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expat or immigrant?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

in a post a while back i referred to myself as an expat mama. and it got me thinking about the word 'expat'.

until i had applied the term to myself, i had always had the vague image of an expat as some youngish retired person from an english-speaking country, living in some interesting corner of the third world for some or all of the year, getting together with other expats in local cafés to write postcards, read the english-language paper or chat over a high-priced beer. they might get along fairly well in the local language, or they might speak only a few words, with a cringe-worthy accent. they might very well be progressive, or not, interested in local politics, or not, but they were not vulnerable to the social realities of their host region. at least nothing that an emergency airlift from their home country couldn't resolve in case of a coup, tsunami or some other such disaster.

of course this doesn't describe me, nor many self-identified expats - it was just the quick mental picture the word called up for me. but when we lived in canada, f. was not an expat - he was an immigrant. there was no 'expat argentinian community.'

offhand: to me, expat seems to imply choice, privilege and something like non-integration. immigrant seems to imply discrimination and struggle, and while not the yucky 'assimilation', at least integration. putting your lot in with your new society. it's way more nuanced than that, and changes with time and place and individual circumstances. it's a political and politicized term, and its meaning is probably radically different depending on the country, social class, country of origin and blah blah blah. but it is decidedly NOT expat.

then, of course, i googled. i found this and this and this. socio-economic position and intention to stay seem to matter. this sounds vaguely right, but far from comprehensive:
In its broadest sense, an expatriate is any person living in a different country from where he is a citizen. ... The differentiation found in common usage usually comes down to socio-economic factors, so skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual labourer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labelled an 'immigrant'. There is no set definition and usage does vary depending on context and individual preferences and prejudices.
i think there's something else, too. being an immigrant implies that you are either of the undocumented type, with few legal rights and protections and limited opportunities, or you have legal papers and therefore passed through a lengthy, expensive, exclusive, filtering process. being an expat makes no reference at all to either process or to legal status. the expat and his or her dollars are unquestionably welcome, legal or not.

okay, i can only go on for so long without being specific about what country and what nationality i'm talking about. each place has its meanings - it's not the same to have blonde hair in japan as it is here in argentina. and historical periods have their meanings too - the argentinian immigrant a hundred years ago was likely to have come from germany or spain or italy or france, today s/he likely comes from peru or paraguay or bolivia. with all the cultural baggage, economic implications and racism tied up in all of these things.

so let me be clear. i am a white, blonde, educated canadian. unlike many, i did all the legal somersaults required of me to officially be allowed to live and work and study here: get married to an argentinian, pay hundreds of dollars in translations and official stamps and certified mail, undergo numerous medical exams, fill out infinite forms, stand in infinite lines... (english really needs a good word for all this, like the indispensable trámite in spanish).

but at the time, many locals were surprised - some were even outraged - that i should have to go through this whole process. it's one thing for the immigrants to have to do such a thing - the peruvians, bolivians, paraguayans - but quite another for 'someone like me' (because i'm blonde? because i speak english? because i'm from canada? because they like me? because they're racist?).

so, this is me:
  • socio-economic position: privileged, though somewhat precarious
  • intention to stay: yes, probably, almost definitely, i think
  • legal status: permanent resident
  • integration: yes and no - i speak english to my kids, i want them to celebrate hallowe'en, i'm a vegetarian; i also speak almost perfect spanish, all my friends are locals, my kids eat morcilla (blood sausage) and other unmentionably meaty argentinian delights.
  • but here's the clincher: mom to 2 argentinian kids.
yeah, they were born in canada, and true, they're currently here 'illegally' on overstayed visas, but eventually they'll get their paperwork, and more to the point, they will be growing up here. this place is their context - the cultural setting in which we will struggle to instill in them our values and ideals. the political setting in which they will become political beings. and their day-to-day world where hopefully they will manage to avoid drunk-driving friends and a preference for mullet-style hairdos (or whatever the equally atrocious style is when they're teenagers - i still can't believe that mullets are so cool here...).

this makes me feel - like i believe immigrants do and expats do not - that my fate is inextricably linked to this place. it means that things like public schools, health care policy, communications laws, gay marriage and adoption rights and access to safe and legal abortions really really matter to me. even without kids, but more so with them, i want a political leg to stand on. it is important to position myself so that i can join or support the struggles i feel strongly about. i did not come here to lose my voice.

it's true that there is choice and privilege in me writing these words, in choosing to call myself an immigrant. i guess that plucks me up and plonks me down right in the middle of the expat crowd. and yes, i do occasionally browse expat sites for info on car seats and translation jobs. and yes, i would jump at the chance to join an english-language playgroup for my little monster. whatever.

am i creating a tension that doesn't exist between the two terms? how do self-identified expats here, especially those with kids, feel about it all? not those here for a year of tango, spanish immersion and yummy wine. those who live here - what makes them expats and not immigrants? what are the nuances?

as for me, i find it is comforting to realize that i'm an immigrant mama. it makes it feel a little easier, a little more legitimate, to quench my self-doubting 'what-right-do-i-have-to-say-anything-change-anything-disagree-with-anything-since-i'm-just-an-outsider-from-the-first-world-who-has-no-right-to-'impose'-my-ways' concerns. to be less intimidated. it also ties me to lots of people and communities i know well back in canada. it's not uncharted territory. even if i sometimes feel like a total freak.


The Golden Papaya said...

The terminology is touchy, isn't it? I also chafe at calling myself an expat. As you pointed out, the connotations feel wrong--Jimmy Buffett territory. Ugh.
I'd like to put your blog on my blogroll (it'd be great if you decide to do the same).
Looks like we do have things in common. If you'd like to be in touch, you can reach me at estanford1@yahoo.com.

macondo mama said...

thanks for commenting - i just sent you an email. it's lovely to know of someone else in this crazy boat!

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