Ex-pat or Immigrant

Hi there, everyone! Sarah here, spontaneously having decided to include a blog on this site that was originally just intended to be a catch-all pocket on the internet for my writing and translating links, samples, and contact information. But in the end, I’m a writer. I couldn’t help myself.

Today, I want to talk about word choice.

You might have noticed that on both my main page and in the “about me” section, I’ve used the word “immigrant” rather than “ex-pat.” I am not lying when I say that I thought about which of those words to use for days.

What’s the issue? The definition of an ex-pat is simple enough. It’s short for “ex-patriate” and is used to describe someone who lives in a country that is not their country of origin. By that definition, any immigrant to another country should be called an ex-pat.

In practice, we typically just use the word “ex-pat” to describe people from wealthier countries like the US, Canada, or Western Europe who arrive to a poorer country (and usually live better than most locals). What am I? I’m an ex-pat. What is the Central American selling handicrafts in the market? Well, she’s an immigrant.

For me personally, it’s about making sure that, through my use of language, I’m not describing myself as exceptional or extra special by comparison.

Calling myself an immigrant too doesn’t close the vast breach of privilege between us. But the connotations of the two words are completely different. An ex-pat sounds like a brave adventurer, someone who sets out in a new country with a clean slate and plenty of money in her pocket while she takes her time getting settled in without the immediate pressures of making money and caring for others; perhaps she’s on an extended vacation or a “gap year”. An immigrant sounds considerably more humble: someone who had to leave her home country because of hardships, and who must struggle mightily to make a space for herself in a new place. Really, we should be able to mix and match these words and definitions: an immigrant could be either, as could an ex-pat. Calling myself an immigrant rather than an ex-pat is my small way of inching the two terms closer together.

My feelings about the words aren’t so strong that I’m willing to confront people about them, a relaxed attitude fed by my privilege of being able to choose without being challenged on it: I can call myself an immigrant, but a poor person from Venezuela would likely get strange looks if she referred to herself as an ex-pat. Language matters, but so does choosing your battles. So I’m not going to act all offended if someone uses the word “ex-pat” in my presence or refers to me as one. I’m not going to stop writing for Expats in Mexico because it uses the term in the name. But I am, from here on, going to refer to myself as an immigrant, because that is what I am.

If you know for certain that you can choose one word or phrase that is likely to not offend people instead of a word or phrase that might offend others, well, I think the obvious choice is to use the less-offensive of the two, or the least-offensive of a handful of choices.

As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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