and destruction?

Instead we hear about “thousands of immigrants arriving in boats” like it’s a fleet of large cruise ships. Arriving doesn’t seem like a particularly fitting word as a boat collapses underneath an overcrowded ship of starving, wounded and terrified passengers. An immigrant is ‘a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.’ [2] This re-fashioning of the refugee as immigrant has devastating consequences when the term softens the reality. Refugees do not simply choose to live somewhere else, they flee their homes for fear of death. This reality is lost in the translation of immigrant. It simply does not define the circumstances.

After thinking this over for some time, that the definition of refugee has been hijacked by the word immigrant, I ask myself; why expat? When I think on it further I’m astounded that I haven’t questioned it much before. Expatriate is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘A person who lives outside their native country.’ [3] This definition is pretty much the same as immigrant and it is difficult to understand any logical demarcation between the two words.

I am an immigrant. I have ‘come[..] to live permanently in a foreign country.’ [4] So why am I an expat when a Syrian refugee is an immigrant? Surely if I, an expat, are in reality an immigrant then the Syrian refugee can also be called an expat? If we insist on calling refugees immigrants then surely it’s better to just say expat. After all, the word expat is looked upon much more favourably than immigrant. It’s all pretty ludicrous, but why the distinction?

I believe it all comes down to a hefty helping of cultural conditioning and a warped western ideology. That us economically advantaged, and generally white, Europeans need a word to distance ourselves from the Syrian refugees on the 6 o’clock news. As politicians strive to undermine the desperate reality of the refugee crisis, refugee suddenly becomes immigrant; subtly and quietly warping the word immigrant with a confused and misleading understanding of both the word immigrant and refugee. To parody the current trend: “foreigners are coming into our country to steal jobs and benefits. These people are called immigrants. Immigrant means ‘a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country’[5] so they have no good reason to come here. I therefore do not like immigrants.” UKIP, in particular, peddled this beautifully in their recent campaign.

This extreme, UKIP like view was legitimately published in a British newspaper with a massive readership. I don’t really know what to call Katie Hopkins, perhaps just a scary person with a microphone? On April 17th she defined the vulnerable ‘migrants’ fleeing aboard boats to UK shores as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans.’ Further adding on LBS radio that she would deploy ‘gunships’ to ‘tow them back to where they came from.’ These people were not migrants or immigrants but refugees with legitimate claims for asylum under the 1951 Geneva Convention. The confusion of these terms coupled with such extreme views serves to mislead and anger the general public into an anti-immigrant frenzy.

The Wall Street Journal writes that ‘Some arrivals are described as expats; others as immigrants; and some simply as migrants. It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat … Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats … It’s a double standard woven into official policy.’ [6]

After further research I have found that the word expat is bound up in government policy; how the movement of people from different places can be labelled. I have also read that the demarcation, ‘isn’t an “outdated supremacist ideology” which labels white people living in a foreign country as expats and all others as immigrants; it’s governments. Simple as that.’ [7] I don’t believe it is quite that simple.

As we have seen with the refugee crisis the words which are used by government officials profoundly shape our world view. Language is the way in which we navigate our world, our sense of self and our culture. If a ‘double standard [is] woven into official policy’ [8] it filters on through to the consciousness, or sub-consciousness, of the people who live within that official policy. In this way the word expat does serve an “outdated supremacist ideology” [9] where we separate ourselves from immigrants (whom we tend to assume are African, Syrian, Filipino, Mexican…) because we were lucky enough to be born in wealthy and privileged place.

Passports pack a punch and those of Finland, Sweden, Germany, America and the United Kingdom are the most powerful in the world. We have access to 174 countries without a visa [10] while both refugees and immigrants will be denied free movement simply because of where they were born.

It astounds me at how fortunate I am. That I am able to come to this beautiful place, to work and prosper, and to write for a living in my own language. So many refugees are forced to flee to a strange land. One where they have to learn the culture, to speak the language, to work within foreign systems, often in low paid jobs no matter how educated they may be in their homeland.

