Expat or immigrant: being an inbetweener

DSC_2078-2The idea of home has been a reoccurring theme of my writing for almost 10 years. What makes a home? what does it mean to go home? What if home is a troubling idea? What does it mean to be an immigrant in contrast with being an expat? is being an expat a privileged status?

Ziya Meral posed this question a few years ago:

For those who leave their country of origin and venture far; do we ever return ‘home’? ; http://t.co/aKRWpPRp

I don’t remember who responded, but one of the answers stuck with me:

“For those of us who chose to open up to the world; home is no longer the land of origin. For us, home is anywhere, where we meet other fellow in-betweeners.”

I am an in-betweener. After over 7 years out of the last 9 living away from my homeland, I understand what it means never to be able to go home. Home is but a memory, the place you left has changed and when I return it is and will not be the same, which is why I will “return to it again, and know it for the very first time.”

I understand the feeling of anxious patriotism, of displacement that T.S. Eliot knew so well. I know too that I will never be able to look at a situation in any country without an awareness of having been an outsider, an immigrant, the xeno. So too, I am now unable not to see cultural nuance, and an awareness that my way of seeing the world is very culturally conditioned and that even when you’re moving between cultures which have the same base language – english – this does not mean you will be understood.

The culture shock of moving from Australia to the US surprised me. The shock I felt while living in France for a summer did not. We mustn’t underestimate our differences even as we seek to understand – words, phrases, concepts, are not always the same. The ways of describing churches, denominations, especially when using shorthand is often sloppy ignoring the geographical specificity of some of them. Universities and educational expectations are similar but different. The way of asking for assistance, for making your requests, concerns or appreciation known differs subtly even between english speaking cultures.

I’ve learned to accept and appreciate those tensions. It’s made me more careful, more patient, more willing to acknowledge and even expect differences in the way I understand what’s happening in comparison to how it is intended. So too, I’ve learned to recognize that being me sometimes allows me to speak where others cannot for cultural expectations; there is already an expectation of how i will speak and behave as an Australian, and as a woman, so the offence caused is lessened, and often taken in a light spirit.  If they already think you are brash, then sometimes it’s okay to live up to that expectation. Sometimes the outsider can speak truth in a situation that those within know but cannot speak or cannot find the words for.

Living in New Mexico is different again from Texas and Scotland. Most often, I miss mountains, and water, and hills. This of course, is partly the result of the area of New Mexico where we reside. There are still times where I struggle to be understood and to understand. I have learned to assume responsibilities for these confusions and 0misunderstandings.

So to return to two of the questions I initially posed: What does it mean to be an immigrant in contrast with being an expat? is being an expat a privileged status?

I am both an immigrant and an expat but not without tension. The act of immigrating seems to involve leaving your home behind permanently. But, even if home is a fraught concept and I speak abstractly about not being able to go home, the reality is that I can return to Australia whenever I choose. I am not in exile. Immigrating is a choice for me, in a way that it is not for many.

So, who calls themselves an expat? Expat is an abbreviated form of expatriate. I thought it helpful to explore some of its meanings and to clarify that I do not mean it in the sense of being exiled, or in renouncing allegiance. I took mean it in the sense of taking up residence (for an undefined period of time) in another land.

v.tr.

1. To send into exile: They were expatriated because of their political beliefs.
2. To remove (oneself) from residence in one’s native land.

v.intr.

1. To give up residence in one’s homeland.
2. To renounce allegiance to one’s homeland.

n. (-ĭt, -āt′)

1. One who has taken up residence in a foreign country.
2. One who has renounced one’s native land.

adj.(-ĭt, -āt′)

Residing in a foreign country; expatriated:
It seems to have become a term of privilege – where only those who make a choice tend to use it, or have it used about them. It appears however, that this denotation of privilege is a recent phenomenon. It was for hundreds of years, in English, used to indicate temporary or permanent immigration (or renunciation) that was either by choice or forced (in the sense we often now use the term exile). All of that to explain why I will still use both terms, immigrant and expat to indicate what I feel to be dual status as an immigrant by marriage and choice and an expat. I will also continue to reaffirm that I am not in exile, like many around the world who have fled from their homes and may never be able to return.

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2 thoughts on “Expat or immigrant: being an inbetweener

  • Ashlee Cowles

    I really related to this post, Anna. And I love that you mentioned T.S. Eliot! He’s one of my favorite writers and I think part of that is because, like you said, he was an “in-betweener.” One of my all time favorite quotes (and the tag-line for my blog) is from an Eliot poem: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” Best wishes from an Army “brat” and fellow nomad.

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