You’re Not an Expat, You’re an Immigrant

Sorry to burst your bubble

You’re not an expat, you’re an un-assimilated immigrant who is either white, wealthy, or both. I know that might come off as an insanely strong (and presumptuous statement), but allow me to explain.

For starters, one of the differentiating factors between an ‘expat’ and a immigrant has always been centred around choice. ‘Expats’ are perceived to be different from your ordinary immigrants. They’re seen as cosmopolitans who have chosen to migrate simply because they wanted to.

But this logic assumes that immigrants have never had a choice. And that’s categorically false.

For one, the choice is always there—everyone decides to migrate. So, the argument that an ‘expat’ is different, or “better” because they made the choice to move is invalid. The choice a corporate lawyer makes to move to Hong Kong to further his/her career is no different from the one an uneducated parent makes to immigrate to America to work as a janitor, in order to support his or her kids.

The only difference between the examples above is their level of education, skill, and ultimately the type of job. But their reason for migrating is unequivocally the same. At the end of the day, the lawyer and the janitor are both labour migrants—just one with a better paying gig than the other.

The real difference between an expat and a migrant lies in public perception and nothing further. We created this category of migrants to differentiate between people based on their wealth and social class. The existence of the term ‘expat’ in itself validates its classism—and if not its existence, then surely its current use.

The term expat brings to mind a vision of these ‘citizens of the world’ who are capable of living anywhere and everywhere, intermingling with local cultures on a global scale. But anyone who’s come close to these migrant communities can tell you that the reality is quite different.

They tend not to champion diversity. They hang on to their homogenous environments, living in their international bubbles, housed in gated communities, with their children attending expensive international schools—each action separating them further and further from the local culture.

In any other context, this blatant lack of integration would be shunned.

But that’s where race plays a big role. It’s the reason why white Europeans or Americans are rarely labelled immigrants. They’re mostly seen as expats, particularly when migrating from the developed nations to developing ones. Their identity is mostly fixed, whereas a non-white person’s categorization will vary depending on the context they move into and their social class.

Take Dubai for example. A city built on immigrants, where most people are typically issued long-term visas solely for work or familial purposes, so it’s safe to assume that everyone is either a labour migrant or there to join a spouse or parent who is .

However, instead of classifying everyone as such, there’s a huge divide between communities. One being the self-proclaimed expats (usually white, western labour migrants and upper-class, wealthy Arabs or Asians) and the other being the ‘migrant workers’ or ‘labourers’, who largely hail from South-Asian origins.

The latter community, just like non-white non-western migrants all over the world, are viewed as inferior due to their social class and race—and because they’re heavily concentrated in poorer neighbourhoods like Deira where they’ve created their own sub-culture and commercial system, they continuously get told off for their lack of integration.

The community of expats on the other hand, despite creating a very similar bubble for themselves, are seen as superior. So can we all just agree that either everyone is an immigrant or everyone is an expat? Because currently, ‘expats’ are essentially just un-assimilated migrants that don’t get blamed for their lack of integration.

So, no, you’re not an expat, you’re an un-assimilated migrant who is either white, wealthy, or both.

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