Whats the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

I have been reading a certain blog lately, and wondering why the tone of it seemed to rub me up the wrong way. Something about the writing was really getting under my skin. Which bugged me, because I was interested in the content. It wasn’t until I came across the word ‘immigrant’ in another article that I realised what was bothering me so much. The word ‘expat’. The blog that I had been reading a lot of, used the word ‘expat’ extensively. And it really bothered me. I didn’t understand the difference between ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’. All I knew was that in this blog I was reading, ‘expat’ was being used to refer to Kiwi’s living abroad and it hooked something in my head.

So I decided to look into it further. And since I am a words person, I went straight to the dictionary, to see what the definitions of the words are. According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary website, the definitions are as follows:

  • the word “Expatriate” is actually a verb or an adjective and means someone “living in a foreign land”.
  • the word “Immigrant” is a noun and means “a person who comes to a country to take permanent residence”.

With further research, I realised that I am not the only one rubbed up the wrong way by the use of the word expat versus the word immigrant. I found countless blogs and forums discussing the uses of the words, as opposed to the actual meanings. Because when it comes down to it, the official definitions of words can be changed in social context. Take the word gay for example. Once a word that meant “bright and lively”, it is now a word that also means homosexual. Society changed the meaning of the word gay. That is the way languages develop.

My question is, how is our society developing the words “expat” and “immigrant”? When “expat” is a badge worn with pride overseas, used mainly by Caucasian persons and a term that to me, conjures up images of a group of people sitting in a bar swapping horror stories of the country they live in. Where as “immigrants” is a word spat out more often than not, generally used to refer to “that immigrant taxi driver” or “the immigrants who live down the road”.

Technically, I am an expat right now. I am after all a New Zealander, living in Australia. Not exactly exotic, but it still counts as foreign right? So then, why is the word “expat” not a word used for us Kiwis’s living in Australia? Technically, I was an expat when I lived in France. And yet it wasn’t a word I heard used at all. Yet, I heard the word “immigrants” used to refer to the Middle Eastern families that lived in the village, by French and foreigners alike (we hung out with Danish, Brits, Swedish… All sorts of Europeans). And it wasn’t in very kind tones. I remember that much very clearly.

It’s an interesting topic. One that I am still unsure about. My gut reaction to being classed as an expat is still very strong and negative. And I wonder if it will change once we move to China. It is certainly a topic I would like to explore further. Anyone out there have any thoughts?


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