When they are able to integrate and settle within the UK, for example, they are still called immigrants. In contrast, we have a tendency to move to a foreign country, getting by just fine with English, not willing to culturally integrate… Yet we get to be called expat, with its connotations of the grand old British Empire; neatly glossing over bloody colonial history to be replaced with pride and patriotism. It just doesn’t seem fair. Does it?

When I first moved here I was nervous about what to call myself and followed suit when most other Brits defined themselves as expats. I always felt a tinge of guilt as I uttered the word; the term reminding me of our colonial past. I now remember that the first time I encountered ‘expatriate’ was through the study of Rudyard Kipling. He was born in 1865 and writing in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s a pretty ancient term with a bad legacy.

I’d like to describe myself as a citizen of the universe, although I understand how idealistic that may seem. Even though I’m sure it would make for a pretty epic passport, decorated with planets and stars, although I’d admittedly miss the unicorn on my current one. If I can’t be a citizen of the universe then I’ll settle as a Scot and an immigrant. I will continue to learn the Spanish language and perhaps someday I’ll be adopted as an honorary Spaniard too.


[1] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/refugee (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[2] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/immigrant (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[3] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/expatriate (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[4] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/immigrant (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[5] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/immigrant (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[6] CHRISTOPHER DEWOLF, In Hong Kong, Just Who Is an Expat, Anyway? The Wall Street Journal, http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2014/12/29/in-hong-kong-just-who-is-an-expat-anyway/ (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[7] Yaël Ossowski, ‘The Difference between Expats and Immigrants? It’s Passports, Not Race,’ PanAm Post, http://panampost.com/yael-ossowski/2015/03/26/the-difference-between-expats-and-immigrants-its-passports-not-race/ (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[8] CHRISTOPHER DEWOLF, In Hong Kong, Just Who Is an Expat, Anyway? The Wall Street Journal, http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2014/12/29/in-hong-kong-just-who-is-an-expat-anyway/ (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[9] Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, ‘Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?’ The Guardian,  https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration (date accessed: 12/09/16).

[10] According to the Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index of 2014. https://www.henleyglobal.com/files/download/hvri/HP%20Visa%20Restrictions%20Index%20141101.pdf (date accessed: 12/09/16)

Lily McNally

Lily, a 20 something Scottish writer originally from Glasgow.

I spend much of my time involved in some literary pursuit or another. I'm generally found with my nose in a book or scribbling in worn notepads. I mostly write poetry, prose and academic articles. I'm currently writing a novel.

As a freelance writer I've been asked to write on some weird and wonderful projects. I greatly enjoy the variety of this work.

I have an MA in Literature from the University of Glasgow where I studied hipster coffee shop etiquette alongside a vast array of talented authors.

I enjoy the work of Angela Carter and Kate Atkinson as well as that of, quick-witted mother and daughter duo, Rory and Lorelai Gilmore.

I have very recently moved to Spain and complain about the heat a great deal.


  1. So refreshing to read this piece. You have articulated beautifully a lot of jumbled thoughts that I have on this subject. We need your voice Lily , without it we are sheep .
    I can’t wait for your novel, I know it will be good.

  2. Absolutely Lily. I moved to Spain a year ago and from the start have resolutely refused to describe myself as an “expat”. I am an immigrant – dictionary definition – somebody who has moved to another country to seek a better quality of life. The phrase expat allows people to complain about immigrants without getting into a muddle about themselves.

  3. Expatriates are those who migrate to another country to live and work, and who have employment, or who otherwise have the financial means to support themselves e.g. a pension. This is how they differ from immigrants who move without work or financial means. Simple as that, all in one sentence lol. I have met many expat Africans, Moroccans, Russians, Peruvians, etc. it’s not a “Brit thing” at all.

