X is for eXpatriate

me, yesterday

I am an expatriate: an American citizen, now living in the Netherlands. But I’m not entirely comfortable with the putting myself in that category: “expatriate.”

When I first heard the term, it was in high school, when I was taught about the movement of American writers to Paris in the period after the First World War: writers like Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller and Gertrude Stein – the “Lost Generation.” These writers were explicitly rejecting the US for its artistic limitations.

Nowadays, the term is used differently. It refers to people who live in a foreign country, usually temporarily, because their employer sends them there. They are unlike other foreigners – who might be called “immigrants” or “migrants” or “refugees” – in that they are well-off, well-paid, middle-class individuals or whole families, and their intention is only to stay for a few years. These expatriates generally don’t learn the local language, and don’t mix much in the local culture, since they’ll soon be leaving again anyway. Their children generally attend international schools, if any are available.

The problem for me is that neither of these definitions applies to me, or to many other people I know. Yes, we have chosen to move to another land, like the Parisian expatriate writers, but we are not necessarily rejecting our homeland. We’re usually not moving away from anything; we’re often moving to something: better weather, for example, or, as in my case, we’re moving for love. I live in the Netherlands because of my husband, who is Dutch.

We are often, but not always, relatively well-off and well-educated, like the modern definition of an expatriate, but we have not been told to move by an employer. Instead, we search for a job in our adopted country on our own terms. We learn the language and blend into the culture. We make local friends. Our children generally go to local schools and grow up bilingual: our language and the local language. Some grow up trilingual: a language from each parent and the local language as well.

And, most importantly, we intend to stay. Not as a rejection of our homeland, but because of whatever led us to move in the first place, often a spouse. We may take citizenship in our adopted country, or we may not, but we usually do not give up our birth citizenship.

So although I call myself an expatriate, I’m not comfortable with the term. I’m more assimilated and permanent than that, but don’t entirely reject my origin. I’m not a migrant, which implies moving from country to country. I am certainly an immigrant, but the image that word projects these days is a person who is poor and looking for a better economic future in a new country. I’m not a refugee: I didn’t have to leave my country of origin due to political or economic hardship.

I think we need a different word: one that applies to people like me who move to a new country by choice, independently. Émigré, perhaps?

Do you have any suggestions? Leave a comment below!


  • Sharon

    April 27, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    I think I need another term as well. I’m living in a foreign country, but that’s temporary because my husband is a student. We don’t intend to stay here permanently. We are not well-off, even though we are well educated (I’m a lawyer). We can’t work here either. Our kids don’t go to International schools and we mingle with the locals, even though we haven’t learnt the language. I don’t know how to refer to us because we don’t fit in with the expatriate community and yet we’re neither immigrants nor refugees. Most times, I just don’t bother.

  • Jessica

    April 28, 2013 at 12:56 am

    I agree that a different word is needed. I don’t know if I ever fell under the expat title, but I’ve been an admiring visitor. I love that you moved for love. 🙂

    Have fun with the last few letters of a-z. 🙂

  • Rinelle Grey

    April 28, 2013 at 9:24 am

    I hadn’t looking into the meaning of the word, but if asked, I would have said that it was someone who had moved to a new country, but still identified with the country of their birth.

    You can move countries for so many reasons, I hadn’t stopped to think about it before.

    Rinelle Grey

  • Charlie

    April 29, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    On a related note, I heard the word ‘Diaspora’ used regularly while in Ghana last spring, and then again (less frequently) in Ireland a couple weeks ago. Not something that typically comes up in conversation at home…

  • rachela

    May 1, 2013 at 4:34 am

    Sharon, Jessica, Rinelle and Charlie, thanks for responding! I’d still like a name for it, just so I don’t have to spend so much time explaining! And Charlie, that might describe it, i.e. “the American diaspora,” but that’s not a person, it’s more of a phenomenon. But it might be a good word for it if we converted it to a noun to describe a person: I am a diaspora. Hmm. Sounds funny…


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