By Elsa Court
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.
When my first column in this series appeared in July, a friend of mine suggested I use this platform to talk about the value judgment we make when we use the word “expat” instead of “immigrant”. She was responding to the title of this series of columns, “Expat identities”, a point that has since been picked up on by FT readers on social media. In September, for example, a Facebook comment on Nicola Nightingale’s piece on the discontinuation of subsidised education for British expats said: “You mean British immigrants? Please correct.”
My friend Kit, having come to the UK from Japan as a young child, has had no problem calling herself both British and an immigrant to the UK. “I feel English,” she tells me, “but I’m aware that, depending on who I’m speaking to, I may not always be perceived as English.” The “Where are you from? No, but where are you really from?” scenario.
“Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” read the title of a Guardian article in 2015, denouncing the implicit double standard made by the semantic distinction between a British expat in Seoul and an Asian immigrant to Britain. The racially loaded hierarchy contained in this go-to vocabulary of human migration certainly, in English anyway, places white westerners above all other groups.
“Expatriate” means someone who has moved to live outside their home country, whereas “immigrant” is someone who has come from a foreign country to stay. The former term takes the perspective of the migrant, the latter that of the host country.
The distinction between the two terms seems to have been felt even more acutely in the past couple of years. The figure of the economic migrant dominated the immigration-heavy debate surrounding the Leave campaign before the UK’s referendum in 2016 on leaving the EU. Workers coming from other EU countries to the UK, while not necessarily being identified as racially “other”, came to represent an economic threat that further tainted the word immigrant with xenophobia.
Kit suggests the current political mood in the UK capitalises on a global class system. An immigrant to the UK is often coming from a country that has a perceived lower global economic status. “For many countries of the ‘global south’ [developing countries], where a majority of people aren’t white, [citizens] qualify as immigrants or migrants when they come to work in western countries,” she says.
It makes sense for language to refer to the great emotional and cultural change that a person’s identity undergoes when moving countries. The language should represent the nature of the choice the person is making and/or the necessity that they are facing. Currently, the terms available to us fail to render this distinction plainly and honestly, because the language is based on historic power structures and has been subverted further by the current political agenda and nationalistic insecurity.
Last month, Kimberly Springer, an African-American writer and academic, described herself as a black American expat in the Atlantic when writing about her experiences teaching American studies at a London university in the 2000s. “I wanted to experience being just black — not a black American — abroad,” she wrote. But in fact a black academic from the United States might not be perceived in the same way as an unskilled black worker from a country that is less than a global superpower.
While Japan is an economically successful country, people from other east Asian nations may be perceived as immigrants rather than expats. “People who are particularly bigoted may talk about immigrants in a negative way but not necessarily include me in this group, based on some of our shared privileges,” Kit tells me. “Accent is a key thing.”
Neither of us particularly likes the word “expat”. Referring to oneself as an expat means adopting as part of one’s identity certain privileges (class, education) without necessarily questioning the legitimacy of the social capital imparted from them. Equally, adopting the word “immigrant” does not enable us to recognise the distinction between people who have moved country out of choice and those who have done so out of necessity, whether it be economic, political or otherwise. How does one show awareness of that distinction without using language that is basically racist?
For many who have chosen to relocate, being an expat means being part of an insular community, reinforcing national cultural traits outside their homeland.
As a student of English literature at university, I spent a while researching the work and life of Vladimir Nabokov, who is often referred to as an émigré. Living in exile after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he began his career as a writer among Russian émigré circles in Paris and Berlin. He was technically a refugee, having lost the great wealth of his family in the revolution, but he retained, socially, the prestige of an aristocratic background and education, complete with a degree from Cambridge university.
The word “émigré”, when applied to Nabokov, has connotations of old world melancholy, lost privilege, as well as the impossibility of returning home. But it does not have the contempt attached to the economic migrant, that bone of contention in the Brexit debate.
There are hundreds of thousands of French people living in London, many of whom have come to the city with a clear professional goal — to work in finance, for example. I wonder what sort of cultural traits they reinforce while living among other French expats in the UK capital. I doubt they hold émigré salons in celebration of French culture, but imagine if they did?
Previous stories in this series:
“I am not Chinese”
“I’m officially almost British”
“Cantonese should be defended”
“Deserving to become a citizen”
“When church meets state”
“I don’t suddenly feel British”
“Goodbye to subsidised education”
“To be an American in Paris”
“There’s a snake under my desk!”
Photographs: Getty Images; Jay Jackson, Nick Lowndes, University of Michigan; Alamy Stock Photo