When I refer to myself as an expat in Mexico, I often get asked “what is an expat.” Now I am in the position of having to change my Mexican visa from a temporary one to a permanent one which means I will have to pay for Mexican registration on my car and get Mexican plates. Surprisingly, I have a gut aversion to this. Or go back across the border and come in again as a tourist. Do I want to be a Residente Permanente?
Today Garrison Keillor posted a poem by Paul Zimmer on his Writer’s Almanac web site entitled “Amongst The French.”
I do not have their words,
do not have their years or customs.
Passing them on the road,
shy as fog passing down
slopes into the valley,
I always give first utterance
or make an uncertain gesture.
My neighbors are kind,
knowing I am like rain,
that if they wait long enough,
in time I will go away.
It is the same for me in
all directions—under stars
swarming out of foothills,
on the gravel I churn
with my shoes—east, west,
north, or south—the same.
If I remained in
this friendly place forever,
I would always be a stranger.
This got me to thinking. It’s not just true in France of course. It’s true of anyone leaving their birth country and moving to another one. It’s true for me in Mexico and it’s especially true for Thailand. Apparently another “expat” has been thinking about this too and the following has been lifted from his blog Life In Prana
When is an expat not an expat?
Writing about my friend Al recently, I was reminded of an encounter I had with a particularly obnoxious Englishman in Khong Chiam a couple of years back. I was researching restaurants for a guide book at the time and he told me that no farangs like Thai food so I was wasting my time. I pointed out that in England Thai restaurants were very popular and he replied that he couldn’t live in England any more. When I asked him why that was, he said that there were too many immigrants in England and they made no effort to integrate, in particular they insisted on having their own food and did not learn to speak English. This seemed pretty rich coming from what I had already learned about him and I certainly did not detect any sense of irony in his remarks.
I pointed out to him that he and I are both immigrants in Thailand but he refuted this. We are expats, he told me. What is the difference, I asked. His answer to that was: “I should think the difference is obvious.”
What is obvious, I think, is what he was implying.
A result of this encounter has been that I have developed a dislike of the word ‘expat’, seeing it as denoting a sense of superiority. I realise that this is not entirely rational, or at least is not fully deserved. Some of my best friends are expats, as they say. There is some evidence, however, that the word is not exactly neutral. People from neighbouring countries who come to work in Thailand are referred to as ‘migrant workers’ whereas office workers in Bangkok who come from further afield are always known as expats. There is surely an implied racial (but not necessarily racist, let me be clear) element to phrases such as ‘expat hang-outs’ and ‘expat food’. I am reminded that Pensri worked in the UK for 30+ years, held a UK passport before arriving, and was often referred to as an immigrant, but never ever as an expat.
But whether a word is neutral or loaded (postively or negatively) is often a matter of intention on the part of the speaker or interpretation on the part of the hearer. For me, ‘farang’ is a neutral word on most occasions, but I think I can tell when the intention is otherwise, and that is sometimes positive and sometimes negative.
Time for some help from reference books. The Chambers Thesaurus entries for ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ are sugestive of a difference in emphasis: EXPAT: emigrant, emigre, exile, refugee, displaced person. It seems that the emphasis here is on someone who has LEFT their native country. IMMIGRANT: incomer, settler, migrant, newcomer, new arrival, alien. Here the emphasis is on ARRIVAL.
Two dictionary definitions (Shorter Oxford) suggest the same thing but also add the idea of temporary and permanent residence: EXPAT: person living abroad, especially for a long period. IMMIGRANT: person who comes as a permanent resident to a country other than one’s native land.
So in the end, there seems no doubt that whatever I may think about the word, since I am still a permanent resident of the UK who spends a lot of time abroad, when I am in Thailand for six months as I am now, I am most definitely an expat. That is not the conclusion I had expected to reach, but I am comfortable with it nonetheless. The all-embracing term ‘foreigner’ is still more to my liking, but I am less happy about ‘alien’. But there we are. Call me what you like.
I just don’t want to be called a fresa. Literally meaning “strawberry”, the word “fresa” is used in Mexican slang to denote anyone spoiled or soft. Of all the wide and imaginative range of Mexican insults this, for them, is the worst. For men it is acceptable to be a large goat (cabrón) or even, on occasion, a pubic hair (pendejo). But for anyone to be a strawberry is unforgiveable.