Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Expats, Exbrats and Guests

I've come across some very good blogs in the past two weeks.  Allow me to introduce you to:

The American Expat in Chiang Mai - Greg who hails from California talks about life in a Thai town.  Some very cool pictures. - Ken in Mexico has just started this site which is a superb round-up of articles and information from and about American expats all over the world.  Ken used to live in France.

Born Again Brazilian - Megan from New York who is now living in Sao Paulo.  She has a book out which I am reading and will review.  She uses a term I'd never heard before:  Exbrat.  Definition is here.

The Displaced Nation - This is a site for "international creatives" and is a group effort with bloggers from the US and the UK.

Last month Megan (Born Again Brazilian) gave an interview to Displaced Nation about how she went from being a migrant (albeit one with strong ties to her host country) who was relatively uninterested in local politics, to someone who wants to get involved in the politics of the country where she lives and raises a family.  She describes her awakening this way:
Being displaced often makes it easy to be removed from your own surroundings.
Being displaced also makes it easy to be in a bit of denial.
But that Thursday night in mid-June, as my husband and I sat in a bar near our apartment and watched as the streets filled with protesters, my perspective on my adopted country changed. 
Not every expat/migrant has that sort of epiphany.  Andy Martin of Displaced Nation ran an article after her interview called As an expat, is it my place to join another country's political protest? giving the reason that he too changed his mind and got involved.  His reasoning was a bit different but the end result was the same.  

All this is very controversial.  It's not an easy decision to make and I've struggled with it myself.  If you read the comments after Martin's article the answers to his question range from "No, you're a guest and you shouldn't meddle" to "Of course!  After all you live here and pay taxes."

I had a couple of visceral reactions to the articles and the comments.  At some point in one's migration journey using the word "guest" to describe your status (as one person did) is ridiculous.   Someone who is still living in someone's house as a "guest" after 5 or 10 years or so is really pushing the limits of the term.  Most of us would consider such a person to be an annoyance and an embarrassment, if not a freeloader.  Remember Ben Franklin's words? "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days."


A few more nails in the coffin.  A guest generally does not need a bank account or a taxpayer identification number.  Guests do not pay rent or own their own home or apartment.  Guests do not generally marry into the family.  The last time I used "guest" to describe myself many years ago at a dinner party in Paris, they (my French friends) laughed at me.   Here I was in my French clothes, among French friends and family, eating French food, drinking French wine, conversing entirely in French and talking about my French job, French family and French neighbors and then calling myself a "guest." They were right to mock me.

The other word that was used, expat, is one I'm ambivalent about.  People from developed nations who move to to other countries usually refer to themselves as "expatriates."  People from developing nations are called "immigrants."  What is the difference here other than the supposed "rank" of the country of origin?  This makes me very uncomfortable because it feels like those of us from developed nations are trying to elevate ourselves and put distance between us and those who move from poorer countries in search (many claim) of economic gain.  Is that justified?  I don't think so.  When I came to France I went through exactly the same procedure as any other migrant and integration was a long hard road:
Finding a job was difficult since my French was poor and my credentials frequently misinterpreted. Obtaining my residency card meant going to a clinic that resembled a factory processing cattle for a medical exam - the sheer humiliation of being part of a human assembly line waiting to be x-rayed and being asked very personal questions by the immigration officials. And then there was the sense that my entire world had turned upside down and I could no longer do anything right. Life seemed to be an endless series of encounters where I was corrected or admonished for using the wrong words, not doing the proper thing or simply not understanding fast enough for the people around me.
Today I have a carte de resident (residency permit) like all the other legal migrants here.  Because I'm not a citizen, there are restrictions on what I can do here just like any other migrant from Algeria or China or Cameroon.  And like many others, I have no plans to return to my country of origin any time soon and aspire to citizenship in my host country.

