15 July 2015

Immigrants, Expats and Politics

One thing that pops up on my news feed on various social media platforms on a quite distressingly regular basis are the articles in the UK newspaper The Guardian talking about the difference between Expats and Immigrants.  The gist of the articles is that white people like to characterise themselves as Expats which avoids the social stigma which goes (in most societies) with the word ‘immigrant’ whereas Africans and Asians are almost always characterised as immigrants whatever their level of professionalism.  There seems to be quite a bit of debate on this subject in the press of many different countries.
Is the author an Immigrant...or an Expat?
It depends!
In Malaysia our family are working for a defined contract period as expatriates.   In Kazakhstan the Filipina English teacher at the Kazakh nursery and pre-school that I managed was every bit as expatriate as I was.  Here in Malaysia a lovely Filipina lady helps to clean our home, she is here on a temporary working visa and will go back to the Philippines when her term is up, indeed she cannot wait to be reunited with her children and husband, she is to all intents an Expat.  Nevertheless in the UK and other European countries she would be viewed by many as an immigrant because expats are, to many people’s minds highly skilled and immigrants are not.  I remember my mother telling me that when I was born (in the Hague) she was in a room with lady whose husband was Turkish.  My mother was born Dutch and my father speaks the language better than any other foreigner I know. Putting this together with the never-ending stream of visiting relatives from all over the Netherlands (I was a first baby) meant the nurses had not realised that we were also a foreign family.  She heard the nurses discussing the lady married to the ‘guest worker’, my mother’s immediate response was that she was married to one too and her new baby was an immigrant – they piped down pretty quickly!  To this extent the Guardian articles have it right.  It is true that the term expatriate refers to anyone living out of their country but in reality, in this day and age, I think many host nations can resolve this problem by reference to the intentions of the person who has moved. 

An immigrant in the UK
So what does this make me?  I tend to explain my background to those who ask by saying that I am a perpetual expat but that is just short hand.  When I lived in the UK I was there long term, as an immigrant.  I had made it my home for over 20 years; when my husband and I finish our expatriate life we may return there in which case he will be repatriating and I will be returning as an immigrant (although I do have dreams about retiring in (and therefore immigrating to) Slovenia).  My status in the UK is slightly complicated, unlike other EU citizens I have the same rights as a citizen of Britain by dint of my Irish passport.  This means that, although I am a foreign national I can vote in general elections, I even stood in one as a candidate where I was very upfront and honest about being an immigrant.  

I started thinking about this question because a Malaysian lady approached us a few weeks ago and tried to initiate a political discussion.  We said what we always say in countries in which we are expats – we read the news, we know what is going on and we have opinions but we do not ever voice them.  We take this stance quite deliberately – unless you spend many years in a country, immersing yourself in its culture, its society and its politics you cannot possibly understand all the complex undercurrents that combine to make an issue what it is.  Of course where issues affect someone directly it is a different matter, this is where the difference between an expat and an immigrant becomes more profound.  Expats can leave when their term is up, immigrants are tied into their new society and are, therefore, directly affected by many more domestic issues than expatriates. 

An expat in Malaysia
I could stand as a credible political candidate in the UK precisely because, even though I was not British, I was a part of British society in a way that I am not and could not be of Malaysian, or Kazakh, Turkish or Venezuelan society.  It even comes down to something as simple as knowing the bias of all of the media in the UK (and seeing through the spin that each will put on any given story).  I choose to read the Telegraph but know that its stories are written to appeal to my politics, articles in the Guardian tend to send my blood pressure soaring but I do make an effort to read from a range of sources to prevent confirmation bias.  This is more difficult in other countries, even if we were to move to the US where we share a common language I would find it difficult in the short term that encapsulates an expat posting.  I know, for example, that Fox news is perceived as putting a very right wing spin on things but on topics such as the recent race riots I cannot hope to understand, viscerally, the way an American does, the back issues of race relations. I know the theory, I know the history, I read the full range of papers but I am not immersed in the emotion. 

Of course I have opinions on political issues in other countries and maintain interest in their news cycles.  I find it fascinating to listen to people talk about their life and the pressures that impact on it. I have, for example, heard the same complaints about corruption in the upper echelons of society from taxi drivers in capital cities the world over.  Learning about how different people live their lives and gaining a wider understanding of the world is one of the joys of being an expat. The first thing I do when I hear of a new posting is to start reading the national press and I try to be aware of what is happening in the US, the key European nations and of course the countries in which I have lived in the past although I am often lazy with countries I am not living in and do this through British papers or the Al Jazeera portal rather than read national press. How much attention I give any one country varies, however, depending on what is happening at a particular time.  I am reading a lot of news about Greece at the present time and news about Syria, Tunisia and France is also high on my radar.  I no longer read the Kazakh press as I did a year ago but I keep an ear out for items of interest.  These days, of course, I check the Malaysian headlines most days and I expect to be paying a lot of attention to the US political news next year. The opinions I form on the topics about which I read come from a purely personal angle, however, and are not based on a full societal, cultural, domestic economic or political understanding of the issues. 

In some ways that makes expats the perfect disinterested observer, unfettered by preconceptions but it comes with its own dangers.  Politics and political issues are always the product of the society and personalities involved and therefore absent an intrinsic understanding of these issues you comment at your peril.  And this comes back to the immigrant/expat debates in the Guardian.  Expats in Britain might not understand how an article of the type mentioned fits in to the paper’s agenda or the currently (highly charged) debates on immigration and its impact on British society.  What the paper is saying is not necessarily wrong but it is saying it for a very particular political reason and one that not all short term expats in the UK might understand or even, necessarily agree with and find their genuine and heartfelt comments taken outside of the context in which they were intended.  This neatly demonstrates the potential pitfalls of commentary and is why we do not discuss host country politics except between ourselves.

