My academic and professional background is in Linguistics (the objective study of language). I’m really interested in how language and identity are tied together, and I think it’s pretty clear that part of my own personal identity, currently, is being an expat. I’ve used that word, expat, as a word that has an easy and unproblematic definition. I’ve even played with it by calling ourselves “Tex-pats” (since we lived/will live in Texas). I have never considered that there might be a second meaning hidden within it. Someone in my social network shared the following article on Facebook recently and I’ve been thinking about it a lot: Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? The author argues the point that White/Europeans get to claim expat status, while other racial/ethnic groups have to claim immigrant status. I’m not sure I completely agree, at least as far as my experience in KL, but I do think there’s some merit to the overall claim. It does raise the question, What exactly is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?
A quick Google and check of various expat sites shows that, among the expat groups listed in KL, not all of them are White/European, but most are. (Disclaimer: There are some statistical sampling issues here as there could very well be groups listed in other places that I am just not aware of and/or didn’t show up on the first page of Google hits.)
The listing on expat.com for several cities in Malaysia includes some non-European nations, but it’s undeniably primarily White/European. This is the most diverse group, as well as the biggest:
- Great Britain
- Africa (yes, I’m aware this isn’t a country. But the group is the “African Ladies Group” so that’s what I’m going with.)
- Australia & New Zealand (in one group)
- Scandinavia (again, not a country, but that’s what is listed in the group name.)
- As well as a Welsh group and an Irish group
Internations includes many of the same national groups as Expat.com, though not as extensive a list. It’s also much more heavily weighted to European/Western nations:
- Great Britain
Finally, Meetup.com includes an Indian expat group by name, but doesn’t specifically include any other expat groups. There are plenty of other special interest groups, just none that have “expat” in the title.
The inclusion of Indian expat groups on both Internations and Meetup.com is interesting to me because KL has a large Indian population. Indians, along with Chinese and Malay, are one of the three primary ethnic groups of KL. I think this probably relates to what any expat seeks when joining an expat group: finding people who are in my shoes, more or less. The local Indian community will obviously have a different experience living in KL than someone who is here from Mumbai or Delhi for a year or two.
For me, I think “expat” refers to people who go somewhere for work for a relatively short time while “immigrant” implies something more permanent. For us, it’s a year. For others we have met, it’s 3-5 years. Most of us have intentions of going back home, regardless of where home is, at some point in time. Though I have met people who consider themselves expats who live in Southeast Asia more or less permanently, so I feel conflicted about my definition. And I know people who have moved to (or will soon move to) Southeast Asia for retirement and would likely consider themselves expats. But the “short term” requirement is really what comes to my mind first.
Privilege is certainly a large part of it. Among the other expats we have met at the hotel, the thing we have in common is working for big, multi-national corporations (or our spouses do). I clearly don’t know everyone’s salaries, but I can guess that no one here is working for minimum wage. We all have the ability to pack up our lives back home (where ever that is) and move over seas for some time. I would say we all share a certain amount of privilege in our home countries because of that ability. (We definitely share a certain amount of privilege here in KL…more than a “certain” amount to be honest.) In KL, I think this shared privilege is probably a more important distinction to “expat vs. immigrant” than a race or ethnic distinction.
For me, this article raised a lot of interesting questions to consider. Certainly some food for thought!