Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Expat musings

What is an expat? And, am I one? I did after all, get nominated for a "best expat blog" award. These thoughts came to me this weekend as I found myself in a workshop attended by some members of Bucharest’s “expat community” and some Romanians – mostly, like me, from outside the capital. I didn’t exactly feel a part of either group, but felt I had more in common with the latter. And on this evidence I’m glad that I don’t have an expat community so I don’t get to listen to whining complaints all day about how much Bucharest/Romania sucks.

This is not to say that I haven’t been in such communities before (though I have tended to distance myself from the “I hate this country” brigade), and I understand the bond that people have when they’ve uprooted themselves and come to live in a foreign country, had to deal with the same bureaucratic quirks, looked for apartments etc. It’s natural that these communities are formed and start feeding off each others’ irritation with the fact that Romania is different from wherever they’ve come. But it does look odd, at best, from the outside (as I felt I was on Sunday).

So, what is an expat? In its simplest definition it is “A person living in a foreign country”, which definitely makes me one. But in itself that definition doesn’t really sum up the way the word is used. Indian immigrants living in the UK, for example, are never referred to as expats. By the same token, Israel has managed in its own inimitable way to create a bunch of expats out of people who have lived in the same place (East Jerusalem) all their lives and have just ended up being victims of a de facto annexation (it’s true, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are regarded as being from the West Bank and only have resident alien status in the place they were born – even if they have lived in the same house all their lives.)

So, if this definition doesn’t work, what does? The Wikipedia entry, has it that there is a difference between an expat and an immigrant, that “immigrants (for the most part) commit themselves to becoming a part of their country of residence, whereas expatriates are usually only temporarily placed in the host country and most of the time plan on returning to their home country” Now I have no plans of returning to my home country. I’ve been out of it since 1988, and see no reason to go and live there now. But likewise, I’m not intending to take up Romanian citizenship any time soon either. It’s perfectly possible that I will live the rest of my days in Transylvania, but it’s also possible that we will move on and live somewhere else. So, I’m not entirely sure if I see my place in that definition.

In the way I’ve heard it used, it tends to refer to someone from a wealthy country living (however temporarily) in a less wealthy one. When I lived in the US*, the word expat didn’t really come up. In the Federated States of Micronesia, or in Thailand it was clear that I was one. Here in Romania I guess I am one, although absent a “community” of expats it feels a lot different. It’s almost as if to be an expat you have to hunt in packs. Would I have been more likely to have gained Expat status in the US if I’d lived in Florida or Southern California, where there are loads of Brits, rather than small town Vermont?
(*Note cunning reference back to Wikipedia article)

To me, also, it has a slightly negative connotation, conjuring up, as it does, the people who sit around the pool at the British Club, Abu Dhabi, complaining about their maids, or the anglo population of the Costa Del Sol, eating fish and chips and watching Sky News . Immigrant doesn’t have the same negative connotation (except for extreme right wing Daily Mail readers, to whom immigrant is code for all the racist drivel they want to unload but can’t due to the terrible restrictions of “political correctness”)

But there have always been gradations of meaning to describe migrants. The people who used to be refugees are now called “Asylum Seekers” at least in the British press. This cunningly distracts attention away from the situation they are fleeing and puts the emphasis on the country in which they are seeking refuge. With the additional benefit to the anti-immigration brigade of including the word “asylum” which conjures up subconscious thoughts of mental patients. And then of course there is “emigré” a term which seems only ever to refer to Russians, but which apparently means “One who has left a native country, especially for political reasons” according to the dictionary. Which makes me an emigré since I first left the UK to get away from Thatcher (and, obviously, the weather). Then there is “sojourner” which is someone living somewhere temporarily. And of course, diaspora, which until recently I’d only heard in reference to Jews, but then saw something about the Romanian diaspora not so long ago. Does this make me part of the British diaspora?

Personally, I think I’m going to self-define as an emigrant. Romania is my tenth country of residence, and I think it’s more relevant that I left my home country than exactly where it is I have settled, and for how long. All, I can really say is that I’m glad I’m not an expat, or, more accurately, I’m glad I’m not the expat I once was.

4 comments:

Soj said...

I haven't met any British expats in Romania but I cannot stand the Americans who live here. I avoid them whenever possible and never associate with them.

Excellent article!

Dezso said...

Congratulations for the nomination anyway - also as a Southern European you have done a lot better! At least you know there are real life people - beside spiders - crawling through your musings :)...
Also, you gave me a hard time to define my blog. Hmmm...

alec said...

awesome... i'm an "immigrant"... i've been looking for a word that didn't resonate idiocy like "expat" does... thanks for the tip...

-alec

Romerican said...

I, for one, love being here in Romania.

Sure, there's a few quirks I'll mention now and then, but on the whole I am very much enjoying the opportunity to embrace this culture. It's a wonderful place to be, particularly at this point in its history. Romania is just awesome!

Bucuresti, on the other hand, does suck. Badly. And I hope the folks living there eventually do something about it.

I'll stick with expat for now since I don't imagine myself as having made sacrifices to get here (my connotation of immigrant) so much as I pro-actively left another place behind (my connotation of expat).

Nice discussion!