“Expats” and the bigoted lexicon of travel

Yesterday, I stumbled across a rather disturbingly misinformed infographic on a travel website. It’s question: “What type of expat are you?” The organized chart went on to list the ten only possible types of expats, using graphic design that was the stuff of the design-conscious blogosphere’s wet dreams – think artfully blurred photos of twentysomethings wearing backpacks on scenic mountaintops with their arms outstretched into the sunset as if to proclaim to the world their life has the aesthetics of a Nature Valley granola bar commercial. Bonus points for inspirational quotes written in quirky white typeface.

I wasn’t amused. Not included in the list of acceptable expat types were “displaced people,” “asylum-seekers” or “immigrants.”

A more appropriate title for the infographic may have been: “10 types of rich people who live in foreign countries: which one are you?” Because apparently, if you are a living abroad, you are one of ten types of people – a wistful list of extravagant characters including “The Dream Destination Expat,” “The Romantic,” “The Greener Pastures Expat” or, my personal favorite, “The Adventurer.”

It’s a trope I saw all too often during my year-and-then-some in Jordan; a booming playground for Western aid worker hopefuls, many of them trying to live out their own versions of [Insert Western name here] of Arabia. The Westerners live in the trendy arch-windowed Old Levantine neighborhoods of the capital city Amman, drinking heavily taxed cocktails, chatting until dawn’s first call to prayer shuts down the cafes, trying their best not to cough as they bum their first cigarettes from artfully-bearded Palestinian hipsters. These are the “expats,” the paying customers of the developing world. VIPs only.


A displaced person arrives in Munich, Germany. (Image courtesy of F. Linkerhand via Flickr Creative Commons)

“Migrants,” “immigrants,” “refugees,” “undocumented workers” – they live elsewhere, occupying a lesser rung in the bigoted lexicon of cross-border travel. Families smuggled to Europe by boat from Libya, Syria, and elsewhere are called “migrants.” People crossing into the United States from Latin America are simply “immigrants” or, even worse, “illegals.” Southeast Asian women performing domestic labor in Singapore are “guest workers” or simply “domestic workers,” a title that strips them of any identity besides the jobs they perform for their more fortunate employers. It’s the low-income people of the world who get relegated from positions of respect as soon as they cross an international border.

But what about businessmen and highly-skilled professionals, people who are supposedly desired everywhere? It all depends on where you are coming from and what color you are, writes Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, editor of SiliconAfrica.com. “Top African professionals going to work in Europe are not considered expats. They are immigrants period.” While a highly skilled Briton living in Paris, for instance, may work in the same professional field as a similarly skilled Nigerian, only the Briton gets the “expat” label, Koutonin argues.

The non-white non-Westerner thus remains a “migrant,” a linguistic undesirable, a word so overused in generalizations about people that Al Jazeera has called it a “blunt pejorative” that “dehumanizes and distances” news readers from the humanity behind cross-border migration’s vital stories.

“Expat,” then, is an inherently colorized and classist word, part of a glossary of power that sorts travelers by how much they deserve to be where they are. “Expat” means I get to go in front of all the lines at Jordanian police stations to renew my visa, while the Iraqis and Yemenis must wait, melting in the same hard plastic chairs for hours. “Expat” means that somehow my passport, my skin color, my wealth, are more worthy than another’s.

The meaning of “expat” boils down to a realization that’s undoubtedly uncomfortable for wanderlustful Westerners dreaming about living abroad. When we call ourselves “expats” and other people “migrants,” we travel under the pretense that we deserve it more.

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Madeline is a senior at the College studying International Studies and Political Science. She just returned to Charleston from a year abroad in Jordan, where she discovered her passion for traveling throughout the Middle East.

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