Expat vs. Immigrant: Terminology Test

I recently shared on social media an article I wrote for International Living Magazine. As far as I could see, it was certainly innocuous in its presentation –  detailing one of the smaller beach communities along the NW Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  In it, I described the close-knit expat community in a very positive light. No negative reporting allowed.

It was shared by a person I do not know and another stranger commented on his post, basically saying “Why is she calling them expats and not immigrants?”  Person A agreed they should be called immigrants. I thought about this for a moment and researched  the  definition I use for expat, which is the shortened version of the word “expatriate” (comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“native country, fatherland”):  a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than their native country. And then I looked up “immigrant”: a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

Photo credit: iStock

Okay, by pure definition it seems the words are fairly interchangeable.  Although, most of the expats/foreigners I know in Costa Rica are here temporarily or part-time.  They may be on a year-long adventure to see if one day they might want to retire here. Some come for a better life (for example, a higher salary or access to affordable healthcare). Many still have a residence in their home country and return there to visit – be it Canada, Germany, Argentina or Nicaragua. Basically anyplace other than here. So to me, the word “expat” seems more appropriate rather than “immigrant”.   I explained that to persons A & B on the shared Facebook post.

I have been told by seasoned writers, if you are going to put yourself out there as an artist, you are going to have haters.  Doesn’t matter what you say, some people just want to attack you for having a different perspective or talking about something uncomfortable to them.  Coming from a long-term sales career, I was used to no’s and customers occasionally being rude (not returning calls or emails or unhappy with their ad placement). However, this interaction gave new meaning to rude.  After my simple explanation based on definitions, Person B fired back something along the lines of my pathetic “whitey ‘splaining” and what an entitled racist I was.

I have never been called a racist before.  Typically this sort of name calling might sting pretty badly. But his comment was so damn far from truth, all I could do was laugh.  He then began posting articles covering the perceived differences in terminology.  If you go back through history, most Europeans, Australians, North Americans (those historically known as being “white” countries – although populations are shifting) have traditionally called themselves expats when living overseas.

For example, consider the posh British white-collar corporate manager working in Dubai for a few years making a bundle of tax-free earnings. He calls himself an expat.  Think of the impoverished Bangladeshi in Dubai pouring concrete to build these gleaming towers, working and living in deplorable conditions.  He is called an immigrant.  It is true. In the vocabulary of human migration, there are still hierarchical words for class structure or caste used even today.

Is this terminology based on skin color or economic status or both?  Again, I guess that depends on the definition. Both of my sets of grandparents came to the USA on a boat from Europe (Italy and Lithuania respectively).  They were “white”.  But they were called immigrants.  They certainly were not living a “privileged” lifestyle – as few people were after the turn of that century. They were seeking a better life elsewhere.  It seems like these terms are based more on economic difference rather than skin color.  Although many seeking a better life  (willing to leave the familiarity of their home country for work or safe asylum elsewhere) often tend to be people of some shade of color. Regardless, I would have called my grandparents expats.

Photo credit: Expat-Chronicles

It gets rather complicated doesn’t it?  Fortunately the conversation managed to de-escalate a bit once I assured him we were on the same team and I was for human rights and equality around the world – same as him.  I still continue to prefer the word expat for foreigners here (all of them)…or would “Global Nomad” be a better term?  That covers all my white, brown, and black friends from Nicaragua, Peru, USA, Morocco, South Africa, and all points around the world.

Editor’s Note:  To be clear, an expatriate is someone who chooses to live outside their home country (for whatever reasons). This should not be confused with “expatriot” which connotates images of people who shunned their homeland and no longer feel any patriotism to said country.  Yep, I have been called a traitor for leaving.  A racist and a traitor. Haters gonna hate.






4 thoughts on “Expat vs. Immigrant: Terminology Test”

  1. Unfortunately, we are going through the era of hate and some people don’t care what your view point is. In fact, they may not even attack your view point…they will just attack you as I witnessed this week 🙁 Do what you think is right.

    1. Thanks for your input Laura. It does, indeed, feel like we are in difficult times. I hope you are okay. And yes, I will always do what I think is right and continue to muster up as much kindness as I am able.

  2. This topic comes up often in conversations about foreigners living in Denmark as well. There is a vibrant “expat” community here with people from all over the world. There are also immigrants and there are refugees. How you title yourself depends less on color of skin, native country or race of origin to me, but has more to do with your intentions to stay in this country. It is increasingly difficult to achieve permanent residency in Denmark for reference, and at this time we have no intentions of trying. So I too use the literal translation of the word expatriate to define our life across borders and am very aware of the connotations it can hold. I have no problem being called an immigrant but do qualify that my time here is temporary and that is where I set the distinction. Thanks for sharing your experience! Cheers from Copenhagen.

    1. Hi Erin, Thanks for your comment. Copenhagen…what a lovely city! And yes, I understand completely about your definition – especially the temporary bit. I have legal residency in Costa Rica, and I certainly do not take any offense to being called an immigrant here. However, I spend several months back in my home country each fall and usually a month+ traveling elsewhere outside of Costa Rica. I never likened it to skin color or socioeconomic status, just that the term expat seemed to fit the “temporary” or “part-time” label appropriately. Enjoy your time in Denmark. As we say, “pura vida”!

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