Perhaps one could argue that I came back in 1989 with more human capital than people from developing nation but I would counter that many of my friends from such places have far better educational credentials than me and got better jobs.  Yes, many migrants here in France are low-income but that group includes American migrants.  I even know migrants from developed countries in Paris who are darn near destitute:  homeless, unemployed, on disability, or working low-paying, low-status jobs.  "Down and out in Paris and London" happens, folks.

My epiphany was realizing what I was and owning the term "immigrant."  It's what I am and there's no hiding it unless I want to practice self-deception for another 20 years.  If "immigrant/emigrant" is too hard to swallow, then how about the more neutral "migrant"?

For me, it's about solidarity.  For one group of migrants to attempt to claim a higher status and to bow out of the local political arena could be considered not only delusional but an act of aggression against other migrants and the citizens of the host country itself.  It is the narcissism of difference.  While it is very comfortable to proclaim love and admiration for the host country while retaining the right to criticize it and comment on it as an outsider, this position essentially absolves one from any responsibility for changing it or caring for it too deeply.

I am not arguing here for deep political commitment on the part of migrants.  It's a touchy subject and the tolerance for such activity varies with the host country.  I myself am unsure when it is appropriate here in France.  However, at the very least I think migrants should be supportive of one another regardless of their socioeconomic status and country of origin and at least show some involvement in the making of policy that effects everyone's well-being.

A last word for those who still wish to be "guests".  Perhaps they should ask themselves why the citizens and residents of any country would be willing to let them stay without some sort of commitment to the greater good.  And that means, mes amis, getting your hands dirty by stacking the dishes, polishing the windows, mowing the lawn and cleaning the rust off the front gate from time to time just like everyone else.


Ellen said...

I'm with you. For me: a guest is a visitor, here for a very short time with no stake here; an expat is someone who is here temporarily, on assignment; an exile is someone who left/was driven out of his home country and cannot return and may take on a new nationality; an immigrant is someone who came here willingly and has no intention, in his current frame of mind, of going back, and who may end up with a new nationality. I remember when Amanda K.von-Koppenfels was interviewing me, trying to work out how I defined myself.
I didn't have to go through the immigrant hoops you've had to. I had French nationality as a wedding present, for merely marrying a Frenchman. So, I am French, and feel fully French until someone tells me how adorable my accent is after all this time. But I have been happy to be American, too, and to pass this on to my kids, who are, all four of them, happy to be Americans. But now, we wonder.

Janet said...

Very interesting thoughts. Ellen is lucky(?), she married before the EU countries changed their laws to prevent undesirable immigrants for obtaining citizenship through sham marriages.
For over 40 years, I have been hoping to be able to have dual citizenship. I have never thought of myself as an immigrant or expat. I define myself as an American and a New Yorker. Now, I wonder who I really am.

Tim said...

The problem is many like Eric Walravens seem to believe that once an American always an American. I say to you Eric Walravens I can't speak French but Screw You and Screw You to all of your types.

Christophe said...

@Ellen, you said "I had French nationality as a wedding present, for merely marrying a Frenchman."

Rules must have changed. My wife actually has to apply, and take a test similar to the nationality test you have to take when you apply for US citizenship, mainly based on language and not history.
Also, I think you have to do it within a certain time from the date of the marriage. For some reason, and to my dismay, my wife refuses to speak French, and would definitely not pass that test.
I am not pushing, as these days, dual citizenship can actually be more a burden than a gift.
I wonder if France is ever going to shift to citizenship based taxation.

From my ambassy's web site:
- L’obtention de l’attestation « TCF pour l’accès à la nationalité française » (test de niveau B1), permettra de s’assurer que le postulant a un niveau suffisant nécessaire à la gestion de la vie quotidienne et est capable de prendre part à une conversation et de s’exprimer oralement en continu.
Le test consiste en :
- 30 questions de compréhension orale (épreuve de 30 minutes), salle d’examen collective
- 6 questions d’expression orale (épreuve de 40 minutes), entretien individuel avec un examinateur.
En cas d’échec au test, le requérant peut se représenter à l’examen après un délai de deux mois et peut se présenter autant de fois qu’il sera nécessaire. L’attestation a une validité de deux ans.

