Who gets to be an expat? Power, privilege, and belonging (by Dr. Alison Crump & April Passi)

This week, we have our first guest blogger, April Passi (MA, Second Language Education), co-blogging with BILD member, Dr. Alison Crump.  


Picture 1This blog post begins with a moment in February, in the deep dark winter of Montreal.  Alison is teaching a graduate sociolinguistics course and April is an MA student.  One evening, the students are sharing their experiences of negotiating belonging in Montreal as visible and/or audible minorities. Some of the Chinese students mention that they feel they are treated like immigrants in Montreal, even if they speak French.  April chimes in with one of her experiences: “When I was travelling in Turkey, I didn’t feel like an immigrant.”  Alison replies, “That’s because you’re White.”  Laughter.  Surprise.  Shock?  Some students squirm in their chairs.  The response reveals a general discomfort with making explicit and direct statements about race.  This becomes a critical moment, one that opens up a space for us to face the taboos around talking about race.  Some of the White students reflect on how they became expats when they went abroad, but had never given much thought to what the label meant.  We talk about how race and privilege are embedded in the words we use to talk about/ position ourselves and others.  Immigrant, expat, migrant worker.  Are these labels chosen or imposed?  Desired or derogatory?  Meant to include or exclude? Related to race, class, power, language?

The conversation continues after class in a lively online discussion.  Classmates share stories of being called/ becoming expats in different contexts.  One student comments that White people and/or powerful/monied people have the privilege to not even have to consider their position at all!  We talk about how the meaning of words shifts in different social contexts.  The discussion is centered on Whiteness as a key factor in who gets positioned/ positions themselves as an expat.

Picture 2

Flash forward to June at the International Society for Language Studies conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Alison and April are at a presentation about language choices of Japanese corporate workers living in other Asian countries.  Expats.  There’s that word again.  This time used in a way that challenges us to revisit our understandings of the term as a “property” of Whiteness.  Alison asks the presenter why she referred to the workers as expats.  The answer: Because they tend not to integrate into the local community very much and are often overseas for relatively short term stints (though one participant had been overseas for 18 years).  Hmm.  A migrant worker could easily be defined in the same terms.  Except corporate workers would never be referred to, or refer to themselves, as migrant workers.  Expat, we offer, is not a neutral term for “people who aren’t from here.”

Picture 3

Once again, we wonder who gets to be (who wants to be) an expat?  Maybe it’s not only about race, we decide.  Maybe it’s about there being an element of choice.  Are expats freer to choose when they come and go?  And then we came to another understanding: expats come from a position of power and privilege (often associated with former colonialist nations) relative to the host country.  Alison reflects on how when she lived in Japan, she was part of a community of White English teachers that referred to themselves as expats.  This uncritical use of the term rings so clearly and unfortunately of the colonialist enterprise of English language teaching, what Robert Phillipson (1992) termed linguistic imperialism. The relativity of the term becomes even clearer after talking to April’s best friend, a young woman from Pakistan who comes from a well-off family. “In Canada, I felt like a wanna-be immigrant”, she said. “In Turkey, I feel like an expat.”  “Expat” indicates a kind of belonging to a social group which is accorded higher status because of their education, wealth, and position relative to the host country. Disturbingly, embedded in the term expat is a sense of “better-than”.

Picture 4

Who gets to be an expat? The title of this blog post is meant to be provocative.  The goal is not to try to determine a single definition of expat, but to shed light on the imbalanced relations of power that the term carries/ propagates – A reminder that we need to think carefully about the words we use to define ourselves and others. In our sociolinguistics course, the interrogation of the expat label generated a fruitful reflection on the interaction between a person’s identity, belonging, and their passport. These different elements — identity, passport, status, and place — interact to produce access to different privileges, and changes a person’s status and sense of belonging.

What is your experience?  Have you ever felt like or been called an expat?  What connotations does the term carry for you?

Picture 5


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