Why are we called Expats?



Lately I started to struggle with this notion of being called an expat. I came to this country as an NGO volunteer several years ago and now its home. Cambodia is home and I can see myself here for a while. Am I an expat? an immigrant? an inpat? an migrant worker? I found some articles but they tend to lean towards privilege vs  reality. Our simple put – “rich vs poor” I wonder what we would call a Cambodian who moved to Canada?

Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.


A more current interpretation of the term “expat” has more to do with privilege. Expats are free to roam between countries and cultures, privileges not afforded to those considered immigrants or migrant workers.


“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.”


If you think about it, this slight difference is reflected in the narratives attached to each. Successful American immigrants such as Indian Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo or Ukranian Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp, are heralded for “making it,” but they never fully shed the “immigrant” label or a mention of where they came from. With an Anglophone like, say, Rupert Murdoch of Australia or Tina Brown of Britain, their countries of provenance seem less relevant. In those cases it seems intention doesn’t as much matter as arriving from a former colonial superpower.

Or take an Arab Gulf country like the United Arab Emirates, where there are astaggering 7.8 million non-citizens out of a total population of 9.2 million. The vast majority of those foreigners are migrant workers building the shopping malls and luxury condos that make the country appealing for the small slice of affluent “expats.”






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