    • Hi Fred. First of all I’m glad that you read the article and it got you thinking. That’s all I aim for with the pieces I write; a bit of healthy debate with a broad range of views is always fab. However, from my research, the way in which expat and immigrant are demarcated has nothing to do with means to personal financial support. Governments separate the terms based solely on where residents are coming from. The circumstance you define above, ‘who move without work of financial means’ would be defined as economic Refugees, not immigrants. Everyone is entitled to define themselves how they wish and that you know of Africans, Moroccans, Russians and Peruvians that call themselves expats is perfectly fine. In a bid to move away from the ingrained racial bias and colonial history that the word expat is undeniably loaded with, I have decided to move away from the term myself. If the two words are defined in the dictionary in the same way I feel no need to call myself something when others in the same circumstances are called something different solely due to where they are from. I wished to share my own thought process and eventual move away from the term. Some may agree and others may not, which is perfectly fine!

      • Lily, many of the economic refugees you talk about are not refugees at all. They are not escaping “financial devastation” in their own countries, but are trying to make a new life in what they perceive to be a land filled with opportunity. That has been the main issue with migration in to Europe i.e. separating out the really deserving migrants i.e. those in abject poverty and who are close to death (and which Teresa May eluded to in her U.N. speech.)

        I have no problem knowing that I am both a migrant and an immigrant, but I will use the term expatriate. I do not agree that it is a loaded term. The word “expat” comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“country or fatherland”) so as you can see, it is an ancient word and there really are no “good” or “bad” words. We use so many latin words already, so what’s the problem with using this one? When we as a species can stop worrying about the meanings and connotations of individual words, we will advance. Words don’t harm people, actions do, so let us be judged by actions.

        • Each to their own. I only outlined my own feelings around the word. I in no way dictated that everyone reading the article should change the way they define themselves.
          I’m not sure what you mean about a land filled with opportunity as many foreigners who come to Britain, for whatever reason you so decide to assign to them, are subjected to discrimination and racism.
          Right, now onto the bit I most want to address; Language! Oh I could talk about words all the live long day :) All terms, words and the way we arrange them are loaded. I mean, I’d go into Derrida’s theories on traces and deconstruction but I think that would give us both a headache. I know the Latin route of the word ex and patria (also the definition you outlined just backs up my point that its the same as the definition for immigrant). Most words have a Latin route but that doesn’t change how words mutate throughout time; how they interact with society, culture, movements…. It also doesn’t map the first usage of that word.
          To use the most blatantly obvious example; the word gay has changed in meaning throughout time. Society has subscribed a different meaning upon a word that once meant ‘happy.’ Looking at the genealogy of this mutation is extremely interesting but I’ll leave that for another day.
          An even simpler example is me saying “nut” or “ken” which are colloquial Scottish words for “no” and “I know.” Now if we only ever strictly look at route meanings of words we’d be all like “why is she talking to me about nuts when I asked her a yes/no question?” or “who one earth is ken? This woman is making no sense” But we don’t because we understand that different words both socially and culturally are inscribed with all sorts of meaning and in order to communicate I think understanding this is crucial.
          Point being, words do not exist within a vacuum with one singular objective meaning. How we think and feel is communicated through language so language inevitably affects our actions. We see loaded words filtered through politics and media and they are definitively used to change the way we think and feel about a particular situation. Allports scale of discrimination was first defined after WWII. It helped to break down how such atrocities committed against the Jewish population could have been allowed to happen.
          1. Antilocution: Antilocution occurs when an in-group freely purports negative images of an out-group. Hate speech is included in this stage and jokes are common. Although antilocution itself may not be harmful, it can set the stage for more severe outlets for prejudice.
          2. Avoidance: Members of the in-group actively avoid people in the out-group. No direct harm may be intended, but psychological harm often results through isolation.
          3. Discrimination: The out-group is discriminated against by denying them opportunities and services, putting prejudice into action. Behaviors have the intention of disadvantaging the out-group by preventing them from achieving goals, getting education or jobs, etc. Examples include Jim Crow laws in the US, the Statute of Kilkenny in British Ireland, Apartheid in South Africa, and antisemitic laws in the Middle East.
          4. Physical Attack: The in-group vandalizes, burns, or otherwise destroys out-group property and carries out violent attacks on individuals or groups. Physical harm is done to members of the out-group. Examples include pogroms against Jews in Europe, the lynchings of blacks and Italians in the US, and ongoing violence against Hindus in Pakistan.
          5. Extermination: The in-group seeks extermination or removal of the out-group. They attempt to eliminate either the entirety or a large fraction of the undesired group of people. Examples include the Cambodian Genocide, the Final Solution in Nazi Germany, the Rwandan Genocide, the Armenian Genocide, and ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War.
          I lifted that straight off Wikipedia so you can look it up if you like. I’ve used this scale extensively within training sessions on discrimination.
          I’d like to focus in on stage one. Stage one is speech. Stage one is language and it spirals forth into action. This example is to showcase, in its extremity, the migration of loaded words to negative action against a particular group. I believe that words do harm people and words do matter. Otherwise why bother having strict laws around hate speech?

