This article has been bubbling in the back of my head for months now, and I’m hoping that I can write it in a coherent way. I want to talk about how we use the words expat and migrant, and why it matters, both in the travel industry and beyond.
Expat and Migrant: the words themselves
Let’s start with the meaning, or denotation, of the words expat and migrant. If you google ‘expat definition’ the dictionary definition that comes up is this: “a person who lives outside their native country.” The google definition of migrant is “a person who moves from one place to another, especially to find work or better living conditions.” An in fact, ‘expat’ is listed as a synonym of migrant below the definition. I’d love to stop the article right here and leave it at that, but it’s not the actual meaning of these words that I have a problem with, it’s how we use these words in practice.
I asked people on my Instagram to give me their first thoughts on the two words, and the answers were super interesting. In general, migrants were seen as more permanent workers that may come from less developed (Global South) countries and have less earning potential. On the other hand, expats were perceived as more temporary workers, with higher earning potential and coming from more developed (Global North) countries. There was also feedback that the terms are pretty racialised, with expats being applied to white people, and POCs being more easily referred to as immigrants or migrants.
Part of the reason I became interested in this topic, was becoming a migrant myself. When Chris and I moved to Korea to become English teachers, we did so for a variety of reasons. The primary reason though, I would say, was one of financial stability. I was working two jobs, and still struggling to make ends meet. I had no pension, no savings, and I only had healthcare because Chris’s work had a healthcare scheme that I could benefit from. In my mind, we are economic migrants, moving away from our home country to increase our earning potential and our quality of life. And yet, as soon as we moved, people actually said to us, “you’re expats now, welcome to the club.”
I have never been called a migrant, or even an immigrant, but I quite often take part in expat groups on Facebook, or discuss expat issues with fellow travellers. These conversations often centre around foreigner focused events, parties, tourism opportunities and access to English speaking services. #Expat on Instagram has 1 million posts, and it’s a photo book of dreamy beaches, sunglasses, selfies, and happy family portraits. I see pets, yoga, lunch, work, homes, and everything that a snapshot of a happy life should be. The expat hashtag is documenting peoples’ lives all over the world, and it looks like a positive, if mostly white space.
And then I looked up #migrant. There are over 51 000 posts. There are unaccompanied asylum seeking children crying, there are news headlines, there are overwhelming amounts of imagery from the migrant caravan and Trump’s orange visage. This space is not about a well rounded representation of life in a different country, this space is only the endless journey, the fear, and the pain. And in the middle of everything, there is an image from Donald Trump Jr.
“Do you know why you can enjoy a day at the zoo?
Because walls work.”
And it’s not just Instagram, we’re shaping the way google views these words too. Below are two screenshots from google image searches of the words expat and migrant, and, well, you can guess which one goes with which word. I thought today that maybe it was just a bad time to be writing this article, with all the fear-mongering emanating from the aptly named White House. But then I thought back to a conversation I had years ago and I realized that there is never a better time, and that the media coverage around that migrant caravan just holds up a mirror to what we’ve always thought all along.
Us and Them
I worked with refugee children in Johannesburg as part of my Masters thesis in Drama Therapy back in South Africa, and the experience was life changing for me. I became very passionate about the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa, and it became a sticking point in some of my friendships at the time.
One ‘discussion’ in particular saw a white South African man telling me how criminal migrants were destroying South Africa, and putting pressure on the scarce resources the country has. This man later worked in Africa as an ‘expat’ earning well above the average wage for the countries he was in, and benefiting greatly from jet setting in and out of developing countries. His economic migrancy is apparently really great for everyone.
Another South African friend of mine opened up to me about the troubling behavior she’s seen on expat groups here in Korea. Recently, Jeju island has had an increased number of Yemeni asylum seekers arrive, much to the anger of nationalists and general people without a heart. The Korean government has made some effort to assist the asylum seekers (although the response is not nearly enough), which made one white American TEFL teacher angry enough to complain about how migrants should just get back on their feet and get their sh*t together. The irony of being a migrant worker complaining about other migrant workers was completely lost on him.
