In a dim Parisian bar, a grizzled journalist orders another pastis and relaxes into a velvet armchair. On a Balinese beach, a globetrotting yoga teacher stretches up toward the tropic sky. Somewhere in Costa Rica, a recent retiree swings in a hammock and wonders what took them so long to realize winters are optional.
When most people picture the life of an expatriate, they imagine vignettes like these. The word itself drips with glamour and sex appeal—to be an expat is to belong to the same club as Ernest Hemingway, Julia Child, James Baldwin, and Josephine Baker. An expat’s life is one of adventure and freedom, novelty and excitement. See the world! Immerse yourself in a new culture! Live like royalty on a reasonable budget!
The appeal is obvious, so you probably won’t be surprised to learn that millions of people take the expat plunge each year. But here’s where things start to get complicated.
Depending on who you ask, by now there are somewhere between 87.5 million (according to the financial services firm Finaccord) and 244 million expatriates (according to the United Nations). Obviously, there’s a lot of daylight between those figures. What could explain such a wide discrepancy?
For one thing, those numbers are (very) rough estimates. Tracking the precise number of people who live outside their countries of birth is a daunting task for even the wealthiest nations. The United States, for example, might have 600,000 of its citizens living abroad…or it might have 9 million. Or maybe closer to 5 million? Go looking for a number and you’ll find a conversation instead, regardless of who you ask.
Another complicating factor is the word “expatriate” itself. What’s the difference between an expat and a migrant worker? Some claim that it depends on the length of time a person spends abroad, or whether they plan to return to their birth country. But these criteria often don’t hold up to real-world scrutiny. A Belgian banker in Singapore and the Filipina nurse who treats their kids both might have arrived in 2010, and they both might want to leave once their bank balances get a bit bigger. And yet a cursory glance at the news reveals they tend to be defined using very different terms.
In a 2015 article for the Guardian, journalist Mawuna Remarque Koutinin pointed out that the term expatriate is “reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.” A few years later in the Atlantic, staff writer Yasmeen Serhan observed that “this one word illustrates how the language of migration is influenced as much by context and associations as by formal definition.” Put simply, whether a person is deemed an expat (or something else) usually depends on their skin color and bank balance.
This doesn’t mean that being an expat is exactly the same as being a neocolonialist, but it does raise a number of uncomfortable questions. Perhaps the most important: how exactly do we make that distinction? It might seem obvious there’s nothing wrong with an Australian accountant taking a job in England, but what about in Ecuador? (To take a step back, is it really that obvious?) Does it depend on how much they earn relative to native workers, or how they spend that salary? Can speaking the language and embracing the culture of your adopted home at one for whatever historical baggage your nationality might carry? Would marrying a local person help or hurt your case? How does your race, class, and gender affect the equation?
Once again, easy answers are elusive. What does seem clear, however, is that it’s time to update our popular conception of what it means to be an expat.
The truth about living and working abroad is that it’s almost always much less romantic than it sounds. Most of the time, the decision is a pragmatic one: people choose to make the leap because they can earn more money or live more comfortably. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these motivations; nor is there anything inherently virtuous. Whether you’re a German artist or a Sudanese engineer, you want to have a decent life. And regardless of where you build that life, you have an obligation to treat the people around you with dignity and respect.
Expats have long held a reputation for boorish and exploitative behavior , wherever they happen to be found. While in some cases this might be overblown—as was the case with an infamous 2012 South Korean TV program titled “The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners”—anyone who’s spent more than a few hours in an expat bar can attest to the condescending attitudes that are far too prevalent in such communities.
This is the flip side of the freedom promised by the expatriate life. When anything goes, it’s easy for things to go too far. It should come as little surprise that people develop superiority complexes when they’re dropped into a world where normal social rules don’t apply to them and they can buy their way out of any inconvenience. Nor should it be surprising when this sparks a backlash.
So does this mean it’s unethical to be an expat? Should people just stay in their own countries and make all these points moot?
Maybe, but that’s neither realistic nor enforceable, at least in a nominally humane world. People have moved around for as long as civilizations have existed, and the world is immeasurably better off as a result. We can’t (and shouldn’t) seek to return to a mythical past where everyone lives and dies in the same place where they were born.
Instead, we should seek to live with more humility, curiosity, and care—especially if we’ve chosen to live abroad. To be an expat is to be a guest, after all, and the least we can do is be gracious about it.