As a U.S. citizen living in Norway and blogging about living and raising a family abroad, writing this post has been on my to-do list for a long time. But I kept putting it off, ostensibly because I had other things more relevant to my “niche” that I needed to write about. But the recent actions of the U.S. government separating families escaping violence, have put it front and center again. They have also made me address head-on the discomfort underlying my delay.
I first realized that the use of expat v. immigrant was an issue a few months before we moved to Prague. A friend from college posted an article to his Facebook newsfeed that essentially decried as racist the practice of calling white people who lived abroad “expats” while everyone else (poor, brown-skinned, etc.) “immigrants.” I bristled at the thought. “I’m not racist,” I thought. “But I’m not going to call myself an immigrant.”
My reasons for not wanting to call myself an immigrant seemed sound. Our move to the Czech Republic was never meant to be permanent; we always planned on returning “home” to the United States. I still considered myself an American. Moving was just an adventure, and a gift we wanted to give our infant son. And let’s not forget that we were moving for a coveted job complete with moving assistance and a housing allowance.
But how different did this make us from so many of our friends in Seattle who had grown up in Mexico, none of whom I would have thought to call expats? In many ways, it described those who worked with Fernando perfectly. They had good jobs with a technology company that came with indefinite contract lengths—just like Fernando’s in Prague. But while there was no predetermined date by which they would be leaving the United States, few of them planned on staying forever. That they still consider themselves Mexican was pretty obvious the other day when Mexico beat Germany in the first round of the World Cup. And while in their cases, the kids came after moving to the U.S., I think it is pretty safe to say that the move was, at least in part, about adventure.
But weren’t they also seeking a better life? Maybe, maybe not. The more important question is: Weren’t we? Sure, life in the Czech Republic is rarely glamorous. The quality of the food in the grocery store is poor, the creepy throwback hospitals leave much to be desired, and the only designer bags you’ll see are inside the stores on Pařížská street. But with only one salary, we had a full-time nanny, could eat out whenever we wanted, and most European cities we wanted to visit were only an hour flight away. Quite a bit different than our life in Seattle.
The simple fact is that there is virtually no difference between our family and so many similarly situated families in the U.S. And yet we’re expats and they are immigrants.
Or at least, we were. I’ve been slowly moving away from the term over the past year, but my desire to do so now has intensified. I don’t know if I will be able to call myself an immigrant on a regular basis. But I am going to try my hardest not to call myself an expat.
And if you hear (or see) me do it—please say something, will you?
What do you think is the difference between an expat and an immigrant? Do you think the term matters?