How the language of migration put expats on a pedestal – and left immigrants in the dust

Whether it’s a conscious or subconscious decision, there’s no denying that these terms represent double standards in society’s view on who has a right to move freely around the world, writes Nicole Chui

Friday 17 April 2020 12:11 BST
Expats are praised for daring to move to a new country, while immigrants feel pressured to assimilate for survival, writes Nicole Chui
Expats are praised for daring to move to a new country, while immigrants feel pressured to assimilate for survival, writes Nicole Chui (Getty Images)

Growing up in Hong Kong, I was constantly surrounded by people from around the world. From the UK to South Africa and Canada, I was exposed to a number of different cultures in my day-to-day life, especially in school. But it wasn’t until middle school, where acquaintances would casually use two distinct terms to define either affluent or poorer areas of the city, that I really began to take notice of the significance of the language of immigration.

Based on what I observed, it was clear that whenever someone referred to a person as an “expat”, they generally tended to be middle to upper-class native English speakers, working in professions such as banking, tech, education or creative roles. When it came to the word “immigrant”, the term tended to apply loosely to both blue-collar workers, and those desperate to flee their birth country in order to make “a better life” for themselves.

Around a month ago, while FaceTiming a friend who had just moved back to Singapore from London, the extent of those differences became even more pronounced. In the middle of our chat, he mentioned a print magazine called Expat Living, and how bizarre it was that among other publications, it was still considered a best-seller in the country despite the dying print media industry. It led me to think about the marketing power of the word “expat” – clearly a symbol of financial value in society. It placed them on a uniquely aspirational pedestal.

Expats are praised for daring to move to a new country, while immigrants feel pressured to get approval from citizens and assimilate for survival. Whether it’s a conscious or subconscious decision, there’s no denying that these terms represent the double standards in society’s view on immigration. It’s not so different here in London, where even after seven years of living here, I'm still confronted by the same forms of hypocrisy, especially in the language the media uses in stories about immigration. Prior to this pandemic, for example, a simple search for the terms "immigrant" would typically pull up more divisive and sensationalist headlines.

In popular media, the word “immigrant” often showcases individual storylines of struggle, hard work and overcoming hardships. On Instagram, a search for accounts and posts hashtagged with “immigrant” reveal feeds of documentary-style visuals and text about sacrifice and injustice. Clearly, there’s a heavy sense of activism connected to the immigrant experience in the media, in contrast to the image of luxury and privilege that is seen to come with being an expat.

Why? When it comes to the way people treat both groups, the narratives the words we use to describe create an unconscious bias. There’s a general feeling that immigrants are associated with negative qualities about their birthplace, whereas expats are commended for living in a country outside of their own. The meanings we’ve ascribed to these words have a lot to do with connotations about certain races and class systems.

Look at the etymology of the word​ "expat" (the short form of "Expatriate"), for example. It derives from the Latin terms "ex" (out of) and "patria" (fatherland). By definition, an expat is just someone who moves to live in a country they weren’t born in. Interestingly, the term was most commonly used in the 20th century to describe British servants who were often sent to work abroad against their will. According to Sophie Cranston, a lecturer in human geography at Loughborough University​, who spoke to The Atlantic about the changing meaning of terms like expat, it was only in the early 90s, that it came to mean what it does now: a descriptor for (typically wealthy) westerners living abroad.

With immigration being brought up more on social and mainstream media, it’s also important to note that these terms are being reclaimed. The term “migrant”, which is sometimes used in place of “immigrant” and often bears the same connotations (although the definitions vary from place to place), seems to have been reclaimed.

In 2015-16, immigration became the hottest political topic in the UK due to the European migrant crisis and Brexit. The Leave campaign heavily focused on villainising immigrants in the media, using anti-migrant propaganda and anti-migrant sentiments to create fear towards them, which subsequently led to their unfortunate victory.

The negativity has since inspired a rise of people from immigrant backgrounds to create movements reclaiming and redefining the meaning of being an immigrant. Groups like Migrants in Culture and Migration Collective are both optimistic examples of how immigrants have used the power of art, statistics, and culture to express different realities and examine issues regarding immigration in the UK.

Migrant Journal, a monthly print and digital magazine with a social media platform that focuses on the experiences of people, goods, and information around the world and the positive impact they have on various spaces, has also embraced the word “migrant”. The design of their issues are illustrative, with cerebral stories and minimal details that bring a smart and thoughtful impression to “migrant” labels. They’ve shown that beyond the stories of people, other things such as objects, spaces and fine art can express the immigrant experience in media in a highbrow manner.

Contrastingly, there’s a rise in using social media to poke fun at “expat” realities and stereotypes. For instance, the popular meme Instagram account @hkmehmeh was founded by a Korean woman who identifies as an expat living in Hong Kong. Her account uses popular internet culture with a mix of Cantonese slang and relatable "Hong Kong" sayings to create humorous memes that put a light-hearted spin on living in the city from an expat perspective. The account’s satirical integration of expatriate stereotypes and local culture makes it entertaining for all people who reside in the city – there’s no discrimination with her memes. As a Korean expat, her presence is inadvertently broadening the image of “expat” and diminishing the assumption that expats can only be white people.

While these labels once showed the double standards of the language of migration, they're beginning to break away from strict definitions. By forging cultural visibility for terms like these, we create opportunities for more open conversations about questioning the need for labels, their effect on our unconscious bias and reclaiming these terms in a positive way.

Platforms that enable positive outlooks on reclaiming negative labels can unite people rather than split them apart. Hopefully, more of this kind of action will allow people to see that regardless of your identity, anyone who immigrates to another country shares more similarities than differences and that labels shouldn’t limit or define anyone in what they want to achieve.

Nicole Chui is an embroidery artist and designer based in London. You can find out more about her work and reach out to her on Instagram + Twitter at @thatsewnicole

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