Mawuna Koutonin's article in The Guardian was the perfect catalyst for me to re-examine my own feelings about those words and my own life trajectory. When I was a college student I had no intention of leaving Seattle. I assumed I would travel because that's something my family does. But I never anticipated packing up and moving to another country. Not in my wildest childhood dreams did I think that the words migrant or expatriate would ever apply to me. How did it happen? It was just one damn thing after another that led to one move and then another, and now here I am in Osaka, Japan.
Koutonin's words touched a nerve in me and thousands of other people. The words we use to describe ourselves are a signal to the world about how we interpret our experience and what kind of person we think we are. When someone uses a word we don't like to describe us, we get really bent out of shape. We have this horror of being misunderstood or misinterpreted - of having someone pin a label on us and make assumptions about our motives and who we are.
Putting aside the arguments over the precise meanings of expatriate, migrant and immigrant/emigrant, another way to approach it is for each of us to explain what we are trying to say when we apply these words to ourselves. This is not about right or wrong - this is Allow Me to Show You What I Mean by Telling a Story. So let me tell you the story of how I've used those words (which I realize has never been consistent). And then I'd like to hear yours.
When I first left my home country, I was very young and scared. I had just finished university in my hometown and the only trips out of the US I had ever made were to British Columbia, Canada. The ideas that I had about France and the French were informed by the language classes I took, the one or two French citizens I'd met, and the many books I read. The word I might have used at the time was adventurer - here I was going off to this exciting, exotic place to live with high (and as it turned out) unrealistic expectations. I would not have used the word expatriate to describe myself.
Expatriate, in my mind, meant famous people like Hemingway, and this young woman from Seattle could not even pretend to be in that class of individual. I was simply off to have a fine adventure and I didn't want to think too much about what that meant at the time and would mean to me over years.
Migrant or immigrant would not have worked either because that implied to me an intention to stay in that country and make it my home. Even after I landed in Paris, I simply was not ready to make a long-term commitment.to a place I knew so little about. I was young and in love, the family was more than welcoming and I thought the country was beautiful. Good enough.
The differences between my vision of France and the reality became apparent quite quickly and the awareness of just how hard it was going to be to make a life there was almost overwhelming. I would describe my feelings at the time as alternating between anxious and angry. 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 intrusive personal questions by the immigration officials. I may not have called myself an immigrant but I was treated as one and that was that.
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. In this sea of uncertainty I clung to what I was, an American abroad, with all the desperation of the survivor of a shipwreck clinging to a lifeboat.
Things got better. I learned to revel in being different and I finally started expressing some of my repressed anger. If the French weren't going to allow me to integrate (and that was the impression I had) and I had no chance of becoming one of them, then I was going to give them exactly what they seemed to want. The word I used at the time with a sort of perverse pleasure was Exotic Beast and even guest: this was a statement of superiority and an in-your-face expression of difference.
That didn't last because who wants to live forever separate from the people around her? It takes a lot of energy to keep saying to everyone, "I'm not like you." Feelings aren't facts and I admitted to myself that maybe I misinterpreted the native citizen's motives. The resentment washed away and in its place was a strong attachment to the country and its people. I started thinking about becoming a citizen and eventually made my way down to the prefecture to ask about it. It was at that time that I began to call myself an immigrant or migrant. This was me saying that I was ready to make the commitment I avoided so many years ago.
It was also an expression of solidarity - an admission that I am no different from all the other people from Algeria or China or Canada that I meet in the prefecture I am not special, my experience is not unique. Talking with them as we wait for the wheels of the French bureaucracy to spin, I've learned that we have a lot in common.
Yes, that was a revelation to me and who the hell did I think I was to assume otherwise? And it is this experience that made Mawuna Koutonin's article so meaningful to me. Yes, I've done that - the distancing dance. And I directed it both toward my fellow migrants in France and against the native French as well. It came from a place of anger and insecurity. It was driven entirely by fear.
Today I'm living in Osaka, Japan. This was something of a surprise but here we are. My spouse is an inter-company transfer and we will be going home (that means France) at some point. This is temporary and that changes everything for me. I don't feel angry or anxious. I'm not worried about integrating. I will learn as much of the language as I can but it's not a matter of survival because I can't work here.
My expectations are low and I'm learning to just accept what the universe offers me every day. The word I use to describe myself now is expatriate which to me means temporary resident for a limited purpose and on someone else's dime. And I feel a sense of deep relief when I use that word because it means I can relax. I have nothing to prove here and I can kick back and enjoy the ride.
Reading over what I have written, I can see that the way I use the words guest, expatriate and immigrant is always dependent on my personal context and whatever meaning I was trying to convey at the time. I went from thinking of an expatriate as an Ernest Hemingway when I was a 24 year old college graduate, to using it to describe myself at 50. I won't even try to convince you that it makes any sense at all.
It's just my story and I'm sticking to it.