          • Lily, you can provide a link to the Wiki entry to save some space. As I said, and it’s only my opinion, naming something does not make it good or bad; it is the actions of the people who are given the name, that are good or bad. We need to evolve beyond the meaning of individual words and act differently. We are not at that level yet, of course.

            Different countries have different laws – the USA First Amendment allows people to condemn Islam, or Muslims, or Jews, black people, or white people etc. In the UK the hate speech law states “Any communication which is threatening or abusive, and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone is forbidden.” It is the “stirring up up of racial hatred”, the “threatening” and the “harassment” that is the actual physical act that is forbidden. Being a racist, by itself, isn’t illegal in the UK for example. Hurting your feelings, and actually harming someone, are entirely different things. It can be difficult to separate the meanings, but actions really do speak louder than words. We have gone off on a bit of a tangent from our “expat” discussion, but after talking about all these other issues we can at least see how trivial the meaning of the word “expat” actually is. Best not to worry about it and get on with some bigger issues.

          • No need to leave the meaning of the word “gay” for another time Lily.
            It is simply an acronym for the phrase, “good as you”.

  4. Hi Lily, nice to see a fellow Weegie in print, perhaps I can give you my tuppenceworth. In my mind an expat is someone who intends, eventually, to their native land. An immigrant is one who has forsworn their native land for a new land and who has no conscious intention to return to that native land. I suppose I qualify under expat since I always refer to the Holy City ( aka Glasgow ) as home.

    Where I disagree with you is the question of those fleeing Syria, you say under the Geneva convention they have the right to asylum. That right applies to the first safe country they reach, not to their nirvana.
    My second point is that if all the young men from UK had fled to a safe country in 1939/1940 then you would be writing your article in German.surely it is the duty of every Syrian to fight for their country rather than fleeing? I speak as one who saw. Clydebank and Princess docks bombed without mercy, who grew up not seeing my father because he was fighting to keep my country safe.

    Should the young men of Syria not do the same for Syria

    • Whether the Syrians in fact have been too brutalized to fight back is the question: no food, medicine, weapons, communications. And trapped between opposing murderous forces.
      Their case is different to the British or French, for example, who were not already over run and always had some means and organisational possibilities, even though in short supply. Though I see your point, I agree with Lily, they are seeking refuge, and would gladly return if not murdered if they did so.

    • Hi Bill. Nice to hear from fellow Glaswegian. I do so miss the rain! Which was, by all means, unexpected. I appreciate any tuppenceworth given and I’m glad for your comment.

      When you mention that expat is defined as some one who intends to return to their native land I’d like to point you to an older definition of the term:
      As a transitive verb we have two meanings
      1: banish, exile
      2: to withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country. These route definitions don’t sound like someone who intends to return. Also, Ex means no longer, so does that mean that Expats are Ex-Patriotic? These, albeit older definitions, seem like someone destined to never return to their homeland. Just playing devils advocate here! Perhaps some expats intend to return just like some immigrants tend to return, but the current definitions of both words mean exactly the same thing. The only difference lies in country of origin.

      In regards to your point about reaching “nirvana” yes they are granted refuge on the first safe country they reach but these countries often do not keep up their side of the deal. Refugees are often denied Asylum at the first place they reach because there is “no room,” or some other such reason that the government thinks up. They are then held in camps until they are processed and a place is found. The camp is not where they are to live for the rest of their lives, it is meant to be a stopping place. Some people are held here for a ridiculous amount of time in terrible, inhumane conditions. The system needs a complete overhaul.

