Expat Or Immigrant: What’s In a Name

Recent articles in The Guardian the Wall Street Journal’s “Expat” blog have discussed the racial implications of certain migrants being called “expats”, while others are labeled “immigrants”. That got me thinking. And that’s always a dangerous thing….


Yes, “expat” has the ring of the exotic about it, and conjures up visions of drinks with journalists, politicians and the “old hands” at The Imperial Hotel, and cheeky comments about the locals, while “immigrant” has the decidedly sweaty quality of steerage about it. But is that all there is to it?

No. It actually gets worse. Expats stand at the top of the heap, while a litany of pejoratives lie beneath. For starters, refugees and asylum seekers are to be pitied, and coddled, or worse, are seen as burdensome – a, drain on the system. But, as much as we lament the systemic strain of refugee populations, and the eyesore of ‘temporary” (hopefully) relocation camps, the lowly immigrant remains the ultimate burden on society. Over time there will be more of them/us than genuine refugees, and there’s little chance that “immigrants” will eventually be resettled somewhere less problematic. For that reason, “immigrants” are seen as the ultimate job stealers and opportunists in a world that’s increasingly perceived to be a zero-sum game.

But how/when do we decide who gets what label? Refugees and asylum seekers are pretty easy to mark, but “expat” versus “immigrant” is more of a gray area. Or, perhaps it’s a white (or at least white-collar) area.

If you come from the U.S., Canada, or Europe, it’s pretty much a mortal lock that you’ll be labeled (and label yourself) an “expat”. If you come from Asia or Central/South America, you will most likely be labeled an “immigrant”, but economic circumstances, class, and physical appearance may temper that somewhat. If, however, you emigrate from Africa to almost anywhere in the world, regardless of your economic status you will almost certainly be tagged as an “immigrant”. And, for Africans, that label doesn’t change over time. African emigrants report that even after decades in their new homes they remain “immigrants” and not “expats”, and are routinely, and systemically, excluded from that classification both bureaucratically and socially.

For “expats” getting together is seen as quaint (if overly insular). Notice you’ll never see postings for the “Berlin (or Dublin or Manchester) Immigrant Meetup Group”, but there are daily expat social events advertised in most major European cities. God forbid we “expats” mix with the locals, or, perish the thought, “immigrants”.

In our zeal to simplify, and not have to think too much about things, we’ve all created an entire class system fully kitted out with perceived worth, value judgments, and even hygiene slurs (witness my earlier steerage quip). To be fair and balanced here, I have to admit that we migrants also do this to ourselves. I certainly identify myself as an “expat”. And, while I do make an effort to use “immigrant” in ways that don’t imply a negative, I’ll admit that I often select emigrant over immigrant because the former is, for some reason, less likely to be judged (if only by me).

To non-migrants the distinction between “expat” and “immigrant” may seem a small thing, but right, wrong, or indifferent, stereotypes don’t exist in a vacuum, they are based on something, and they start somewhere.

By the way, you’ll find the Guardian and Wall Street Journal articles here:


Wall Street Journal


Glenn K.
Dublin, March 2015

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Finding the “Right” City For You

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
This entry was posted in Emigrant/Immigrant Life, Expat Living and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Expat Or Immigrant: What’s In a Name

  1. David says:

    I think for me Expat also implies a temporary situation. Immigrant means you have gone the whole hog. I think if I had a great job in London for a few years I’d only be an expat, but as I’ve moved my wife to Ireland to buy a house and live, I also call myself an immigrant.

    • Interesting point, David.

      Perhaps time is also a factor.
      Yet in the glory days of empire many of the “old hands” in India and Africa referred to themselves as “expats” decades into their stay. And they clearly had no intention of leaving.

  2. Reader says:

    There is also the phrase ‘going native’, which is nicely perjorative towards Ireland and the Irish.

    • I don’t doubt you, but how is that comment particularly offensive to the Irish?

      • Reader says:

        In the context I heard it used the majority of times, it meant a reduction of standards.

        • Ahh, Now I can see how it might be used “against the Irish.


          • David says:

            Yes, I can also see how it could be used “against the Irish” – the implication being that there IS a reduction in standards! (As per your other posts where you have mentioned that lower standards here frustrate you).

            Nobody wants to be racist, intellectually (well, anyone with a brain). And yet when you are faced with a situation that is clearly different, and negative, generally speaking, it is hard not to generalise. As an immigrant to Ireland, from a first world country, I have been shocked at how things are run here. In some ways it’s like a primary school trying to run a nuclear power plant, except it shouldn’t be that hard, so maybe it’s more like a primary school trying to run a restaurant. This has been spoken off at length so I won’t go into it again, but on the racism point it’s interesting isn’t it. If I allow myself through frustration and bitter experience to generalise about the Irish I can full well see how apart from blackening my soul and experience here it wouldn’t be fair on the Irish person I’m thinking it about without any evidence that that person will act in the way I fear.

