On the semantics of Migration

I am skeptical of using dictionary definitions as a measure of what a word actually means when in use, dictionaries are written by people and the people who write dictionaries have the power and authority to dictate what a word’s “official” definition is. What the dictionary says is not a justification for using and not using a word.

The Oxford dictionary defines “immigrant” as “A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country”. The same dictionary defines “expatriate” (expat for short) as “A person who lives outside their native country”. Building on dictionary definitions, we can see that in theory, all immigrants are expats, and the only difference between an expat and an immigrant is the permanence of this move. The problem with dictionary definitions is that they appear neutral – it is rare to see moral judgment on the pages of a dictionary, but the words themselves are loaded with the connotations we surround them with, and the supposed neutrality of a dictionary definition allows us to deny this – it doesn’t mean anything bad after all! The fact that expat and immigrant are only distinguished by the condition of permanence in one (expats are also very frequently permanently installed in their new country, although it is not a prerequisite) does not change the fact that once we graduate, some of us will be immigrants and some of us will be expats. Not all expats are immigrants, but all (at least) first-generation immigrants are expats. Then why do we reserve this title for a certain group of people, and call the rest “immigrants”, even when the distinction of permanence is not there to be made?

When we look into the daily use of these words, we can see the divide between the two is due to the origin of the immigrant in question – people from the West are rarely immigrants, especially if they live in a non-Western European or North American country. But if they moved to a different country and have no plans in the foreseeable future to move somewhere else, why are they not considered immigrants in casual conversation? What determines whether a person is an immigrant or an expat? Here we can see that our use does not reflect the dictionary definition, so returning to Oxford will not help us much.
If we are being honest with ourselves, it is plain to see that we call people who experience hardships – discrimination, financial hardships, and culture shocks and so on – immigrants, and the rich, those who are exempt from otherness are expats. A person will not receive the treatment as an immigrant in two different countries in the world: this difference is shaped by their socioeconomic class, local perception of their origin, their race and racialized aspects of their life: religion, culture, and language. Our conception of an immigrant experience, an immigrant narrative reflects this – the story of a family moving abroad would not be considered an immigrant story without economic hardships, integration problems, alienation, discrimination and so on. The issue also differs in permanence: children and even further descendants of immigrants still carry or can claim the label of immigrant, while children of expats are not considered foreign by the virtue of having been born there. These are few of the differences in our understanding and treatment of these words – this both exists in our minds while we try to keep a pretense of egalitarianism, but it has also been occasionally institutionalized in countries with overwhelming immigrant populations like Gulf States, with a very clear cut divide between rich and mostly Western expats and migrant workers, who almost provide coercive slave labor. Both race and socioeconomic position plays into this.

But then, if all foreigners are not created equal – or if foreignness by itself does not equate discrimination and persecution, what is xenophobia? Let’s return to Oxford one last time – “xenophobia” is defined as “Dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries” here, but it is plain to see that dislike or prejudice (and its systematic repercussions) are not aimed at “people from other countries” because of this sole fact. I can give examples – people from European countries and people from North Africa are both “from other countries”, but this does not mean both will face xenophobia in France. Similarly, my experiences relating to my citizenship were vastly different when I was a tourist in Europe and a tourist in Jordan for a month this summer. So the determinant is neither the person, nor their origin, nor the country where the events are taking place. It is a reflection of the origin in the person, and the perception of this in the context of the host country.

To expand on the word “xenophobia” – we can even claim that the presence of this word and its widespread application distracts from the real problem. It is possible to pretend that people are not treated according to their origin and their class – it is because they are foreigners, so the problem lies in the fact of foreignness and not a systematic problem within the host society. Foreignness does not mean anything if it is not combined with a set of formed opinions about one’s origin – adjectives like uncivilized, barbaric, dirty, misconceptions about their cultural practices, values, and so on. Two people from Sweden and Turkey are both foreigners in, let’s say, Germany but their foreignness is not worth the same. What is faced by the Turkish “immigrant” is not xenophobia, but a permutation of racism in its manifestations – racism, Orientalism, Islamophobia, and the Swedish “expat” is free of these connotations. Writing this off as xenophobia and putting the weight on the fact of foreignness allows us to overlook the nuances of the situation and the faults in how we view different forms of foreign.

The other aspect I want to discuss is class – when we examine two people from the same cultural background – the same kind of foreignness, let’s say, we can still see a wide range of experiences. A person who is financially very comfortable, a person able to get a well paying and respectable job, a person who has access to good neighborhoods and schools, a person whose English is passable as proper does not have the same experience as an unskilled worker forcibly integrated into the local working class as a second class within it. The varieties and nuances in this aspect are infinite – there are countless cases where it may boil down to the individual’s conditions, but simply: what is clear that we do not call rich people immigrants and we do not call poor people expats. If expats lose their relative wealth and experience financial hardships, or downwards mobility across generations, they will not suddenly become immigrants. If immigrants experience upwards mobility, they will most probably be immigrants who made it despite everything – despite being immigrants. This is again, an aspect of the permanence of the immigrant label when compared to the expat one.

But then, is there no xenophobia at all? Do people really not have a knee-jerk reaction to outsiders, national rivalries between similar states, jokes and stereotypes prevalent in all communities about every community with a different identity? I obviously cannot claim these do not exist – but again, just as not all foreigners are created equal, not all prejudice is created equal as well. People and communities will have ideas and prejudices about others, this is almost essential to defining one’s own identity – the process of putting it in opposition to others’ identities, but when two communities are “equal” institutionally – let’s say, two neighboring countries in Europe with similar socioeconomic conditions, the perception of the citizens of a country will not be a defining to the experience of a person who moved there from across the border.

Furthermore, the existence of these institutionally insignificant reactions can be used to justify actual harmful mechanisms – people are just trying to preserve their culture, their identity, their way of life, once again the problem lies in the foreignness and not in the systems making a problem out of it. Usually, the values being protected are invented and reproduced for the sake of a cultural identity to facilitate certain aspects of our modern life, and there is no real imminent threat to whatever exists of them.

Considering my skepticism regarding official definitions, I am not suggesting we get rid of these words altogether. In fact, losing the differentiation between these two distinct categories of moving people will have a similar effect as the xenophobia problem and prevent us from accurately expressing the problem at hand, effectively ruling out an attempt at a solution as you cannot combat something you cannot identify. On the more individual level, it may rob people of describing their experience as it is – there is a reason “immigrant experience” brings certain things to mind while “expat experience” reminds me (me personally, no offense!) of irritating travel and lifestyle blogs written with half-baked information and a patronizing tone, listen to my crazy life experiences among these quirky locals! We should instead stop pretending that words mean what dictionaries claim they mean and recognize the value judgments we make with our choice of words, and stop placing these labels (and building from it, people carrying them) into hierarchies. We should not put our focus on the fact of foreignness but try to see why it matters so much in our world – the questions “for whom does it matter?” can be a good point to begin.

For thinking-deconstructing-digesting-reconstructing music, I am recommending the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, consisting of Syrians living in Europe. Until next time!

Alaz Ada

Alaz is from Istanbul, Turkey and is in the dual degree program with University of British Columbia. She enjoys writing essays especially on the social sciences but also writes poetry and prose; and sometimes also reads, paints and cooks as a hobby.

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