Regarding the article, and the different definitions of immigrants, I think most of the time, people switch from one category to another. They're first expats, and may switch to immigrant's status.

As for French Nationality, I recently read a rule that I did not know:

1. L’attribution de la nationalité française

1.2 – Par la double naissance en France (droit du sol)

Est français l’enfant né en France lorsque l’un de ses parents au moins y est lui-même né.

No need for the parent to actually be French - just to have been born there, even if the child is not born on French soil. That's pretty inclusive. It's fortunate that as of now, the French government is not going after their citizen like the USG is. Hopefully, that won't change.

Take care, and have a great weekend. Looking forward to my upcoming trip to the French alps!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tim, He hasn't answered my comment yet. I am really curious as to how he will respond. The same way he answered Ellen which was "The end justifies the means"?

Christophe said...

@Tim, Victoria.
I answered him too. Maybe I was a little harsh, after re-reading it. But he should get the point.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Christophe, I thought your response was OUTSTANDING. May I quote it for the Flophouse?

I particularly liked this turn of phrase:

"C'est envoyer ces gens a la guillotine financiere."

Yes and that seems very hard for them to understand.

lymphomajourney said...

Identity is so subjective but some take it to ridiculous lengths. Most of us have complex mix of identities; but some terms like 'guests' are plain ridiculous or have negative or hypocritical associations (e.g., guest worker, did the author know the meaning and history of displaced persons?).

Boaz said...

Hi Victoria,
Just wanted to say that I've been really appreciating your blog. I'm from California, originally, and I've been living in Grenoble, France for 3 1/2 years, and struggling with some of the questions that come up regularly on your blog. I came for work, and am making my best effort at establishing a life in France. Its not at all easy; in addition to challenges related to language and bureaucracy, there are some of these intangibles related to questions about identity and civic responsibility that your raise.
I think of France as my home for now, but maintain regular visits to the US. Its certainly not paradise, but there are definitely some benefits. I feel like I've stepped into a category that is not easilly categorizable, so I appreciate the topics and discussions you raise here. Thanks!

Tim said...

There are some new FATCA related videos from some event in Paris last week now on youtube. I can't understand anything that is being said but I thought you might like to take a look at them. The discussion are on public policy ground not just bankers(I don't think there were any bankers).

Tim said...

Please do watch the videos. I found all of the speakers are French politicans. One at least is PS member but who is critical of Hollande on many issues(Like he wants to give Edward Snowden asylum in France). There might be something to work with here if we can actually figure how much these people understand FATCA.

Christophe said...

@Victoria, you said "Yes and that seems very hard for them to understand."

I am not sure they even try. It's like they don't even care. The human aspect rarely made it in the conversations.

@Tim, Victoria, I volunteer for translating these videos.
Would you rather just have a summary of what each speaker said, or a full transcript (which would take me longer, of course).

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Andrew, I hadn't thought of that but you're right - "guest" in some contexts has a terrible connotation.

@Boaz, Great to meet you and thank you reading the Flophouse. Good to hear that what you find here resonates with you. I'd love to hear your story if you wouldn't mind sharing it.

@Christophe, That would be wonderful! Ellen Lebelle has already done some work identifying the actors and a little fo the translation so why don't we put you and Ellen together? Can I give her your email?

Christophe said...


"Ellen Lebelle has already done some work identifying the actors and a little fo the translation so why don't we put you and Ellen together? Can I give her your email?"


Boaz said...

Hi again Victoria, Thanks for the welcome!

I never had any idea I would live in France. I am in a very particular field of physics, studying electrons in a synchrotron light source. After graduate school, I finished a postdoc position in Long Island, New York, and looked all over the US and the world for my next position. I found a good option in Grenoble, where there is a synchrotron not far from the city. After finishing a 3 year postdoc position, I got a position as a scientist for an additional 5 years. I’m six months into this new job and trying hard to make my life here work, with the thought that I could live here the rest of my life if it works for me. I’m single, and so dealing with a lot of the challenges of adjustment on my own (though I’ve certainly found many friendly people willing to help me at work and in other contexts.)

