By Nicola Nightingale
Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
I was a little rattled by a Facebook comment on my column about the rising education costs faced by expat families in Hong Kong. In fact, it was more a command than a comment: immigrant was the correct word, not expat; correct it.
The implication was that I had committed an appalling faux pas, that I was tainted, at the very least, with some species of snobbery. I ducked and ran.
However, since the comment was picked up and quoted by Elsa Court in her thought-provoking piece on the social and racial distinction between the terms “expat” and “immigrant”, perhaps it is time I faced it.
Like Elsa, I am uneasy about the word “expat”. In certain contexts, it reeks of privilege. There is a touch of pith-helmeted colonialism about it, maybe because this short version of expatriate is frightfully — stretch the vowels — British.
As for “immigrant”, perhaps we should mourn the loss of its innocence since fear-mongering political groups started misusing it. I was tempted to add that the meaning of many words migrates, but that is nonsense. Words gain in stature or, if the political and social climate is poisonous, gather prejudices like the accretions under a sick dog’s tail.
It is impossible to rehabilitate either word, but there is always the option of retreating to the comfort of dictionary definitions. I did so, and fell into a deep hole of my own making. According to the Oxford English Dictionary — a grey-haired print version — “expatriate” describes someone who is “living abroad, especially for a long period”, while an “immigrant” is someone who immigrates and becomes a “permanent resident of a country” other than their “native land”.
Now, here comes the pitfall and no doubt my critic would have pointed it out. The fact is, many of the parents I was talking about in the column, and indeed most long-stay foreign residents in Hong Kong (me included), have lived in the city for the seven years necessary to acquire a permanent resident identity card. Ergo, they are, or in the case of some, were immigrants.
I was going to argue that immigrants were likely to seek the assurance of full citizenship, since they had chosen to move to a place that offered perhaps safety or opportunity and would want all the rights their new home could confer.
Expats, meanwhile — in Hong Kong at least — were unlikely to do so. It is a lengthy process for non-Chinese people, starting with an application for Chinese nationality and, if that is approved, the provision of evidence that you have given up your existing nationality.
I was also going to say that, in any case, given that there is no dual citizenship here, many expats like to keep their original passports. That is because, much as they love it, they do not want Hong Kong to be the only place they can call home.
But, prompted by the dictionary, it dawned on me that I was guilty of the sort of arrogant assumption that might be made by, well, arrogant expats. Just because you are an immigrant and live in a place that has granted you permanent residency rights, it does not mean you, inevitably, will want to become a citizen.
So, a mea culpa moment, and one that reminded me of another time when I was not in tune with the situation. It happened at the annual July 1 pro-democracy march last year. Next to a small group calling, rather bizarrely, for reunification with the UK, there was a man waving a version of the British colonial flag and carrying a placard that urged locals to: “Renew BN (O) passport now. Your last escape!” Presumably from a Hong Kong that is seeing increasing interference from mainland China, but it was not wholly clear.
It seemed a pointless message at the time, since the British National (Overseas) passport, which was issued up to but not beyond the handover to China on July 1 1997, does not confer the right to live or work in the UK. But anyone who has one, even if it has expired, can renew it at any time. It provides consular protection outside Hong Kong and allows holders to stay in the UK for six months. So, on reflection, it was not pointless and I was wrong — again.
As for “immigrant” and “expat”, given my capacity to jump to the wrong conclusions, perhaps I should have said I used “expat” because I was bowing to my betters at the Financial Times, who have chosen the title of this series, “Expat identities”.
Photographs: What the Fox Studio; Steve Mann; Alamy Stock Photo; Tsui Hiu Yue