Expat vs immigrant: Let's talk about labels and definitions

Delve into the distinctions between being labeled an expat or an immigrant, questioning societal definitions and exploring personal identity in the context of living abroad.

Maayan Szmelcman Yerushalmy

Friday, April 05, 2024

Smoozitive Magazine/Just Living/Expat vs immigrant: Let's talk about labels and definitions

If you are currently living abroad, you are probably labeled as one of those, expat or immigrant.
Have you ever wondered what's the difference between the two? Are you an expat or an immigrant? And honestly, does it really matter?

Personally, I don't think defining yourself as one or the other is the main issue here, but let's first dive into definitions.

Simple definitions

Influenced by the AI revolution, we asked ChatGPT to give us simple definitions for the words expat and immigrant.

Expat meaning :

An expat, short for expatriate, is someone who lives temporarily in a country other than their own, often for work or study, with the intention of returning to their home country eventually.​

Immigrant meaning :

An immigrant is someone who moves permanently to a new country to live there, often seeking better opportunities, refuge, or to reunite with family members.

Just by looking at those simple definitions, we can see that the main difference between the two is the time frame, Temporary stay for expat, and permanent residence for immigrants.

Does the period one stays in a foreign country defines whether they are labeled as expats vs immigrants?
There's got to be more to it.

Where are we moving to?

In the definitions above, it is mentioned that expats live in a ‘country other than their own’, and immigrants move to a ‘new country’. This raises the question of what is a country of your own? Is it the country you were born in? Is it the country you moved to and relate to its values? Is it the country where your family was born and raised?

Maybe this is the time to mention that I am a 4th generation expat.
Or maybe a 4th generation immigrant. Maybe we are a nomad family?
Anyway, the one question I really don't like to be asked is “where are you from?”.
What is for me ‘a country of my own’?

Is it the country I was born in, but don't really relate to its current values?

Is it the country my family came from? In this case, it's 3 different countries.
Or is it the country I chose to live in, as it aligns with my values, where I feel I can be my true self, where I know I can thrive and feel free to be me?

I believe that it's not the place we come from that defines us, not even the country we move to, but the intention we have, and the way we feel comfortable defining ourselves.​

Expatriate vs immigrant: Who gets to decide what you are?

The words we use and the meaning we give them can change our whole experience.
In our modern society, the term ‘immigrant’ has a negative connotation. Let's be honest for a moment, it usually refers to people arriving from developing countries to more developed countries in order to work and have a better future. A majority of those immigrants make huge sacrifices for the possibilities of a better life. Some of them don't really have a choice, they just can't stay in their own country.

On the other hand, the term ‘expat’ often refers to people in high job positions, diplomats and people working in big companies and financially secure.

This is a much more positive connotation, right?

Those are the meanings our society gives to those words, but it doesn't have to be true for you.
You get to call yourself an immigrant if you left the country you were born in, and decided to settle in a new one, creating a life you enjoy living because it just suits you better. And the meaning you give to this word is that it’s a new opportunity for you, the beginning of a new exciting life, a positive adventure - that's what you’ll have.
Sadly, a lot of the people calling themselves immigrants (or being defined as such by others), give it the meaning of a life of struggle, of feeling as a foreigner forever, life of inferiority.

We should be the ones defining what we are. We should be the ones giving the meanings that serve us to the words we use.
Yes, society dictates words, norms, laws and behaviors regarding life in a new country.
But the meaning we give those things, how we see them, how we react to them - this is our decision.​

Your life abroad

Maybe the definitions are not that important. For what it's worth, you could call yourself an alien, a nomad, a stranger, a Mickey Mouse or a Frank Sinatra, it doesn't really matter.

What matters is how you feel about yourself when living abroad.

Whether you're an expat or an immigrant, or anything else, living abroad is an incredible journey filled with opportunities, experiences, laughter, love, and endless possibilities.

Maayan Szmelcman Yerushalmy
Founder of Smoozitive

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