Privilege and the Expatriate vs. Immigrant Status

I have been living outside my passport nation for quite some time now and the terms that are or were used to describe my status in my host country and other nations I’ve visited over the years have caused me to think about the reasons I’ve been welcomed or perceived differently in these nations. Also, while talking to people about their life overseas, I’ve come across terms used to define or describe them to be tied directly to the job or service they performed in their host country. I wanted to find out how they felt about the terms used to describe them. However, while doing so, I quickly discovered that there were facts that had to be honestly laid out in the open even though some facts conflicted directly with some of their perceptions or beliefs. This is why I want to take a peek and search for what might be the underlining reasons why this is so.

The word “supremacy” has taken on a damaging connotation in the minds of people all over the world because in some ways it relates to wealth, race and politics. Modern-day supremacy has asserted the meaning that certain people or groups have the right to possess powers or privileges simply because of their economic status, political affiliation, religion or race. The word “supremacy” as well as the word “privilege,” as they relate to expats living overseas, have become lexicons that carry a lot of baggage with them that needs to be carefully unpacked and investigated. The truth is, these terms assign an unbalanced status to those who are addressed by them. In some places, this usually implies that the “foreigner” in question is of a special or different “breed” of human. It appears that those foreigners who are classified in different ways are entitled to be given or denied privileges or treatment because of his or her perceived uniqueness or lack of.

It’s an undeniable fact that foreigners from certain “preferred nations” are given carte blanche in many situations. I am broadly using the term “preferred nations” to describe countries that are seen as financially, technologically or militarily advanced or powerful. Countries that are smaller or less financially or militarily powerful may look to these more powerful nations as protectors or models to base themselves on. Honestly, it's not unusual for powerful and influential nations to attract this kind of attention from smaller weaker nations and even the people of these nations.

Expatriate vs. Immigrant

A term that is commonly used to describe foreigners who are living long-term in a nation is called “expatriate” or “expat” for short. One simple generic definition used to describe an expat refers to any person regardless of skin color, religion or politics who is residing temporarily or long-term outside of his or her passport nation. Ok, sounds cool, simple and to the point. However, keep in mind that the word “expat” originally referred to a person who was expelled from his or her home nation.

There’s that other word that is related. The term is “immigrant” which is the simplest of them all because it refers to someone who is permanently legally living in a nation that he or she isn’t a native of. In my host country, Taiwan, most people would classify me as an expat but in reality I may not really be one. Now, let’s take a moment to again define the meaning of some terms. The word “immigrant” refers to someone who has arrived from overseas to live in another nation and an “emigrant” refers to someone who has left his or her passport nation to live abroad. Now, the root word “migrant” refers to someone who has moved from one place or country to another just to find work.

So, once again, the simple distinction is that an expat is just someone who resides temporarily or long-term outside of his or her passport nation. So an expat at some point plans to return to his or her passport nation and an immigrant is someone who plans to permanently legally live in a nation that he or she isn’t a native of. Got it? But is it the way foreigners are really defined?

Now, at this point there are a few related words that we can focus on (expatriate, immigrant, emigrant and migrant) but, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus on the words expatriate and immigrant because they are the two that states or defines a foreigners status in a host country the most.

Now that a few terms have been defined, how should foreigners be classified in a host country? What is the criteria that should be used to define the status of foreigners?

As a foreigner, who also happens to be a person of color, when I travel to different nations I find myself falling in and out of the “range” or "borderlines" of preferential treatment. This is because the terms “expat” and “immigrant” don't collectively apply to all foreigners from all nations at all times.

So, we now have two words that are related but today have very different connotations. When we look into a crowd and see people who aren’t passport holders of the nation they reside in, should we address them all as expats, immigrants or collectively something else?

Let’s take a moment to look at this from a broad historical angle because from this point of view it becomes very apparent how cultural supremacy plays a role in how foreigners from certain nations are addressed and treated.

Cultural Imperialism

Europeans used their military might to set their sights on forcefully and selectively colonizing the world. They most likely purposely disregarded the livelihoods of the original inhabitants of the lands they themselves were hoping to possess. Europeans used a mixture of hard and soft methods to gain footholds in the lands and over the people they were hoping to control. Hard invasion tactics relied heavily on military weaponry and soft invasion relied on making the people of the conquered nations economically and spiritually reliant (on them). Soft invasion tactics used formatted social controls and educational techniques to build reliance.

The next point can be hard for some people who are members of certain faiths or religions to hear. Along with the tactics mentioned earlier, religious doctrine was used to accelerate submission to the colonizer’s collective cause for the minds and hearts of the indigenous populations. It is easy to see how religious doctrine formatted in European nations were used to forcefully demote local belief systems of many nations in Africa and Asia. However, on the other hand, it cannot be denied that many indigenous populations benefited in some degree from the advanced healthcare and technical skills brought to them from European nations.

In a relatively short time, the indigenous population interpreted the powers their European colonizers possessed as being the principle means of up lifting themselves. Most of the original people of these nations made a conscious decision to adapt to their colonizers lifestyle, laws and religion to not only lesson their personal burdens, but also to create opportunities and improve the lives of their children and, in turn, future generations. As European financial institutions expanded their influence over the core of colonized nations, the indigenous populations began to view their colonizers as symbols of wealth and technological advancements.

Very quickly, and mainly as a result of social programming, people from European nations gained privileges over the indigenous population. This quickly developed into outright arrogance. Europeans perceptions of being superior and privileged later turned into openly displayed hatred of people who weren't like them as observed in the number of genocides that took place in not only colonized nations, but even in Europe itself.

Overtime, nations that were once colonized by Europeans began to fight back and later gained their independence but continued their relationships with their former colonizers. Partly because European financial institutions maintained a foothold in their former colonies, the mindset of being superior was still maintained in the minds of many Europeans and even in the subconscious mind's of the people of their former colonies.

This brings me back to the point that words or terms used to describe foreigners really do have underlining connotations. The undeniable fact is that the term “expat” in most nations has been reserved for white people, mostly from Western nations or “preferred nations," because the term “immigrant” is reserved for people, mostly of darker complexion, who may be originally from less advanced or influential nations. Foreigners classified as immigrants in many nations are placed on a lower social ladder and aren’t offered or have limited access to many local social services that are readily available to foreigners who are classified as expats. However, it’s also a fact that cultural superiority also has a negative role in classifying people from other nations.

It is obvious that these interpretations are laced with racism and classism. Classifying foreigners mainly on their ethnicity or cultural background just passes on the baton of racism and if we are to build better cross-cultural understandings this must be avoided.

Also, because I’ve observed that most foreigners I’ve come across who refer to themselves as expats don’t have the drive or maybe the need to objectively understand the culture they are living in. This could be because some foreigners have developed opinions about their host country that make it appear that their host country isn’t up to their personal standards or the standards of their home nation. The way some foreigners from “preferred nations" “speak about their home culture sounds very much like “cultural narcissism”. Another reason may be the simple fact that many foreigners I know, especially from the so-called “preferred nations," are constantly moving around to other nations because of their job or business which may cause them to feel that they have no reason to learn much about the nation they may be temporarily living in.

What is the end result of all this observation? I think that anyone that has to or has decided to live overseas for any reason must take the time to consciously understand their overseas status without adhering to thoughts that they are superior, privileged or inferior in anyway. I also think that national governments need to pay more attention to how they describe and or classify foreigners because the way they interpret a foreigner status also has an influence on how their local population view and welcome foreigners. Understanding the origins of the words used to describe a person’s overseas status along with the perception it may give is important. Many foreigners are lucky in some ways, but surely not superior or inferior. We are all members of one race…the human race.


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