Are you an expat or an immigrant?

For three months I’ve been calling myself an expat without thinking about it. That’s what it means to be a foreigner working abroad, right?

Not necessarily. Today, I read this great post on Fabulous Fusions, quoting this BBC article, which made me pause for the first time and consider what I really should be calling myself – particularly living in a country like Timor-Leste.

“The word expat is loaded,” the BBC explains. “It carries many connotations, preconceptions and assumptions about class, education and privilege — just as the terms foreign worker, immigrant and migrant call to mind a different set of assumptions.”

You wouldn’t really call a maid an expat, the article says – but why not?

I’d never thought about that before (of course I haven’t; I’m white – we’ve always found excuses for not having to learn about things like this). I choose not to use the word “immigrant” to describe my living situation because to me that word suggests permanency, and while I’ll be in Timor-Leste for at least 18 months, the fact I’ve got an end date says to me that I have no claim to any word that indicates a permanent stay. I thought I was doing the right thing by avoiding any claim to it.

But expat, of course, doesn’t quite mean transient, and by choosing to call myself an expat, I’m inadvertently styling myself as the frothy kind of cashed-up Prado-driving compound-living short-term elite foreign consultant I always want to roll my eyes at. (Arguably even worse than their conceit, though, is the fact that I too live in a compound, in leafy Toorak-like Farol, and I’m just deciding for myself that it’s permissible because I’ve heard of other malae spending three thousand a month at Palm Springs and failing to learn even the Tetun word for “thank you”).

The BBC piece continues:

“It’s not about the colour of your skin, and it’s not about the salary that you earn,” says [Dr Yvonne] McNulty, an expat researcher and senior lecturer at the school of human development and social science at SIM University in Singapore.

“Are maids expats? Yes they are. Are construction workers in Singapore that you see on the building sites expats? Yes they are,” she says.

The piece concedes just changing the words we use to label foreign workers won’t change social and economic realities, quoting a guy called Malte Zeeck, who founded the expat website InterNations.

“…for people that we today call expats… living abroad is rather a lifestyle choice than borne out of economic necessity or dire circumstances in their home country such as oppression or persecution,” Zeeck says. “That’s what differentiates them from refugees or economic migrants and not their income or origin.”

As Marlena notes in her post, I haven’t moved because of economic necessity – I too had a great life in my home country. I’m unfathomably lucky to have the mobility to choose where and how I’ll live – which is not a fact that’s true for many other young people in this country, with its skyscraper-high unemployment rates.

Part of being a person with agency and privilege – with options – is, necessarily, to make sure I choose good ones. The words we use matter, so I need to make sure I’m choosing the best.

I read another news piece today about how pleased Australian farmers are with the work done by the Timorese who pick our fruit on seasonal work visas. I’m thinking now – they’re in Australia for specific, short-term work – just like I am here in Timor. Whatever word we choose, we should use the same one for both of us, right?

I still don’t know how closely I want to cling to the word “expat”, or how much I really feel like an “immigrant”. I do know I’m a malae, thought, and Tetun also provides a neat adjective to describe my situation.

The name I’ve chosen for this blog, Sophie Rai Liur, pieces together my first name and a Tetun word that sounds vaguely similar to my surname, Raynor. In Tetun, rai is land, and liur means outside, and the two together function as the English word “abroad”. Sophie abroad; Sophie outside land. Not quite as catchy or nickname-y, but it fits.



6 responses to “Are you an expat or an immigrant?”

  1. Great read! It’s a question I regularly ask myself …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Good to know my neuroses isn’t alone. 😉


  2. I had been wondering the exact same thing for the last week, when I decided to look at your perfectly balanced Instagram feed (😊) and ran into this post. I had never thought about it before, but my brief time in Timor made me realize something: I’m white and incredibly privileged. I’m also Mexican. I would never be called an expat in the US, yet I’m considered one here. I now cringe at the word because there seems to be a backstory -mostly of privilege and stereotypes- that I really dislike. I’ve decided that no matter where I am and how long I intend to stay, I’ll simply be a person living abroad. No other noun is required. 🌎🌍🌏


  3. […] significant military support and generous aid funding from foreign donors brings thousands of expats, and a surprisingly diverse range of restaurants, to Dili. I feel very grateful for the opportunity […]


  4. […] this post to understand why I should be using the word […]


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