            I know in other aspects of my life I’ve said – listen, you need to NOT generalise, despite your experience, as it’s grossly unfair. Take everyone on their merits. And yet here, as a survival strategy from day to day, I’ve taken to expecting the worst in every dealing with Irish companies and the government. I expect it to take 10 times as long as it should, and to be done in the most inefficient, and illogical kind of way. And by doing this, I’m less stressed when it happens that way, which it does often.

            Irish people are of course conditioned to this and don’t even see it. I see many similarities with Papua New Guinea. That place is clearly in deep deep trouble, and yet the locals think things (government services say) are grand too when they were probably in the 1630s in terms of health care and so on.

            Anyway back to the point. Racism is an evil, and yet we all struggle with personal generalisations based on experience, as we wish to minimise our own pain. Perhaps the best thing to do is to have the battle internally, although it’s easy to see how the outcome can be the same which isn’t cool for those discriminated against.

            One famous American black ant-racism leader admitted a few years ago he found himself relieved when a group of youths approaching him at night on the streets turned out to be white. That’s shocking to us to hear but imagine how shocking it was to him, and he had the courage to tell the rest of us to say how messed up it all was. And yet statistically, in that neighbourhood, it was probably right to be relieved.

            Perhaps it’s case of common sense prevailing in some situations even though you try and do right by individuals as often as you can, even if it is to your detriment.

            I’m still positive about being here, even though I have been driven to madness, and almost the airport, by my dealings with the Irish.

          • David,

            Excellent insights. Thanks for reading the blog, and for taking the time to contribute.


    • Des says:

      Would have to disagree. In Ireland going native is a term of endearment, as the person is seen as adapting the local attitude, parlance and mores. And Having read this blog over the last few years, in terms of attitude and language, Glenn is definitely going native. Your “people of faith” article being a quality example. Gift!

  3. Thomas says:

    In response to David comparing Ireland to Papua New Guinea.

    GDP per capita Republic of Ireland 2015 $52,256
    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic_of_Ireland

    GDP per capita USA 2013 $53,402
    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States

    GDP per capita State of Georgia (Glenn’s home State) 2012 $37,702
    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_GDP_per_capita

    GDP per capita Papua New Guinea 2013 $2,283
    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papua_New_Guinea

  4. Thomas says:

    In my experience there’s a cohort of modern international migrant who moves from A to B not because they have to but because they want to, a by product of globalisation, particularly but not exclusively amongst developed nations. The term Expat or immigrant doesn’t seem to capture this reality, so maybe it’s time for the lexicon to be updated.

  5. Josephine says:


    Comparing Ireland to Papua New Guinea is laughable. From reading your comments on Ireland and the Irish amuses and annoys me. What in the world are you doing in Ireland in the first place and your assumptions (“I’ve taken to expecting the worst in every dealing with Irish companies and the Government. I expect it to take 10 times as long as it should and to be done in the most inefficient, and illogical kind of way and by doing this I am less stressed when it happens that way, which it does often. Irish people are of course conditioned to this and don’t even see it. I see many similarities with Papua New Guinea.” And then you end up by saying: “I’m still positive about being here even though I have been driven to madness and almost at the airport, by my dealing with the Irish.” David if I were in your situation I would have taken the first flight out of the country I could get and try a “first world country” like Italy (good luck) Spain, UK, Sweden, Netherlands, etc., where all of my needs would be met and I would not have to deal with the Irish. Do the Irish people a favor and leave and I am sure that you will not be missed. By the way read Enda H’s comments dated August 14, 2011. He will educate you on the Irish since you have such a low opinion of them and you don’t seem to know much about the Irish culture since you seem to imply that traditional Irish music was resurrected by the English Americans for the benefit of the tourists. Irish traditional music is in the DNA of every Irish person thanks to the Celts as well as literature.

    • David says:

      “Do the Irish people a favour and leave and I am sure you will not be missed”


      My apologies. Nothing to worry about IMF. Everything’s grand. Except the damn immigrants…

  6. Josephine says:


    I get the sarcasm. Nothing wrong with immigrants. They add flavor to the country. However, there is something wrong when immigrants start complaining about the Irish and their backward ways and how everything is not done to their satisfaction. David you achieve a lot more with honey than you do with vinegar.

  7. Josephine says:


    I get the sarcasm. Nothing wrong with the immigrants, they add flavor. However I doubt that the Irish people appreciate an immigrant coming into their country and speaking in a disparaging and condescending manner about them and their backward ways. If you are going to stay there and I really hope that you do not, try to fit in. You will not change the Irish character just as the Irish would not try to change your character. David in life you get a lot further with honey rather than vinegar.

