Expat or Immigrant?

When thinking about the identity of those living outside their native countries it soon becomes pretty clear that there’s a big gap between how we perceive ‘immigrants’ and ‘expats’ even though in many ways they are essentially the same. Immigrants are seen as poor and desperate job-stealers, while expatriates are portrayed as curious adventurers and cosmopolites. This smacks of double standards to me and I think it’s time we reevaluate the use of these words.

In its broadest sense, an expatriate is any person living in a different country from where he or she is a citizen. In common usage, the term is often used in the context of professionals sent abroad by their companies, as opposed to locally hired staff.

The differentiation found in common usage usually comes down to socio-economic factors, so skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual labourer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labelled an ‘immigrant’.


Whether you’re considered an expat or an immigrant depends not on your residency plans, but on the relative wealth of your native country. In Hong Kong, if you come from America or Europe to work your rights of residency are vastly different than those of a Filipino domestic helper (which in itself seems like a polite way of saying slave to me). As a British national after 7 years of working in Hong Kong, I can expect to gain permanent residency – not so for Filipinos.

Likewise, I’ve come to feel that the word ‘expat’ has equally unsavoury undertones, verging on being racist since by definition it places oneself in an outdated colonial hierarchy above the local population. In other words, the expat label implies that “I’ve been sent here to show you savages how to do things properly but will soon return to the civilised motherland“. Not a great way to ingratiate or integrate with the local populace.

Unfortunately, this is further perpetuated by what I call ‘expat ghettos‘, enclaves of foreigners whose favourite pastime is to bemoan every trivial issue they see around them and the perceived incompetence of the locals – see the mid-levels in Hong Kong, Shekou in Shenzhen, and doubtless many other similar places around the world where rich and usually white foreigners reside in their gated communities.

In the 21st century people don’t move abroad in order to represent a nation or religion anymore but to further their own self-interests – whether they be for better job opportunities, to experience a different way of life, to escape oppression or a mix of reasons. While some people will eventually return home, continuing to make this differentiation only serves to further isolate ourselves from more settled and fulfilling experiences and maintains negative attitudes towards outsiders/foreigners (two other labels I detest).

While this doesn’t touch on the issue of whether a local community is ready to accept ‘outsiders’ it’s time for expats to stop feeling superior and everyone else to stop treating immigrants like third-class citizens – feel free to call me a world citizen if you prefer but never an expat.

Is this an unfair reality or something that can/should be changed?

David avatar

15 responses

  1. Craig R. avatar
    Craig R.

    This article and the linked article about Poland are interesting to think about. Immigration in the US is easily distinguished from expat status: are you going to become an American citizen? My wife is an immigrant, and is now American. Expat coworkers in went back to Japan and Indonesia after working in the US 2-3 years; they weren’t immigrants. Canada and Israel are other places where immigrants from America and everywhere else go and become full-fledged Canadians or Israelis (although it may be too easy to immigrate to Canada without self-identifying as Canadian). Maybe Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore work that way too. Being an immigrant in the US is a respected feat. Any negative connotations the author has picked up, like his example, don’t originate in the US.

    Other countries that are based on ethnicity instead of shared ideas and values make the question more difficult. It’s nearly impossible to become Japanese, for example. Are the ethnic Koreans who were born in Japan and who have never been to Korea Japanese? The Turks who emigrated to Germany aren’t really integrated there, either. Are British Pakistanis Englishmen or Pakistanis? Could the Americans in Poland truly become Poles? Classmate from UAE couldn’t return to her country of origin because she was ethnically Indian and her UAE visa expired while studying in California. Snobby, cloistered, self-identifying perpetual expats are one problem, but a lack of openness to real immigration in most countries is another.

    Permanent residency in Hong Kong is one thing, but show me your Hong Kong passport and you’ll be a truly impressive immigrant!

    1. Thanks for your insight Craig – very interesting point about immigrants being respected in the US but isn’t there a lot of negative feeling towards ‘illegal’ immigrants from Mexico, even if they’ve been in the US for decades?

      I tried to put aside the point about it being impossible to be accepted in some countries like Korea or Japan because this is something which runs far deeper but will I expect will change over time as globalisation continues and as age demographics demand inward immigration to deal with a lack of young people in some areas.

      Britain has one of the most multi-cultural societies in the world already but I guess which nationality people choose as their primary (if any) is a matter of personal choice.

      As for my residency in Hong Kong – I already have a Hong Kong ID which allows me to come and go without the need to show my passport and if I stay for 7 consecutive years that will become permanent.

      1. Shin avatar


        Expecting countries like Japan, Korea or even those so-called multi-cultural European countries to accept immigrants/expats as a true native is wishful thinking. They are nation states built on the very foundation of a SINGLE identity. This is why Europe is having so much trouble now with multiculturalism. Having lived in both the UK and Japan as a Chinese expat for well over a decade, the only difference I can see between these two countries is that one is honest about it whilst the other is in denial. I think we all know which is which.