I never studied French before (Spanish in high school), and so it has been quite a challenge to learn. I’ve achieved a basic level where I can communicate decently with anyone patient enough to put in the effort with me (not everyone certainly!) The more I speak French, the more opportunities I have. But the split between those who refuse to become more involved with what is going on here is hard to deal with. I have a number of friends in this group, but they seem to really stick in their bubble. Those technical folks who are here only for a short term are especially prone to this. The fact that good French courses are hard to find, especially outside of work hours certainly doesn’t help the situation in Grenoble.

Another challenge has been my driver’s license. I am from California, but as mentioned lived in New York for the last three years in the US. Unfortunately, neither California nor New York has the agreement with France for trading in my license, so I have to go through the entire driving program. I joined a driving school and have been putting in many hours studying “la code de la route”. I hope to be able to finish, but its pretty challenging. Certainly it forces me to improve my French driving vocabulary! I go slowly and systematically, and try not to get discouraged by the whole thing.

Regarding taxes, I have some help at work for my French taxes, and all in all, that hasn’t been too bad. I’ve been unclear on my requirements for filing in the US, and until recently have been ignoring it. During a recent trip to New York (where I renewed my New York driver’s license), I did find a tax accountant who helped me file my past forms. My original plan was to go into the IRS building and ask them for advice and as to my status. I did this! I was pretty shocked to find that they told me that international taxes were beyond their scope, and they couldn’t answer my questions! I hope my past forms were filed in a reasonable way, and in the coming years, I suppose I will learn more about this issue. I don’t make so much money, and I’d really like to be on strong legal footing in both countries. But it seems challenging on both sides. I’ve been following your tax discussions here. I don’t like the feeling that if I don’t spend a lot of money hiring tax consultants that I’m unable to do it properly.

On the positive side, there are beautiful mountains to explore around Grenoble. Also, looking back into my family history, I find some relatives who have lived in France at various times, and in general, my family comes from Eastern Europe, so being in Europe gives me the opportunity to look into my roots more, and understand what is happening today in the world beyond the US. I’m glad to continue learning from French culture and trying to find my place, though certainly some days I doubt how possible this is.

Thanks again, and I’ll keep on reading!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Boaz, You landed in a good place - Grenoble is a nice city. The mentality you describe is a perfect example of the difference between migrants and expats. The former comes with some sort of integration in mind because they have no definite plans to leave. Expats know their time is limited and so they don't necessarily see the need to make the investment.

Trust me, you will fit in. It just takes time. Sounds like you are doing all the right things to make it happen.

You should talk to my daughter. She will be doing a physics program in Quebec starting in September.

Good luck and don't hesitate for one moment to let us know how you're doing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Victoria,

I have been living in the Munich area for 25 years (married to a German National)and am now a Freelance consultant specializing in CRM. Working in Germany is no problem, but now I have opportunities in several EU countries and have the challenge as to sorting out work permits. As you have traveled and worked in many countries, have you any experience with this situation? It seems that the EU is still made up of several independent countries with the only option being the EU Blue Card to support working in different EU countries, but even that seems to be limited. I would greatly appreciate your feedback. Sorry that it doesn't fit this post directly but I didn't see another Blog that was more relevant.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Leif, What I think you are looking for (and perhaps you already have it) is EU Long-Term Resident Status. This is available to third-country nationals who have lived 5 years in an EU country. Here is a link to the legislation and a brief synopsis of what it can do for you.

Among the rights this confers is this

"A long-term resident may exercise the right of residence, for a period exceeding three months, in an EU country other than the one which granted him/her the status, subject to compliance with certain conditions, including:

exercise of an economic activity in an employed or self-employed capacity;
pursuit of studies or vocational training;
other purposes."

Hope that helps.


(And I really should write a post about it :-)