    • Yes, Josephine, but I have to say the Irish really are slow to change unless they are forced to, or someone of status (or who they “respect”) tells them to change.

      The dual Irish attitudes of “Sure, It’ll Be Grand” and “Things Work Well Enough” all but guarantee social and cultural stagnation. The recent marriage equality referendum is a notable exception. And, even there, you can make the case that that only happened because a group of cultural outsiders (not immigrants, but not all that different in many ways) stood up for themselves and demanded change.

      So, I’d have to say that, while they should always be considerate and respectful about it, a group of outsiders (like “immigrants”) kicking Irish butts into the 21st century may not be the worst thing that could happen.

      Just my two cents.


      • David says:

        And Josephine, you seem bright enough, but consider for a minute what you’ve done here. This is a discussion on a website run by an immigrant to discuss the immigrant experience. I am an immigrant. You know nothing about me or my circumstances. I have come to this forum for support as part of my immigration. I’m talking about my experiences with other immigrants, for my own benefit really, because it isn’t easy, but also to share my experiences with peers.

        For some reason, you have come here, our own little space on the internet where I can discuss things with people who know where I’m at, and abused me, and told me to fuck off and go home basically, and that I would be doing the Irish a favour, and that no one would miss me.

        Can you think for a second what that is like for someone in my position? I’ve turned my own life around coming here. So has my wife. I told her your suggestion, and she was pretty upset with it. We have brought over 100k here, after having sold everything back home to do so. We pay tax. We do not take anything – not a damn thing – from the Irish economy (not even a job as all our money comes from abroad). We have private health insurance (but haven’t needed to use it). I’m studying Irish history culture and politics through library books and other means. We took a trip to Cork yesterday to try and find where Collins was shot. As far as I can tell I know more about the place from a historical and economic perspective than the average Irish person (and with a more objective view as I only have a slight bias which would in any event be pro Irish). I’m not just here living off you guys or not taking an interest.

        The truth is sometimes people who have lived around the world have a different perspective. I’ve had to deal with the government a lot here, as well as lawyers in private transactions, and I, as I said, have been astounded and frustrated almost to the point of insanity at some aspects of how things are done (I have worked on many global transactions over the past 15 years). I arrived with no-preconceptions, and only positive images of the Irish brand as it were, being of Irish descent myself and marrying into an Irish family.

        So, thanks for telling me and my wife to fuck off for sharing my experiences here on the immigration board. I will not hold it against my Irish friends or family, who I adore. That wouldn’t be a nice thing to do. Perhaps I should just keep all my thoughts completely to myself and not ever anyone. That works for people, doesn’t it.

        Ireland is in many ways extremely insular, which I guess is appropriate enough given insular originally meant ‘island’.

        I’m not going to back and forth on this. Take your prejudice somewhere else on the internet please.

  8. Josephine says:

    Hi David,
    I am going to quote you here: “I seem bright enough” Well thanks for that. Can you imagine an Irish person can string two words together. As for my impression of you. Here goes. I find you arrogant, condescending and very rude and very disrespectful to the Irish people as in your very own description of them.

    I am going to quote you here: “Consider for a minute what you have done here” So this website is strictly (according to you) “run by an immigrant for immigrants to discuss the immigrant experience” So from what you have written if I am to understand correctly than no one except immigrants can come to this website even though there are native Irish people on here commenting as well as immigrants. Then you state “you know nothing about me or my circumstances” Dave I do not want to know about you or your circumstances but you enrage me when you loosely comment about the “backward ways of this country and how frustrated you are having to deal with Irish people and how they are so similar to Papua New Guinea people “ah sure everything is grand” Do you realize how arrogant and condescending you sound and a whiner also?

    Again I am quoting you: “for some reason you have come here, our own little space on the internet where I can discuss things with people who know where I’m at and abused me” No Dave you. by your own words you “abused” the Irish people. I don’t like bullies, never did and as I said you by your very own words abused your host country. Then you state and I quote you “and told me to “FUCK OFF” and go home basically.” This is the reason why I have even bothered to answer your disgusting comments as I have no intention to keep going back and forth with you. I never ever used the VULGAR and disgusting phrase “FUCK OFF” YOU used those vulgar words which says a lot about you. Here is what I said Dave and try to retain it in your brain. “David if I were in your situation I would have taken the first flight out of the country I could get and try a “first world country” “Do the Irish people a favor and leave and I am sure that you will not be missed” Very different statement than what you have accused me of saying. I do not like to be misquoted and I don’t use vulgarity. I am able to express myself quite well thank you without being vulgar.

