I've written posts before on the Immigrant versus Migrant versus Expatriate debate (here and here). It's not a secret that I think these terms are used in some pretty nefarious, not to mention ignorant, ways.
Over the weekend I was part of a debate over these terms. Nothing like an alcohol-fueled discussion in the shade of Osaka castle under the cherry blossoms. Tell me how you really feel. And they did.
In one corner was an individual living here in Japan (not an American) who agreed that the use of the word "expatriate" was racist. I'm white, he/she said, and that means that I'm an "expat." Not his/her fault, that's just the way it is, he/she said.
In another corner was an individual from Singapore who strongly disagreed. He/she (also a Caucasian anglophone) said that race had nothing to do with it. In Singapore, people from Asia, Africa and other places are considered to be "expats." It's not race that makes the difference between a migrant and an expatriate. It's money, status, profession, skills.
My contribution to this was something I've been hearing a lot in Japan. "Expat" is a derogatory term for someone who doesn't learn the local language and lives in a expatriate ghetto complete with segregated international schools for the kids. These are people who are not integrated and they may be richer but they are lower than those who live in the "real" Japan.
Well, well, well. The intersections here between race, class and status are fascinating. In France I would add history to the mix: "expatriate" brings up a vision of the great creatives like Hemingway who lived in Paris in the 20th century. The more I look at it, I see how the context in which the word "expatriate" is used is everything. It's not a neutral term. In one context it can be used against you. In another it's an expression of a certain status. In yet another it's just a word everyone uses without batting an eye and they are genuinely confused if you point out the connotations in other contexts..
Furthermore, I think that time changes things. The world moves on. Read Pauline Leonard for a look at how things have changed for the "expats" in Hong Kong. As Asian countries became rich, as their citizens began to travel widely and work as professionals in North America and Europe, the relative position of the Western "expats" in societies changed. The days of Charisma Man in Japan are not entirely over, but it's not what it was in the giddy days of the Japanese economic boom when Western foreigners were really exotic. I have friends here who have a lot of nostalgia for that era. Those were good times.
So I'm learning to stop and think and listen to the locals before I use the word "expatriate." Engage brain before opening mouth. Come to think of it, that's not a bad idea anywhere, anytime, any place.