        I consider myself a World Citizen. But we also need to face the reality that not every country in the world is going to be like Hong Kong which essentially is a 120-year-old ex-colony where people are not even REAL Chinese. Trust me, I’m Chinese and a World Citizen, as offensive as it might sound I know what I’m talking about.

        I used to be just as liberal but remember the World is not perfect and it’s never wrong.

  2. SungEmpress avatar

    A very insightful, thought-provoking piece, David. I am technically an expat because I was brought into HK from another country for my skills. But then I am also a Filipina and this is HK, where Filipinos are more known as domestic help despite about probably over 60% of them being actual bachelor’s degree holders. Most of them are former teachers actually.

    So I often feel I’m in betwen these two worlds, never quite one or the other.

    1. Thanks Sung – do you ever face any discrimination for being seen as between those two worlds? I wonder how those people who trained as teachers and/or are university educated feel working as domestic helpers? Is there a hierarchy within that community?

      1. SungEmpress avatar

        Actually, I do. From my countrymen, a mix of disbelief and envy for, well, having a job that pays better than theirs. Even though I point out to them that we all send money home to support our families, what gets stuck in their mind is that I do not have to answer to any employer (but actually I do).

        From locals, it’s more of disbelief. I still get asked often on how long I studied English to achieve my level of proficiency. I find that in those situations, it’s better to just give them an enigmatic smile. 🙂

        1. haha, keep on smiling then 🙂

  3. Very interesting article David. I have had a different experience here in SZ then many foreigners, as my wife is working while I am more the long term visitor. Her being Taiwanese has an effect as well since she shares language and culture with the locals ” mostly “. Does this make me an Expat or simply a protracted tourist?

    We have never lived in the ” foreign ” areas and I have to say when we do go to places like Shekou its very bland…

    In the US you see similarities in the residency patterns of immigrants especially among recent ones. Look forward to more thought provocation from you…

    1. Thanks David – you’re probably a much better definition of ‘world citizen’ than most because you are moving between China and US so frequently. It would be interesting to hear how your far your wife feels she is able to integrate with the local Chinese in SZ.

      Your description of Shekou as being bland is perfect – this might have something to do with its age but I suspect more to do with its predominant populous to whom it’s probably a heavenly break from suburbia 😉

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  5. Jenny avatar

    Interesting thoughts. Mind me asking, David, are you an company-initiated expatriate or are you a self-initiated expatriate?

    1. Hi Jenny – I left the UK of my own volition and found my job out here so I’m self-initiated

  6. You’re going to hate what I’m going to say but I actually understand it pretty well why HK refuses to grant PR to foreign domestic helpers…
    And I don’t at all feel that domestic helpers are like slaves: slaves that get paid and actually get days off and use mobile phones and computers? That’s a curious type of slavery! Then we’re all slaves 😀
    Yes, their working conditions aren’t great but they came here of their own accord, no one forces them to work in HK. They are here because, apparently, their situation in their home country is a lot worse and there is no way of making any living. Otherwise they’d be working back home, right?
    I believe that everyone should be treated in a fair manner, be it a CEO or a domestic helper. But I don’t and can’t feel guilty because someone’s less fortunate than me: it’s not my fault and I have my own set of issues.
    Overall, I’d never feel offended if someone refers to me as an expat…As the first poster pointed out, it’s more complicated than it seems.

    1. Yes, it’s very complicated but I find it ironic that a family in HK will trade time with their own children to go out to work so that they can afford a domestic helper (and other luxuries) who themselves are also trading their time away from their family to make money to send back home. Something about that situation is very messed up.

      1. Oh yeah, I totally agree with you on that one! I’d never have a domestic helper myself (I used to have a cleaner in SZ that came in once or twice a week but that was totally different) and I think what you have described above is indeed a messed up situation.
        However, in some cases people really do need help (for example, I know a family with 3 young children and grandparents aren’t living in Hong Kong), so even though the mother is not working, they were simply forced to hire a helper, because looking after 3 children is quite taxing when you have them going to different schools/activities, while one of them is still a baby.
        I guess, you could say they could just hire a local helper, but I am told Filipino helpers are cheaper and also they are a better choice for those families that are non-Chinese speaking.
        I guess you could say t’s all about supply and demand. There was a certain amount of demand for this kind of services, and Filipina ladies didn’t mind coming over here, providing the supply for that demand. Later Indonesians joined their ranks too. So it just became a widespread habit…
        But you know what…unlike Filipinas, Indonesian helpers can actually have a good life after working a few years in Hong Kong. Some of my husband’s students are Indonesian domestic helpers. They are able to buy a house in Indonesia when they go back. So they don’t mind working in what would seem terrible conditions because it can really improve their lives in the future. So it’s all relative….


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