    Let me make myself very clear. I do not want to know anything about your circumstances, the fact that you sold your home in Australia and took a certain amount of money with you and that your wife is very upset because I said that if life is so difficult for you that you should go home. It’s none of my business. David you choose to come to Ireland, the Irish didn’t force you, you made that choice yourself. Again David I was so offended by your description of Ireland and the Irish people describing them as being very similar to the people of New Guinea “sure it’s grand” How arrogant and condescending of you. I love the Irish people they are the best in the world and I hate when outsiders/ blow ins starts denigrating them and their backward ways. I will, however, congratulate you on your mission to learn about Irish history/culture and politics and the fact that you took a trip to Cork to find out where Michael Collins was shot. Here’s the arrogance again and I will quote you: “As far as I can tell I know more about the place from a historical and economical perspective than the average Irish person” David an Irish person would not make a statement like that visiting a host country about their people not knowing their historical history. It’s very rude.

    I myself am in the travel industry and have travelled all over the world and am able to accept different cultures and would never expect them to change or conform to my way of doing things. They have their own ways of doing things and I accept it. I spent some time in Russia and found their way of doing business very different to what I was used to, but I accepted it. I was in their country. I certainly would not try to change them, not my place, or writing on a blog about them.

    Your third paragraph from the bottom where you state: “So thanks for telling me and my wife to “FUCK OFF” for sharing my experiences here on the immigration board” AGAIN DAVID I DID NOT SAY THAT VULGAR WORD THAT YOU USED AND I CERTAINLY DID NOT MENTION YOUR WIFE. YOU ARE MISQUOTING ME AGAIN. STOP.

    Yes Ireland is a island nation and please learn as much as you can about Irish history and especially learn about the 800 years of occupation that the Irish people had to endure and also where they were forbidden by the English to learn and how the Priests actually taught the Irish children inside of a DITCH as the children were forbidden to go to school by the British and if they caught the Priest teaching inside of a ditch that Priest was killed. I can remember my grandparents telling me how the British soldiers would come into their house and ram sack it looking for the Fenians and if they found any in any house they killed them. Then you can learn about the famine of 1845 when the food was shipped out of the country to England while the Irish starved. My grandmother survived it and that is why I am here thanks to her. I have attended a lecture given by a famous international Doctor lecturing on the famine and the aftereffects on the people. According to this Doctor it takes 3 to 4 generations after a famine to produce a healthy body; I myself suffer from thyroid disease and many of the Irish that I know do as well as auto immune disease and my Brother died of autoimmune disease at the age of 33 and my Mother at the age of 64 of autoimmune disease also and according to my Doctor it is inherited because the people who survived that famine their body slowed down in order to preserve the body’s organs and the lingering effects of that in many cases is thyroid disease and is very prominent in many peoples who survived famine according to the medical authorities.

    Before I end this very long response to your response to my comments just try for a minute to imagine if I, as an Irish person, immigrated to Australia and after a month or 6 months starting writing about all of the things that I disliked about Australia (which I have no intention of going to by the way) and found the people and culture so backward that I was nearly at the airport ready to leave; how do you think you as an Australian reading that would feel? Would you not defend your country and your countrymen and would you not be offended by someone immigrating to your country denigrating the country and the Australian people? I do believe that you would if you had any respect or pride in your country. Same with the Irish I am afraid.

    In summary the internet is open world wide for anyone to use and since Glen Kaufmann started this blog in 2011 he has gotten many comments both from native Irish in Ireland and Irish abroad as well as immigrant to immigrant coming into the country. As far as I know everyone is free to comment and it is not strictly immigrant to immigrant as you seem to imply. I am assuming that you are intending to stay in the country which of course is your right but please try to be respectful of the Irish people and you will find them to be very accommodating to you and if you approach them respectfully it should not take them 10 times as you state to get anything done. I will not respond to you again as I have said all that I want to say. When you have learned the history of the Irish maybe then you will understand where they are coming from and why they are the way that they are. I wish you luck in all of your future endeavors.

  9. Pitu says:

    I just found your blog today and I like it! I am an American living in Dublin whose spsoue is employed with UCD. I started a blog for my friends and family back home, keeping them abreast of what’s happening here. I write so little about Ireland and mainly about home.

  10. As an Englishman living in Ireland for 24 years,married to an Irish beauty. Would I consider myself an ex pat or immigrant,possibly both.But these two terms are not the same as refugee or asylum seeker.I had to apply for a job here,chase up a prsi number and stand on my own two feet.Ah the good old days.The term immigrant has replaced refugee and asylum seeker,as the buzz word.In previous comments, I have advocated that you really should be bringing a skill,mine is nursing to any country.I know it sounds selective,but it isn’t a racist idea,lots of Filipino nurses, Asian doctors etc.followed the same route as me.We are called skilled migrant workers. The term immigrant conjures up cheap unskilled labour or hordes of people fleeing from desperate situations and can be disturbing.The term ex pat conjures up people who moved somewhere,liked it,could afford to stand on their own two feet and made themselves comfortable.If something needs a label it needs to justify itself.As for me I am English,wherever I go.

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