Of course, as expats there are also host nations where it would be unwise to make any comment, not because of a personal inability to truly understand the issues but because the regime in that nation does not invite or permit such comments.  That is not the case for us here of course but expats in postings where this applies know it and (if they are wise) avoid it all together.  

Posted as part of the monthly Expat Life blog link up - click the link to read some of the best Expat blogs out there.

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16 comments:

  1. Great topic. I have been reading these articles. When we wrote Inspiring Global Entrepreneurs we debated about putting expat or immigrant in the title, then decided against using either of them because of the stigma attached to each term. I did include 'expat' in the title of Bringing Up Brits because at the time, and I suppose now, I am an American expat in the UK. However, I could also be classified as an immigrant because England is now my home country - I'm not just passing through. I also thing class comes into it a bit. Fascinating post! #ExpatLifeLinky

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    1. It is fascinating isn't it how language can be manipulated. I also think you are right about class, I can't imagine even the most extreme commentators calling the Nigerian, Cambodian or Polish Ambassadors immigrants!

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  2. What an interesting post! And I think you are spot on about the Guardian printing that article becasue it fits with their political agenda. If you want to, you can find an arguement to back up any theory you want - and this is what they have done. Everytime I have seen that article discussed I have disagreed with its basic premise. Whether you are an immigrant or an expat is absolutely NOT about skin colour. It may be abour socio-economic status, or it may be about intent (to return to your home country). But to say it is about race is to totally disregard all those professional expats from countries around the world where they happen not to be considered "white" - like your Filipina teacher.

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    1. Spot on Clara! A few years ago our son was treated badly in a UK playground by some kids who thought he was Polish (he had picked up slightly eastern accent at the time because of our time in KZ). He was rather bemused and was wondering why a Polish child could not play on a playground in the UK when he could play on any in Kazakhstan. The kids, of course, had picked up on immigration politics from their parents.

      The sad thing is the issue needs to be discussed rationally and hype one way or the other just shuts it down which does no one any favours.

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  3. This is definitely similar in Germany as well. As an American, I automatically get put in the "expat" box and am seen differently from immigrants from Easter Europe and Turkey. I am an immigrant, though, because I am planning on staying here permanently. I will self-identify, however, as an expat to help connect with other native English speakers living here, if that makes sense.

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    1. It really does make sense though, to identify with a group to access support networks etc. I refer to myself as an expat for shorthand in some circumstances. I must admit it is rather satisfying to see the look on peoples' faces when they start going on about immigrants and I ask if they mean people like me. I had speech therapy lessons for various reasons as a child and therefore sound incredibly English in my voice. No one who does not know me would guess I am a foreigner.

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  4. Interesting topic indeed. This debate over immigrants v expats is a repeating one, popping up at will to suit the political climate. So many times I have started a blog post about this and then deleted it all again. I'm glad you haven't done the same! #ExpatLifeLinky

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    1. Yes like the UK there are so many facets to that debate in the Netherlands as well. A complex issue all round.

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  5. I have to admit I've never thought about the difference between expat/immigrant in depth before - but as an immediate reaction, I would have said that one is an expat if they are temporarily living in a country not their own, even if temporarily is for 20 years. If they intend to return to their native land, the place they see as home, then they are an expat. However, if someone packs up and leaves their home nation, to start a whole new life somewhere else, if they settle in the new country and view that as their home, if they have no intention of returning other than for visits, then they are immigrants (or emigrants). So I couldn't definitively say if someone is an expat or immigrant - it's up to them to tell me which they are, if they so wish.

    But if you asked me, I'd have said that yourself and J are expatsin Malaysia, while your Dad is an emigrant to the UK.

    Me, I'm just a local.

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    1. We were talking the other night about what we would be if we were to retire to Ireland - husband and children would be immigrants. I would not but then I could hardly be called a local either! We might have to sign up for a mission to Mars......

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  6. I always thought "expat" referred to someone living abroad who's native language was English. Although "expat" also probably has a somewhat short term vibe to it, like that the person lives somewhere for several years and then moves on.

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    1. I think the short term aspect is spot on.

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  7. A very interesting read, to get the opinion of someone with such an diverse background. I've written 3 posts that cover the same topics but from a different point of view. Here's the links hope you don't mind me putting them here, feel free to delete if you want.
    http://www.amandasettle.com/the-expat-image/
    http://www.amandasettle.com/an-expat-view-of-immigration/
    http://www.amandasettle.com/an-expat-political-view-from-greece/

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    1. Thank you for posting these links - very interesting articles, I always love to read things from different points of view. I hope things are ok for you in Greece at the moment.

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  8. Funny that you shared this post the day after it dawned on me that I (and every other expat I know) is never referred to as an immigrant, and I pondered about the difference. All I could come up with is that maybe expats are potentially not going to be in their new country forever, where as immigrants intend to spend the rest of their lives there. I also thought that immigrants also seek to improve their lives by immigrating, particularly from a financial standpoint.

    I'm sad to see that race is a factor, but what's even worse is that I'm not surprised. If it helps, I've never heard any other expat referred to as an immigrant in Japan regardless of his/her country of origin.

    Thanks for sharing this enlightening post for Trekking with Becky's #ExpatTuesday! :D

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    1. Thanks Becky - Interesting to hear about the expat/immigrant dynamics in Japan. The issue is quite politically charged in many countries.

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