Who is an "Expat", and Who is an "Immigrant"?

Blogs - Saigon/HCMC: July 16, 2018

Ho Chi Minh City is known for boasting a thriving expat community. Upon perusing Facebook you can find dozens of groups designated for expats to communicate and give each other advice about living in the Southern Vietnamese metropolis.

Expat and ImmigrantImage source: vivabcs.com.vn

Expats in Ho Chi Minh City enjoy a relatively high standard of living. I spoke with Suzie*, a 31-year-old Filipina woman who lived in Sydney and Brisbane, Australia for four years before moving to Ho Chi Minh City this year. I asked her how she felt about the standard of living she enjoys. “I get cheap massages! That’s important!”

It’s a simplistic statement, but one that speaks to a broader point. Often, people who move from western countries to Ho Chi Minh City enjoy a quality of life that they often could not afford back in their native homes. Conversely, they almost certainly would have difficulty enjoying a high standard of living if they were living in their native countries as migrant workers and not citizens. Do the differences in these experiences denote the distinctions between the phrases ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’, or are there more complicated dynamics involved? If so, then what is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

Divergent Vocabulary

The term ‘expat’ has a generally positive connotation. It denotes class, wealth, privilege and even race. Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sympathizer, and more recently his collection of short stories, The Refugees, expounded on this point in the below video published on YouTube by Annenberg International. “It’s really interesting. I think that there are these different terms that we use to categorise people immigrants, refugees and expats. They all describe people who move across borders but they have different meanings that are attached to them.

Video source: Annenberg Media

‘Expats’ is the term that they use for people who move with wealth and privilege to different countries, and typically we use them to describe white people. Oftentimes, we don’t talk about Asian expats for example.”

Wikipedia defines an expat as “a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing.” This definition is non-race specific but, as is often the case, hidden meaning is coded within the language. City Pass Guide sat and talked about these differences with a diverse group of English-speaking foreigners in Saigon. Jason*, a second-generation Australian of Vietnamese descent talks about his family’s experience. “Guys like my dad and my uncles, when they came from Vietnam to Australia, even though they were highly skilled, they weren’t considered expats.”

A blog published by the Wall Street Journal came to a series of conclusions. “Some arrivals are described as expats, others as immigrants, and some simply as migrants. It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat … Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats … It’s a double standard woven into official policy.”

Double-Standards and Country Bashing

In comments made in front of the United States Congress, Donald Trump referred to African immigrants as people coming from “shithole countries”. His comments ignore the research showing that African immigrants to the United States are not only the most educated of all immigrant populations there, they are on average even better educated than people born in the US, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Still, these populations of African people working in the United States do not enjoy the distinction of being called ‘expats’, they are considered ‘immigrants’.

We live in a time where immigration and migrancy are at the forefront of mainstream discourse. In the United States, government agencies have taken measures to round-up people considered to be ‘undocumented immigrants’ and have been placing these people in cages, as they await further long-term imprisonment of deportation. Some of the detainees only months old are placed into ‘Tender Age’ facilities.

Expat and ImmigrantImage source: wordpress.com

Many say that in Great Britain, public concerns over immigration drove the infamous Brexit vote, which was a step towards separating the United Kingdom from the European Union. In late June, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the European country would be rolling back its open door policy for refugees as a political means of appeasing critics of the policy in the Baltic States.

In Vietnam, identity can provide or deprive one of benefits, whether the person in question is identified by skin color, or a passport from a particular place.

Vietnamese-Americans experience Vietnam differently from both their local Vietnamese counterparts, as well as their white American compatriots. Some English centres will hire non-native speaking teachers who are white, while refusing to hire non-white teachers from English-speaking countries, using the reasoning that parents of their students don’t think of non-whites as native speakers.

Expat and ImmigrantImage source: wallstreetenglish.edu.vn

Distinctions Hide Discrimination

Clearly, not all foreigners are created equal, sometimes regardless of their country of origin. Even Americans of Vietnamese descent encounter trouble attaining work as English teachers because doubts are cast about their proficiency in English because of their geneology. Nomenclatural categorisations of people have ways of creating distinctions between them, the effects of which are experienced palpably and can lead to frustration and a loss of self-worth for those on the wrong side of the noun.

Some people might argue that the terms “expat and immigrant” are interchangeable and innocuous, but language is loaded with hidden meanings, and these categorisations have real-world consequences for people in the ways in which they uphold privilege for some while marginalising others.

Banner Image source: wordpress.com