Panorama of Vatican

Who's an Expatriate?

November 27, 2018 / By: Jordy Chavez-Estrada
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Jordy Chavez-Estrada is the son of Mexican immigrants and  lives in Bloomington, MN. He is  currently a junior majoring in Biology and minoring in Exercise Science. He likes to write poetry, lifts objects for fun, and spends much of his time with lovely, kind souls. He almost forgot! He’s also vegan.

Hey there! Do you like gaining a perspective about the world through cultural immersion? Do you want to spend a period of your time on Earth learning about people and places you would only hear about on blogs and Facebook? Do you want to be paid to travel and experience a new way of perceiving the world? Then the life of an expatriate may be for you!

Wait! What’s an expatriate, you ask?

Wikipedia describes an expatriate as “a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than their native country.” Examples include a professional residing in another country such as a Chinese doctor working in France or a Chilean professor teaching in Australia for a short period. Expatriates have opportunities to travel outside of their native country which means they have the freedom to be more mobile. There are many legal, financial, and social difficulties which prevent most people from following plans which involve migration; with the mobility to pick up and move to a different nation, expatriates have greater social liberties than others to migrate to work.

There are critiques on the social liberties of an expatriate. The Guardian provides a view of an expatriate from the lens of Mawuna Koutonin in his article “Why are the white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” In Koutonin’s experience, the word expatriate (“expat” for short) is given an added sub-definition:

"Expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad. Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants."

Indeed, I see the critique on expats; an African professional will be labeled “immigrant” rather than “expat” even though by definition they are an expatriate. Expats are more likely to be financially stable white people from western culture; the people who may have had more opportunity to retire in a foreign country are western, wealthy, white people. White people have the luxury of choosing not to be labeled “expat.” Most would not even want to be associated with a label and this is a privilege in itself; choice to not be molded by society is a luxury.

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Pictured above is a photo advertised by a meetup website tailored to a white western expat audience. One may find these kind advertisements in most popular expat cities. 

Literature has the ability to speak to these complicated differences which involve race and class. A living example of the differences between immigrants and expatriates can be seen in a book we read for the ENGL 337 Thirteen Ways of Looking at Rome class, Anthony Doerr’s memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, about his year in the city with his newborn twins and wife. Doerr, a white American writer on fellowship in Rome, tells the story of when, in search of a babysitter, he and his wife Shauna find a Filipina woman by the name of Tacy. Tacy had had a well-paying job as a pharmaceuticals representative in the Philippines, but is now working as a caretaker in Rome while her son is back at home. Doerr asks with curiosity, “was hard for you to come here?” She responds, “Maybe fifty minutes by bus. Not far.” He thinks, “I want to clarify, was it hard for you to leave home, leave your son, but Shauna gives me a look.” Doerr may not have intended his demeanor to come off as patronizing but the tone and level of question was deemed inappropriate by his wife.

I wanted to gain the perspective on expatriate life from a person in the flesh so I sought my theology professor. He is a white American male who is very aware of his place in the social class of Roman life. I wanted to find if he would consider himself an expat. I asked him, “Would you consider yourself an expatriate?” he responded with a long pause and confused look, then he finally replied, “No, however by all definitions one could call me an expat and I would not correct them, but by my experience, I consider myself an American living in Rome.” Indeed he is an American living in Rome, nine years to be more exact. I wanted to dive deeper so I asked him, “Why is there such a weird stigma with the word ‘expat’?” he took a deep breath and responded, “I think that in historic terms, expats have been seen as these elite travelers who have money or opportunity handed to them. There is the perception that they did not work for their opportunity or that they are in some way better than everyone else due to their status as a foreign professional. I would like to be considered something more than an expat, not a local, of course, but simply a normal human living in Rome.” Again we see this choice to not be labeled, which is so common in expats in foreign nations. It is the correct term, yet the connection to wealth and privilege is something he does not want to be associated with. 

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Photo of an American expat taken in the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Rome. 

Being a student in Rome, I could be in the category of expat; I take this as a blessing. I understand how lucky I am to be in such a beautiful, historic city. I understand most of my family will never be able to have an opportunity like mine; being a child of immigrants, I know how much my family had to sacrifice for me to even be eligible of having a better life. I take their struggle with me everywhere I go such as the immigrants I see on the cobblestone lined streets working to feed their families. I see my mom in the street vendors that many find annoying; I see my brothers in the young musicians that play popular pop songs in the metro; I see my aunts in the cleaning staff of my residence building. I see it all. I often have a feeling of internal guilt for being in my position. This is why I embrace being an expat. I have the capability to spread the beauty and the essence of the people of Rome back to my modest home in Minnesota.

I hope you, the reader, feel a little more informed about the cultural appearance of expatriates in Italy and I hope you can find a way to see your family in those you may find a little different.