Expatriata – What Is And Expat?
What does it mean to be an expat? Who qualifies? It’s a question even other expats can’t agree on.
What is an expat (or expatriate)? It’s a question I’ve heard quite often in the last year; in conversations, on blogs and in print. Just this week Time Out Hong Kong ran a thoughtful piece on the subject.
I became an expat in early 1999, upon leaving Sydney for London. However, the question of who is, or is not an expat only became interesting for me after moving to Hong Kong in 2006. I never thought of myself as an expat in London. I had almost no Australian friends, and adjusted quickly to life in the UK. Given a different set of circumstances I could imagine having settled there.
In Delhi, expat identity was a fairly clear-cut issue (though that is changing now). Moreover, very few expats stayed in India longer than four or five years. The ones that did didn’t think of themselves as expats.
But, in Hong Kong I soon met a number of people who had been here five or ten and sometimes even twenty years and still considered themselves expats; even though they didn’t always have a plan to move onto another post or return to their home country. Not infrequently they had few local friends, and sometimes limited interest in local customs or the local language.
Then, there were others who were quite assimilated, with a good grasp of language and culture and a real love for the city. Yet, they also referred to themselves as expats and as I came to know the city more I realised that they were viewed as expats by the “local” population.
Both kinds of “expats” didn’t fit my preconception; I’ve always viewed the idea of expatriation as part of a process, with repatriation being the expected corollary.
The term, expatriate, comes from military, commercial and diplomatic postings, where people were sent “off-shore” for a term. Even when the postings became serial, there was still a notion that someone’s final roots and allegiance were in their home country. The expatriate was always expected to repatriate (even though many, in practice retired on foreign shores).
Such expats still exist. In fact, expat life in Delhi was dominated by these kinds of postings. It was normal to meet people for whom Delhi was simply another assignment in a long career of vocational travel and relocation.
Of course, not everyone fits that bill. Some people accept a one-off overseas posting as an opportunity to develop their career, prospects or experience. Others simply set out, with an open future looking to find themselves, encounter knew things or just “see what the world has to offer.”
For each set of people (and those who don’t quite fit neatly into any such category) their different expectations will supervene on their perception of Hong Kong. That’s why I maintain that what Hong Kong has to offer a mid-life vocational expat is quite different from what it might offer a mid-20s person setting out to “see the world,” or, for that matter, an early 30s person on a short-term contract looking for opportunity and personal wealth.
But, coming back to the question of what is an expat, it makes little sense to define someone who has chosen to leave their home country, with no expectation of returning and who has set themselves up in Hong Kong for the long term as an expat. Such a person is an immigrant. Legally and culturally they would be defined as such in most countries of the world (especially after five years).
Of course, whether they would be accepted as such in Hong Kong is an altogether different question indeed. The word expat gets thrown around in this city as a way to describe someone based on their ethnicity, regardless of what their actual cultural and emotional connection to the city might be.
In fact the picture is not even that simple, since ethnically Chinese folks, raised overseas, be in America, Canada or Australia are often also treated as foreign as well. It’s a volatile anti-cosmopolitan cocktail.
Moreover, there is another discomforting side to this. When I’ve talked to some Hong Kong expats about their relationship to the city, their views on local culture and so on, they sometimes betray an alarming ignorance of the journey many immigrants go through in their home country. Having grown up as a classic third-culture immigrant kid in Australia I’m sensitive to the criticisms that were often made in that country about immigrants – especially when they did not “assimilate.”
But, for many folk labelled as immigrants in a country like Australia, their long term future is not a settled thing. They might be looking for new opportunities, better work, a safer or more pleasant environment – but, they might also harbour hopes or dreams of one day returning to their home country, or maybe moving onto another country with better opportunities. They are, in effect, more like many of the expats in Hong Kong that might appear on a superficial analysis.
This isn’t just an issue of semantics. Hong Kong’s prospects as a global city are tied to its ability to sustain a cosmopolitan society. That isn’t just good for the Hong Kong economy, but also for it’s cultural and creative engine as well. As long as people’s status in the city is assumed to depend more the colour of a person’s skin, or the country of their birth, rather than their commitment to and passion for the city, then Hong Kong will never really manage to be a cosmopolitan society and will always choose, instead, to mire itself in post-colonial resentment.