      I can understand your sentiments in reference to the War and I express sympathy as to the absence of your father, who fought bravely for our freedom. For that, I am grateful. I do think that the two Wars, Syrian and WWII, are very different in a number of ways and it is difficult to compare the two. For one, conscription was mandatory in WWII, and has since been abolished; with an aim to avoid further mass wars where an entire population is at the disposal of the armed forces of each country. In WWII there were no drones that could drop bombs without mishap or casualty to the operator. Thousands of civilians can be wiped out without ever seeing the opposing force. It is fatally destructive and almost impossible for a civilian population to band together under such circumstances; in the face of such a barbaric means of warfare. I believe that if the Syrian people could band together to defeat enemy forces, they would. But they cannot, they are outmatched, they are starved and have little access to strategists or weaponry.

      Another point to consider is that Syria is desperately divided with many different factions of freedom fighters battling each other, battling Assad and battling ISIS; not to mention the confusing role that Russia, America, the UK, Turkey, France etc are playing in the conflict. Some believe that Assad is wholeheartedly to blame while others blame freedom fighters and others ISIS.

      In WWII we were united, Britain knew who the “bad guy” was. It was Hitler, he was a terrible person and we went out, more or less as one, to defeat him. Not that it wasn’t hard, not that we didn’t suffer terrible tragedy and casualties. It was just a little more clear cut than it is now. Modern technology, power struggles and politics thoroughly confuse the Syrian war. It’s not quite as simple as civilians, with no military training, staying put and fighting through it. They are being slaughtered. And as a safe and comparatively wealthy country, we owe them compassion. I believe that we owe them refuge.

  5. Lily,

    Fantastic post. I understand the angles from where you present your arguments based mainly from humanists. You’ve argued from the perspectives of the “Brits” as an example and it goes without saying that all citizens of the universe are affected, sheepishly and otherwise by pollicisation of governments. Some may or may not agree, yet how many of us are self governed 100%? Again, a fantastic post which you’ve only slightly scratched the surface of so powerfully.

    • Hi Dee.
      Thank you for reading my blog! I’m glad to have generated some healthy discussion. The definition of humanism has evolved throughout time far past its initial conception but yes, broadly speaking, I do adhere to the notion of human freedom and progress. And culturally, I have brought a British perspective; purely due to the fact that I am British. However all people of all nationalities are individuals with their own perspectives, beliefs and rationale. There is no one stock “British perspective” just as there is no one stock “Spanish perspective.” Thanks for the comment!

  6. Expats are people who (usually) live somewhere for a while and then go back to their country of origin – this can sometimes be after 10 or 20 years and they do not change their nationality. Most Brits in Spain, particularly the retired Brits, fall into this category.

    When I worked in the City, we always called Americans who were seconded to the London office expats because they usually went back to the US eventually – this could be after many years of living and working in the UK.

    Immigration is a completely different kettle of fish and usually applies to people who sell up lock, stock and barrel and move from their country of origin to somewhere like Australia for work, take Australian nationality and never return to their country of origin.

    Fred I agree, refugees and economic migrants are two entirely different categories and should not be confused.

  7. Lily, your constructive analyses are important here. Words do make a tremendous impact on social relations: directly on emotions, profoundly though less immediately on economic justice and physical safety.
    Difficulties arise, of course, when word-users don’t grasp the subtleties and nuances of words they use across blurred, over-lapping cultural and economic pockets. That holds equally true regardless of ethnic, economic and national origin. ‘Education’ is about semantics, the use and meaning of words within social contexts. Done well, we have some communicative precision. ‘Education’ is meant to draw out, encourage the full potential of humanity.
    ‘Weasel-wording’ to get out of one’s own semantic hole reveals much about one’s education, and personal ethics and politics, as well as any pretense that one’s own illusion of self worth is more important than others’. To use a somewhat distasteful example, we are all in a ghetto from some other point of view – including those so-called ‘expats’ who may view themselves as the ‘standard’ by which to judge immigrants, refugees and ‘others’ they would exclude from social justice.
    Let’s continue the measured, rational dialogue.

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