Expat or Immigrant?

A couple days ago I read an article about the difference between an expat and an immigrant and it really got me thinking. I wrote a post three years ago about the immigrant experience versus the expat experience, inspired by my visit to the Titanic Museum in Belfast but that was more about the immigrant experience in the time of my grandparents – before the advent of the the internet and all its connectivity.

As mentioned in my previous post and in the online article, an expatriate is defined as “a person who lives outside their native country” while an immigrant is defined as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” Not much of a difference. But even historically, expats have had positive qualities attributed to them while immigrants were labeled as uneducated, undesirable and worse.

And now today, in the age of Brexit and that human cantaloupe running for President of the United States, it feels like more than ever, “immigrant” is a four-letter word. I, as an expat, have been told I am brave, that I should be commended for pursuing my dreams, that any country would be lucky to have me. While immigrants from places like Mexico, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Poland are accused of being criminals and terrorists, and assumed to be uneducated, lazy and looking for a handout.

Why am I considered different? I guess because I’m a white, highly educated, professional who comes from an upper middle class family in a country not considered “undesirable”.

Let’s break that down, shall we?

  • I’m white – so the eff what? Skin color is not an indicator of character. I know lots of caucasians who are disgusting excuses for human beings, hiding behind the privilege that their skin pigment affords them.
  • Highly educated – yes, I am. I’m very lucky. And you know what? A large percentage of these immigrants everyone is so scared of are more educated than I am. Doctors, engineers, professors and the like are among those fleeing the war in Syria. And those from countries like Afghanistan, where education is harder to come by? Something tells me they that the education they get in their new country is not going to be wasted, but appreciated.
  • Professional – yeah, whatever. I make cartoons, big deal.
  • Upper Middle Class – here I am, lucky again that I wasn’t born into poverty. Which means that my parents could afford to get me a good education, which made me the professional I am today. Domino effect, anyone?
  • My Country – ugh. That sorry excuse for an Oompa Loompa is making it really hard to be proud of where I come from. America is losing its stance in the world, and honestly, I’m not entirely sure this is still a positive.

I’m not quite certain what my point is with all of this and I apologize if this post is less coherent than usual. I guess I’m just so troubled by the images I see of the suffering of these immigrants, not to mention the words and actions of those filled with nothing but hate and racism toward fellow human beings, that I needed to say something.

I feel the need to acknowledge that I am living the expat experience, not the immigrant experience and I am aware of the privilege, deserved or otherwise, that it gives me.

Brave Old World…

I haven’t posted anything in a couple weeks but for very good reasons – houseguests and weekend get-aways to Belfast and Copenhagen. The highlight of my visit to Belfast was seeing the new Titanic Experience – a world class museum that alone made the trip worth it.

As I walked through the various exhibits, I started thinking about the people of that time and before it who made the choice to leave their homeland and try to make a life elsewhere, often an ocean away. Those people would be defined as immigrants (a person who leaves one country in order to settle permanently in another) but technically, they were also expats (one who takes up residency in a foreign country).

Unfortunately, the word “immigrant” has taken on an almost negative connotation in the conversations of today, while the term “expat” seems to have a bit more romance and even glamour attached to it.  But the basic difference, by virtue of their definitions, is just permanence. An immigrant relocates with permanent intent, while expats… well, I can attest to the fact that a lot of us don’t like to look too far into the future and think about where we might end up.

It’s the permanence of the immigrant experience that really got me thinking.  Even later than the time of the Titanic, when a person or a family made the decision to move from somewhere like Europe to somewhere like America, they made it knowing they were leaving behind everything and everyone they knew.  There was a very good chance they would never see their homeland or the people they were leaving behind again.  And yes, the decision to leave was often in pursuit of a better life, of opportunities that would be impossible where they were, but still, the gravity of such a permanent decision is not lost on me and perhaps that is because, as an expat, I have the slightest of slight ideas of what that might have felt like.

But, not really.

Not really because I chose to move to Europe not because my life in America was so bad, but because I simply wanted to experience living here.  Not really because I had an amazing job I was fairly certain I would love waiting for me in Dublin.  Not really because I have wonderful inventions like email and Skype that make it easy to talk to friends and family back home, everyday if I want.  And not really because air travel makes it possible for me to visit my “homeland” at least twice a year.

On many, many occasions when I have told people how I moved to Dublin without ever having visited before and without knowing anybody, they call me brave.  I know they don’t mean brave like a soldier or a firefighter, but still, brave.  And I get it.  Not everyone could do what I did – it took a certain amount of guts.

But when I was newly in Dublin and freaking out to my sister (on a daily basis) that maybe I’d made a mistake and what the hell was I going to do, she broke it down for me: “Shannon, worse case scenario, you come home.”  She was right.  And the day she said that to me was the day I really started to open myself up to this new life I’d chosen – because I knew I had a home to return to if this ended up not being the right choice for me.

So, gutsy, ballsy, maybe even a bit crazy – yes, I was definitely those things.  But brave? Most definitely not.  Especially not compared to those who did it before me and who’s worse case scenario was decidedly less reassuring.