Life in (Unfair White Privilege) Contrast: Expat vs. Immigrant
I’m a California native, 5th generation descendent of Irish, German, and British immigrants to the United States of America. My family didn’t go to the U.S. because they had a foreign worker’s post in the embassy – or a job at all! They were fleeing from a poor economic climate (mostly from Ireland), looking to improve their life in a country that promised a brighter future. My ancestors were immigrants, plain and simple. Luckily they weren’t fleeing to escape shellfire and tyranny like so many millions of people in 2016. However, just like 99.9% of all immigrants around the world today, they were good people just trying to provide a more secure life for their family.
As for me, I’ve lived outside the U.S. for 17 of my 28 adult years. Most of the time I had a job but sometimes I didn’t. Most of the time my daughter and I were living in the country legally, sometimes there were periods when we weren’t.
For all intents and purposes, a couple of times in my life I was an unemployed, illegal immigrant. Yet in all the years I lived abroad in India, Spain, China, Hong Kong, Mexico and Bali for a couple of months, and now Malaysia, I’ve never been treated the same way that it seems so many immigrants – and a shocking number of refugees – are being treated … especially in my native homeland. In fact, during one of ‘those times’ – when I continued to be viewed as an expat – I was invited to foreign embassy parties, dated a prominent sports figure, and would end up on Page 3 of the newspapers when I attended events … it was crazy.
I was apples-for-apples the same, looking for work to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads yet somehow I was never looked down upon negatively or negatively stereotyped as a migrant. For lack of a better term, I experienced (and continue to experience) a hell of a lot of white privilege. Sometimes it was straight up, 100% because of the colour of my skin, like in India. Other times it was simply because people identified my ethnicity and origin instantly as from a developed first-world nation … even before I opened my Yankee gob!
Immigrants and refugees however are often looked at as threats to and a burden on society. They are judged on the colour of their skin or because they had the misfortune to be born in a place of unrest or a country that is still developing, or because they are struggling financially as was the case with my ancestors.
What’s worse than the way they are viewed is the fact that they are being turned away from a life of promise and possibilities and – with the case of refugees – herded into camps instead of given the chance to work hard and integrate into a new life and to become a contributing member of society. I thank my lucky stars that my family didn’t encounter the same kind of discrimination back in the 1800s when they washed up on the shores of Massachusetts that these families face now.
Expat vs. Immigrant
My closest friends are expatriates and over the years we’ve talked about the expat versus immigrant topic. Sadly we always agree that the reason we few are called expats but the larger number of people in the same boat as us are called immigrants boils down to money. Well, or the perception of money. Or to say it more articulately, my friend Alexa Humphreys – whom I met when we both lived as expats in India – shared, ‘In my head it’s all tied to socioeconomic status of the individual as well as the development status of the country of origin versus destination country. The term expat implies a person from a high-income country voluntarily relocating to a foreign country. An immigrant implies a person relocating from a developing country to a more developed country, often for economic reasons.’
She’s right, of course. Those are the labels that society has applied, and they’ve stuck for far too long.
Racism, Fear, and The Media
The fear mongering that happens daily in the media, coupled with the false reporting and negligence certainly fuels the fire of mistrust. One of my dearest friends – who I met on a dance floor when we both lived in Spain – is a German living in the UK. Rando Wagner is a passionate activist who is setting up an NGO called One Human Race to support the work he’s doing each week to help refugees in Europe (please check out and join his Facebook Group for stories of their good work and 100s of pics of refugee camps, and please support his GoFundMe page). He sees first-hand the impact that society’s negative view of immigrants and refugees is having in the world. The families who are labelled and wrongly judged are having their fates sealed by unintentional racists. Millions of people in this world are literally being doomed. It’s heart breaking.
As an American, I can’t help but wonder if the U.S. isn’t making the same horrific mistake it did during WWII? My homeland refused Jewish refugees from entering the country out of fear, turning them back to take their chances with Hitler in Europe. We are now acting from fear again with the innocent men, women and children who are fleeing persecution and war in various African countries, Syria, and so many others. Shouldn’t we be helping one another?
I realise this piece has turned into a bit of a messy rant. I imagine a dozen ways to end it but none seem perfect to be honest. What I want to say is that much of what I’ve experienced as an expat over the years has been unfair when compared to what people labelled as immigrants experience. People should be judged for their character and actions, not for things they have no control over. None of us has control over where we’re born or the colour of our skin or the economic circumstance we grow up in. Rando’s opinion is that the terms expat and immigrant are both out-dated and I have to agree. But how do we change it when it tragically seems that the world is turning darker and more divided each day?
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