LONDON–Over the years I have found it problematic to call myself an expat. And I really got to thinking about it after a recent article in the Guardian newspaper brought up the question of who is an expat and who is an immigrant. But the story didn’t answer for me the question I’m constantly struggling with: “Does the word expat define me?” I don’t think so.
According to Wikipedia—that bastion of instant knowledge—the word expatriate (which comes from the Latin “ex,” meaning “out of,” and “patria,” meaning “country or fatherland”) is defined as a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s citizenship. So, according to a strict interpretation of this definition I’m not an expat because though I hold American citizenship by birth, I also became a naturalized British citizen in 2008.
Expat, Wikipedia goes on to say, has commonly come to refer these days to professionals who are sent abroad by their companies. Now, this is more like how I view an expat: Someone who is sent overseas to live and work for a specific amount of time, and oftentimes ends up in an expat bubble, existing in a community of other expats and not really getting to know the locals. There is even something of a negative connotation when the word is defined in this manner.
But then what am I? I came to London as a student 17 years ago, then lived in Warsaw as a freelance journalist and then moved back to London for a full-time job (NOT on an expat package but as a local hire). Many of my friends in London are similar to me; though not British, they have lived here for long enough—and are involved in their local communities— that to say they are expats almost comes across as slightly offensive to them, implying that they aren’t part of the fabric of this multicultural city but, instead, just passing through.
I am as comfortable in Warsaw as I am in Washington (where I lived before I moved overseas) but I feel much more at home in London than in Los Angeles. I have a thick Michigan accent (unlike Madonna and Gillian Anderson, two Michigan girls who developed “London” accents while living here) so people—especially taxicab drivers—assume I am “fresh off the boat.” Yet despite my accent, I can talk more knowledgeably about European politics and football than I can about much of what is happening in the U.S. these days.
I asked a few friends who are in the same scenario how they define themselves. “I do not feel that I am an expat but by no means am I Colombian either,” said Richard McColl, a Briton who has lived in Bogota since 2007 and recently co-edited “Was Gabo an Irishman?,” a book of essays inspired by the writings of Gabriel García Márquez. “You won’t find me at expat events and pining to attend ceremonies at the British Embassy. I am here in Colombia doing my thing and trying to help improve the country through economic investment and my journalism.”
Jorn Middelborg, originally from Oslo, lived from 1988 to 1990 in Tanzania working for a Norwegian nongovernmental organization and was then sent in 1994 by Unesco to Bangkok. After six years working in education, Jorn decided to open up a contemporary art gallery in Bangkok.
“During my stay in Thailand I have undergone a transformation from starting out as a (short-term) expat to becoming an immigrant and then a permanent resident and I suppose the final destination would be citizen, but I don’t plan to change my nationality,” he wrote in an email. “When did the transition from expat to immigrant to resident happen? It is difficult to say since it is gradual, and it is more a state of mind than something physical.”
Another friend, Monica Ellena, an Italian from Saluzzo who has done stints in Pristina, London and now Tbilisi, may sum it up best: “Global citizen with strong roots is how I see myself—I’m Italian, Italian as it can get, but after 15 years abroad I could not return to Italy. I tried, and failed. I just cannot relate any longer with the day-to-day bureaucracy, petty politics, nepotism. I found my way, both professionally and personally, in a different space, which is ‘international,’ somewhere in between.”
Maybe, then, what we could all be are inpats—international patriates.