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Immigrant, Expat, Refugee?
What we are called and call ourselves...
On New Year’s Eve, I published a post called Our First Year in Portugal. Via footnote, I mentioned that I questioned my use of the word “expat” and suggested I would likely write about this in the future. Well, the future is today.
SEO and Google Rankings
I once wrote a blog about pickleball and our pickleball travels in an RV named OLGA, ie. Old Ladies Get Around. At the time I learned to use a popular website tool (WordPress) to create and maintain the site. Most people thought I had learned all about website development because I had worked in the computer industry for 30 years. Não! Remember, I was in sales. So I had to be charming, occasionally funny, and an expert at getting the people that actually understood what I was selling to assist me. Oh, and I also bought lunch. But I digress… My point is that when I created the website I learned about SEO, Google searches, Google rankings, etc. Because I want to keep growing this community the website will remain ExpatinPortugal…but it should not.
As I started to think about what Ms. Witmer had written I used my Google machine to dig deeper. The definition above was helpful and did accurately describe me. Wikipedia took it a step further:
An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person's upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex ('out of') and patria ('country, fatherland'). — Wikipedia
It seemed that I could continue to use the word. But then I Googled the difference between an expat and an immigrant and found this:
Expatriate: someone who lives outside of their native country. Immigrant: someone who comes to live permanently in another country.
Ahh, a distinction that seemed to fit. We had originally planned to reside in Portugal for 4 or 5 years and then return to the US…but for a whole slew of reasons, our plans changed. This is now our home.
Down the Rabbit Hole
But as I thought about it, and read more there appeared to be a common theme. Expats were people from first-world countries with first-world problems often seeking a better life(style). There is an air of superiority:
Expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people...
Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’. — The Guardian
In fact, I read one article that reported that the words illegal and undocumented are often substituted for immigrant; while nationalities like British or American are most often collocations for expat.
It is difficult for me to describe all the thoughts and feelings that have flooded my consciousness since I first considered what to call myself. (I even took the time to research the word refugee, as I felt a need to flee the country of my birth.) Oddly enough, a subscriber emailed me a few days after my 31 December post and shared an essay he had written on this topic. He typically doesn’t publish his work. However, he said it so much better than I could that I asked him if I could reprint it here. He gave his permission for which I am most grateful.
The following was written by Timothy J. Slivinski, who currently lives in Porto with his husband Caleb.
I am an Immigrant
I remember reading “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway, a tale of expatriate Brits and Americans who seemed to do nothing but wake up in the morning, drink themselves into oblivion, and then wake up the next day and do it all over again. Such a life, I thought. Oh, and they did take a break from Paris to attend the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Yes, they lived a hard life. It seemed to me at that age that being an expatriate offered all kinds of benefits, but it was a life I would never know. These people were artistic, had money, or at least never seemed to worry about it, and they never had to do an honest day’s work. I longed for a life of leisure. . . just like Hemingway’s characters, but I had amassed the wisdom already at that young age to know that it was a dream I would never achieve. I was a working-class kid; the dream of living in Europe would always remain just that: a dream.
2016. The citizens of the USA elected a maniacal, pompous blowhard as their next president, and almost instantly—or so it seemed--the face of the nation changed. Bigotry, hatred, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, and so many more anti-whomevers came roaring into the mainstream, the hatred fed by the newly elected leader of the country. What was happening to my nation? I began to doubt my ability to continue to live freely and safely in the nation of my birth. Home? This was no longer my home. But finding an answer would not be easy. Leave? Could I leave? Where would I go? How would I go? How do I begin to go? I don’t have money; how will I support myself?
So many questions with so few answers. But as my fear of my future in the US grew, I knew I had to take action. And I remembered the expatriates of Hemingway’s novel. They left. But they seemed wealthy or somehow carefree when it came to supporting themselves. That was not me. No way. I just could not do it. I felt trapped.
Still the idea of leaving gnawed at me; I could not let it go. And if I did go, where would I go and how do I begin? So I began to do what all modern answer seekers in our modern world do: I googled it. But as I googled and sought answers, something did not sit quite right. Expatriates seemed to be those who chose to live abroad, very likely not permanently, before returning, and very likely moving from place to place to experience various peoples and cultures, in a carefree sort of way. It sounded so civilized. So upper-crust. And so not where I was coming from. Upper-crust I am not.
Was I making a choice? Perhaps I was. Perhaps I was not. I felt a sense of fear—yes, fear—remaining in the nation of my birth. Can a true choice be motivated by fear and fear alone? Was I just going abroad for the “experience,” hopping from nation to nation to understand the culture, taste the food, sip the wine? That certainly was not my motivation. I know myself. I need roots.
And one evening as I sat quietly with a glass of wine and pondered my ever more frightful situation in the USA, it dawned on me. The proverbial “light bulb” above my head started to shine brightly. Expatriate? No, not a chance. Not me. Refugee? That sounds more like it. I was fleeing my home country for safety, freedom, civil rights—breathing freely?--and more. I was fleeing because I feared that, at some point, I would be singled out for being LGBTQ or for being Jewish or for being an intellectual, or for being a teacher. To me, the fear was palpable. Thoughts of it consumed me. Daily. I no longer felt safe and content. I would be a refugee. I am a refugee. . . present tense.
To call myself an expatriate is to perpetuate a lie. I did not flee for the glamorous reasons of sipping cocktails in the afternoon sun. I did not flee to sit around and gossip about the other expats and who had or did not have what. I did not flee with the intention of traipsing around Europe, country to country until I became bored with one place and needed to move on to another. No, my reasons contained a seriousness of purpose much beyond all that. I am not an expat, a word that conjures up grandiose images of people of means who decide to seek the glamorous life beyond their own borders. No, that was not me. There was no glamour in my desire to pack up and leave. I was and am not a person of means. This might mean hardship, but it was necessary. I was fleeing out of fear, fear that a nation I once believed in was collapsing, failing. Glamour? Absolutely not. Not in any way.
And so I call myself a refugee. I followed the rules to obtain legal citizenship in another nation. Not for a month. Not for a year, not even two. But for a lifetime. I needed a home, a refuge (hence, refugee?), a place to feel safe to live as me: without fear, without stress, without constant worry. Fortunately, another government looked at my application and permitted me the right—dare I say privilege—to enter their country and make it my home. But I insist again, I am not an expat.
I am an immigrant. Like so many immigrants, my grandparents included, I sought a place in another land to better my life. I will accept the responsibilities of my new nation willingly because of the privilege of being granted residency. This is no whim. This, to me, is survival. This is quality of life. This is having the freedom and opportunity to be true to myself. To many, the word “immigrant” in today’s context conjures up images of people crowded at a border, swimming across a polluted river, dodging bullets from armed forces gunfire, sleeping in makeshift shelters and tents, suffering from lack of food and other essential daily supplies, traveling clandestinely so as not to be detected. No. That is not me. But I am no less a refugee. I am seeking exactly what they are seeking: a better lot in life away from the fear of imprisonment, suffering, and death. I am just a bit more fortunate than they are. I am not hoping to live an “American life” in my adopted nation. Not at all. I am the stranger. I am the foreigner. I must adapt to their cultural norms. I must learn their language. My Americanism does not supersede their love of their own culture. So I am a guest, an immigrant. And I always will be. And I am grateful to be a guest. I will attempt to be the best guest I can be.
I am an immigrant. I am proud to be an immigrant. It is not a badge of shame in any way. It is a badge of honor. I wear it with great pride.
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Next Week: finding an apartment in Vila Real de Santo António and what we will miss about Cascais.