And when I think about the TEFL industry (which you should do too before you join it), I see so much of this hypocrisy. I know teachers that have made a habit of going to work hungover, or worse, still drunk. I know teachers who complain about how they are treated in Korea, but refuse to learn the language, engage with coworkers, or assimilate even a little into Korean culture.
I also know that the great majority of TEFL teachers in Asia get jobs purely because they are native English speakers, even though they have little to no teaching experience and no qualifications other than an online TEFL course, the quality of which varies greatly from company to company. Heck, I’m not even a qualified teacher beyond my TEFL certificate, yet here I am, expat in Korea. Super qualified and skilled migrant worker, I am not.
And this is why the expat/migrant debate is so important. We are creating language that divides migrants into desirables and undesirables. We give privileged white kids the language to spew racist hate at other migrants because they see themselves in a different category altogether. We say that expats are highly skilled and professional, and migrants are criminals and drug addicts. Listen to your politicians and hear which foreigners are welcomed and which are not even allowed on the plane.
The debate could even be expanded beyond the expat and migrant terms to extend to the myriad of words that other mostly white travellers use to describe themselves. The newest trend is to become ‘digital nomads’, people that travel to beautiful and exciting places, while working from their laptops and phones. Likewise, you can find scores on Instagram influencers calling themselves ‘gypsies’, meaning free-spirited people without a fixed home.
And yet these words erase Indigenous people’s experiences. ‘Gypsy’ is a racial slur against Romani people, and using the term only reinforces the racist stereotypes of Romani people and makes us complicit in their dehumanization. Romani people are still victims of hate crimes, and receive inadequate access to healthcare, housing, education, and justice. NOW has an informative article on how using ‘gypsy’ erases Romani women.
Although I can’t find any information on whether using the word ‘nomad’ is appropriate for being location independent, it doesn’t always sit well with me. So many Indigenous people are nomadic, and struggle to access basic rights in their homelands. And here we are, running around with our laptops and claiming to be nomads instead of what we really are, migrant workers.
The divide is only getting worse. When bloggers write articles, we research keywords that are things that people search for on google and other search engines. These keywords mean that we can rank on search engines, so that when people search for a term like ‘teaching in Korea’ then hopefully our blog comes up on the front page and gets traffic. Traffic from search engines means that we get more money from advertising, more notice from brands we want to work with, and more influence in the industry.
Here is what I found when I searched for expats and migrants in my keyword search tool. Look at the suggestions for popular searches involving these two terms and tell me how I can make a difference. If I want to write about tips for foreign people living in Korea, I’m going to probably use the term ‘expat tips’, because expats get to have full lives and fun in a new country, while migrant tips are all about accessing basic services and legal representation so that they can get a fighting chance.
This article, like my travelling while white post, will be incredibly hard to advertise, because there simply isn’t a Pinterest board for travel that isn’t super positive and dreamy. I don’t have a keyword, there aren’t searches on this topic, we don’t want to talk about it. So hey, if you feel like sharing this article, that would really help, because otherwise it simply won’t be seen.
If walls work, then expats are allowed to visit the zoos, while migrants are the animals waiting for the chance to kill and hurt and destroy. And if words matter, then being an expat means never having to associate with people that look or sound significantly different to me, because I am not a migrant, and my freedom of movement is never questioned. Perhaps the real difference between migrants and expats is this: when expats complain, it’s the host country and culture that’s at fault. When migrants complain they are arrested, deported, or worse.
I’m not sure why we value people who can choose to live in different places over those who are seen to have no choice. I’m pretty sure that if there was any real justice in the world, us expats would be paying through our teeth to jet set around, while people who are forced to migrate would be given the only things they are asking for: safety, opportunity, and basic human rights.
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