In practice, however, the word means many different things to different people—much like the terms refugee, migrant, or immigrant. And the case of this one word illustrates how the language of migration is influenced as much by context and associations as by formal definition.
American weirdness: Observations from an expat
Yvonne McNulty, a senior lecturer specializing in human-resource management and expatriation at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, developed a definition of the word in 2016 with her colleague Chris Brewster, outlining a series of “boundary conditions” one must meet in order to be classified as an expat: In addition to living outside one’s home country on a non-permanent basis, an expat must also be legally employed to live and work in the country where they are based. They must also not be a citizen of that country.
Expats weren’t always defined this way. Charlotte Taylor, a linguist at the University of Sussex, told me the word was first widely used in the mid-20th century, when it was applied to British civil servants sent to work abroad—often not by choice. “If you think about the actual term expat from the word expatriate, that’s basically a non-optional migration—somebody who has been expatriated is somebody who has been sent abroad,” she said. “It’s almost the polar opposite of how it’s used now. Now we use expat … as a self-describing term for people who feel they are wealthy or mobile, and we use forced migration or asylum seeker or refugee for somebody who has been forced to leave their country.”
The historical class associations with the term are reflected in how it’s used today. “A stereotypical image of the expat is someone sipping a gin and tonic by the pool at sunset,” Cranston said, noting that prior to the 1990s, it was much less common for Westerners to live and work abroad. Many of those who did were compensated with generous benefit packages that included high wages, housing, and schooling for children. This legacy has informed how people have come to understand the label, and why some feel uncomfortable identifying with it at all. “In my research, one of the reasons migrants did not identify with the term ‘expat’ is because they saw themselves as having more ordinary lives than the luxurious lifestyles,” Cranston said. “They also said they were not expats because they have more engagement with the local [community].”
McNulty, who lives in Singapore, said that though the term is often used to describe high-status migrants (whom she defined as being highly paid and highly educated), it is rarely applied to foreign workers who are not. Instead, those workers tend to be referred to as “economic migrants,” people who have left their home country for a place with better living and working conditions. “They meet every condition of being an expatriate—all of them,” McNulty said, noting that in addition to requiring valid work permits, many of the countries hosting economic migrants, such as the United Arab Emirates, strictly prohibit them from seeking permanent residency. Still, “nobody thinks of them as expatriates, because in the sort of colloquial language we refer to them as migrant workers,” McNulty said, adding: “These people are in every way expatriates in the same way white Westerners are. The fact that they are a different color [or] the fact that they come from a poor developing country is to a large extent irrelevant when we look a the boundary conditions.”