Expat, Defined

8 Aug

If you read a lot of this blog you notice that I often use the word “expat” or “expatriate“. This word gets thrown around so much for foreigners that I think the true meaning has become watered down and altered from its original intent. The truth is that a large number of people who live overseas for a short time, even who are simply traveling through, have started to use these words to describe themselves, as if it is a fad or romantic notion. Maybe it has to do with the Lost Generation, or the idea of being the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald, sitting in some dank cafe and writing the next novel that high school kids all over the country will be forced to read. Personally, I think this is a mistake.

Merriam-Webster defines expatriate as “living in a foreign land.” There is no distinction to time or place, which leaves open the idea that anyone who spends a couple of days somewhere is living, thus making them an expat. But as educated people, we know this is not the case. I am an expat by my own standards, which include living in a foreign land, working long term in that country, and doing day to day things like waiting in line for the bus or supermarket. Boring things like that which make life what it is.

It’s certainly possible to take taxis everywhere and go out drinking and dancing six nights a week in real life, but not entirely common. I have no problem with the idea of living abroad for a few weeks, and I actually think it’s a great way to get to know a place. But I just don’t think that you can call someone an expat for doing so. I remember as a kid taking family vacations to a place, we’d often rent out a cottage in Cape Cod or a condo somewhere else. But having a house rather than a hotel didn’t make us any different. We were still tourists.

The reason that I call attention to it is because I think there’s a misconception that being an expat is glorious and amazing. If you can earn dollars or euros while living in South America, for example, you’re golden. But making pesos and getting charged in dollars, for another example, makes life fairly difficult. Unless you get involved with expat circles, you could struggle, like I have, to find local friends or make meaningful relationships. It takes time but is certainly possible, but you have to be there long enough to see it through. The language barrier will definitely make things more difficult. There are groups like BAexpats where you can link up for advice or to meet other foreigners overseas.

For me, an expat will always be someone who works overseas and lives a regular life, just removed from where they grew up or were born. It can be a lonely and challenging lifestyle, but those of us who do it believe that it’s worthwhile in the end.


3 Responses to “Expat, Defined”

  1. ML Awanohara August 8, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    Hello, I’ve recently been struggling with how to define an expat myself so found your post very interesting. I started up a blog a few months ago called “Seeing the Elephant” — about the kinds of people who travel who travel vast distances to see if the grass is greener and so forth. I was an expat for many years and am now a “repat,” facing the challenge of adjusting back to life in the U.S. From beginning to end, I found the experience equal parts stimulating and challenging. Though there were certainly glamorous moments — and let’s face it, there’s definitely something glamorous about living in a cultural far away from the one you were born in — I certainly never found it a particularly easy life. Coming home again presents another set of challenges…

    I’d love to have your input on my latest posts. The very latest one, about how to recognize at a glance someone who has seen an “elephant,” is here: http://seentheelephant.blogspot.com/2010/08/how-to-recognize-at-glance-someone-who.html. There is also an earlier one about how to define an “expat,” which reminds me in some ways of your discussion: http://seentheelephant.blogspot.com/2010/07/time-to-define-seeing.html.

    Basically, I wish we could get away from the “expat” term and all the connotations it carries, but I guess we’re stuck with it?

  2. Jon August 9, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    Hey there, ML. Thanks for the really thoughtful reply. I hope that I didn’t give a negative impression with this post. I do like the life, even though it’s tough at times. Yet once in a while I get to step back and think, “Wow, this is really amazing and I’m lucky to be doing what I am.” It’s the times like that which make it all worthwhile.

    I agree that it’s difficult to put a solid definition to it or stick with one connotation, but it’s much easier to say what it doesn’t represent. I need to take a look through your posts and think about what you’ve written, and once I do I’ll check back in and put some input in there as well. Til then!


  3. Sam Barber January 18, 2011 at 9:16 am #

    I am a Graphic Designer and third year degree student based in Bristol, UK. I have spent some years travelling and living abroad in USA, Australia, Asia and Canada and so decided to focus my final self-directed design work on ‘Expats and Living Abroad’.

    I am currently inviting expats to participate in my project by answering a short online questionnaire on my blog: http://www.samanthabarber.com/expat. The results of the survey as well as interviews which I plan to carry out with expats will form the basis for my study over the next 6 months. Interested parties can sign up to receive updates on the project and can even be part of a review panel for design solutions I propose.

    If you would like to take part or think this may be of interest to your readers I would be really grateful if you could add it to your website or suggest where I could post an entry about it.

    Many thanks, best regards
    Sam Barber

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