Expatriate or Immigrant?

My mother tongue is not English, so I sometimes get confused by what some words mean even with the help of a dictionary.  Two words that have confused me for a while are ‘expatriate’ and ‘immigrant’.

For me, in everyday language, an immigrant is someone who leaves her home country to live in another country, regardless of the reason.  Also in everyday language for me, an expatriate is a person who also moves to another country, but does so for work.

However, when I hear people speaking I get that the main difference between these two words is that:

  • An expatriate is a westerner living in another country, regardless of whether or not that person has professional skills, is retired, etc.
  • An immigrant – a person from the ‘third world’, e.g. African, country living in the western world regardless of whether that person has a professional job, is contributing to the new country, etc.

So, why the difference?  Why is the African called an immigrant but a white one under the same circumstances is called an expatriate?  Years ago, someone with professional skills who came to work in Zambia was called an expat regardless of race.  An immigrant was any foreigner who came to live in Zambia regardless of the qualifications they had and whether they were working or not. I don’t know if the meanings of the words have now changed.

What I do not like about the word immigrant is its seemingly negative connotation.  On one hand, it seems as if one is an immigrant because she is running away from the poverty/war in her home country to the seemingly easier life and comforts of the west.  That may be true, but there are also countless blacks who go to the west because they have been hired for their highly professional skills by reputable international companies or organizations.

On the other hand, I now do not care much for the word ‘expat’ either.  This is because you hear of a western spouse who was not working back in his country, moves to a new country, still unemployed with his wife who works, but he is now called an expat.  What changed? He is still not working, so why is he getting this fancy new title?  Why isn’t his wife the only one called an expatriate because she is utilizing her skills?  Why can’t the unemployed husband just be called an immigrant since he is not using his skills, if any?

Without going into semantics, I think it is time we started giving similar people similar titles.  Call both the African and westerner immigrants because they are now both living foreign countries.

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15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. anotherday2paradise
    May 02, 2015 @ 18:38:27

    I’ve always considered myself and my family as immigrants to South Africa, and now to the USA. We actually have an interview with an immigration officer in Florida this coming Tuesday. I always thought that an expat was someone who was only temporarily living in a different country.

    Reply

  2. jedib
    May 02, 2015 @ 14:22:21

    Hear, hear!

    Reply

  3. masgautsen
    May 02, 2015 @ 11:13:22

    I’ve always thought an imigrant was anyone that moved to a different country for whatever reason. An expat, has to me, always been someone who is being asked to move for work for a fixed period of time (often a year or two). Regardles of where they come from or are going to.

    Reply

    • Zambian Lady
      May 04, 2015 @ 13:08:57

      My understanding was like yours as well, except that of late I have been hearing of some westerners getting married to foreigners and moving to the new country. The only difference is the newly married people who move are called expats even though they are not working. I find it interesting.

      Reply

  4. Nomzi Kumalo
    May 02, 2015 @ 11:00:37

    Food for thought. Super. 🙂

    Reply

  5. Gallivanta
    May 02, 2015 @ 09:21:30

    You raise interesting questions, and even though English is my mother tongue I am not sure I understand these words in today’s context. When I was young, the term expatriate meant a person who left his/her home country to work, or live, for a fixed time in another country. An expatriate always intended to return to his home country, and usually did. An immigrant left his home country to settle permanently in another country, with no intention of returning to live permanently in his country of birth. The terms didn’t have a colour bias although in colonial times, most expatriates were ‘white’.

    Reply

  6. Girl Gone Expat
    May 02, 2015 @ 02:38:54

    I have always thought if an expat as someone who temporary works in another country and an immigrant as someone who has moved to another country permanently.

    Reply

  7. Grannymar
    May 01, 2015 @ 19:20:04

    I grew up in the Republic of Ireland, but for the past thirty seven years I have lived in Northern Ireland (UK), only 125 miles from where I was born. I am an IMMIGRANT! Or as the locals call me: A blow in!

    Reply

  8. George
    May 01, 2015 @ 18:20:21

    I agree….I don’t understand the difference.

    Reply

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