When does the expat stop being an expat?

This is the ONLY song that I could even consider using as the theme tune of the day. A very young Sting and Englishman In New York. This ‘legal alien‘ business has been on my mind quite a bit lately for a whole heap of different reasons. It is a little bit more serious than most of my more recent posts, then again it’s something I’ve been contemplating quite a lot lately and want to get off my chest.

The bother really started with the term expat. Expatriates are in my mind the types that move to an another country for a fixed period of time. The whole family may or may not accompany them. I know families in both camps. Sometimes it’s easier if one parent stays ‘home’ while the children carry on normal life (school, hobbies etc). In other cases it makes sense that the whole family is in on the adventure. Either way it’s for a finite time, 1 year, 2 years maybe five at the most.

I thought I’d hunt down a definition and this is the first response I got: Noun – a person who lives outside their native country. Yes, I fit into that particular box. Adjective: Living outside one’s native country. I detect a pattern, and again this is one box that I fit into. Verb: Settle oneself abroad. I don’t like this pattern one little bit. If we get into synonyms then words such as exile, emigrant, banish, deport and relegate come up.

Wikipedia gave this as the opening entry: “An expatriate (in abbreviated form, expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“country, fatherland”).” See here for their full entry which continued in the vein of the living outside one’s native country. My Finnish dictionary gave me ulkomailla asuva henkilö (person living overseas) for expat, and then went straight to maanpakolainen (exile) for expatriate.

While also contemplating my own expat status, I started to wonder why refugees aren’t called expats, after all they are residing outside of their native country. I wonder why immigrants aren’t called expats, again living outside of their native country. There appears to be an unwritten rule (except now it’s in Wikipedia!) that it’s a term reserved for professionals sent abroad or hired from abroad to fill a gap in the local labour market.

My own contemplations return. I’m a member of various groups that label themselves ‘expat’. The funny thing is, all of these groups I’ve joined in recent times and long after the ‘expat’ tag really ceased to apply in my mind. I know I shouldn’t worry about these labels. The thing is I don’t feel Finnish and I don’t feel Australian (or Tasmanian) even. Please don’t tag me as an international resident. Yes I’m an Australian that lives in Finland, and while I’ll never be a Finnish Finn, the longer I live here the less Australian I feel.

In my Finnish class we are a truly international bunch: from Australia to Afghanistan, from the Ukraine to the US and every continent in between. Most of us have lived here a long time, and our Finnish is pretty good. We are all the same when it comes to describing our language skills: I speak my mother tongue and a little Finnish! Crazy, we all speak lots of Finnish, yet every last one of us downplayed our skills. Why? Are we afraid that by admitting to being fluent in Finnish that we will lose a part of ourselves. Instead we should be shouting from the rooftops: Hah I speak Finnish! Actually Häh, mä puhun suomea! Are we afraid that we sound bad or our accents are showing? Like our teacher reminded us today, we need to speak badly before we can begin to speak well. As for accents, well I’m well aware that my Finnish sometimes has the Helsinki ‘whine’. I actually quite loath a full on Helsinki accent, so this is a little ironic!

Speaking Finnish and English brings us to bilingualism. From day one we decided to follow the one parent one language model. I speak English, The Engineer speaks Finnish and thus Mr. 13 speaks both. Beautifully, naturally without thought or hesitation. It is a beautiful thing to behold and really took not much effort. More effort is required for the cultural side and I’m starting to sense that I may have strayed here. I think had I moved to Finland as an Australian family it would have been easier to maintain Australian customs. We don’t do much Australian ‘stuff’ and seriously, Australia is far from my thoughts when it’s -10 and I’m shoveling snow out of the car-park. We do Australian stuff when we go to Australia which is not that often, and probably not often enough from anyone’s point of view. I don’t keep up with the minutiae of Australian life; it’s hard enough keeping track of Finnish life sometimes 🙂

Cultural differences came up in my travel class too. If I have mentioned this fact before, I apologise in advance for repeating myself! My first two years here are a total blur. I have absolutely no recollection of how I got through day-to-day living. That’s culture shock on a major level. I must have managed, we’re alive and well, yet the only incident I can recall is trudging to the foreigners police station to submit my paperwork. Sitting in the waiting room for hours on end with a cranky toddler amongst other cranky toddlers. It’s catching, trust me… On the surface there might not seem to be so many differences, yet you don’t have to go very deep to realise things are very different.

The Engineer says I’m an Australian Finn, Finland says I’m a citizen and Australian says I’m a non-residential citizen. Mr. 13 calls me mum and I call myself numerous names, and wonder why I’m getting so worked up about this now of all times. Perhaps it’s because all of these elements have landed on the table in the last few weeks in different guises and discussions.

Now I’m dumping the expat tag. I’m Kanerva, Heta or Heather depending on where and how you know me. I’m someone who lives in Finland that happens to have been born somewhere else. As Sting so rightly points out: “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile; Be yourself no matter what they say”

What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? What springs to mind when you hear the term expat? I actually have a very clear picture in my head of a couple that I worked with when I was on-board. Is bilingualism and multiculturalism part and parcel of being an expat? For me that’s part of being an immigrant! I’d really like to hear, especially if you’re living in a country that is not your native country.

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17 comments

  1. I live in the country of my birth.
    Is the different between immigrant and expat one of intent? With an immigrant planning to adopt the styles of their new culture, but the expat being separate, even in their new country?

    And when I saw the title, I thought of the Sting song, and Genesis – Illegal Alien.

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    • My sound card has done a disappearing trick, so I’ll have to find another way to listen to Genesis 😦

      This is something that Gerry also mentioned, the way in which the immigrant acts in the new country. I doubt we’ll get to the bottom of this any time soon 🙂

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  2. I think you over think things. Immigrant and refugee are the names to describe their circumstances, just as expat does. Whether or not you not to put yourself in a box or be labelled, it is a part of who you are. Just like you’re a mum, and Australian by birth, it is part of who you are. Whether you call yourself that is your choice. Although after 10 years + you could possibly call yourself a Finnish citizen, as expat may be null and void after a long term. Is it because you are the only main Austalian that you don’t do Aussie ‘stuff’ or you are well ingrained within the Finnish culture that it is not so important now to maintain an Aussie persona?

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    • The seeds for this post came after reading about one of our politicians and some foolish immigration ideas he spouted. Immigration is a hot potato in Finland, and unlike Australia, it’s also a relatively new phenomena.

      Whether I like it or not, I’m labelled by the way I speak (whether it’s English or Finnish) or the way I dress or act. Most people don’t ask to see your ID before they lump you in the Expat box. I am Finnish, if you judge citizenship purely by the passport in my pocket. I’m just not a Finn 🙂

      I think these questions need to gestate a little longer, certainly I’ve never maintained the Aussie persona in the way that some of my acquaintances have held on to their nationality.

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  3. I’ve always worried that expat meant you didn’t try to settle into the culture and country you were living in, that you always had one eye on your ‘home’ and returning to it.
    Even though I’ve lived away from my home country for almost 20 years now, moving to Finland was the first time I felt like an expat in those terms. In Norway and Scotland I tried to fit in, learn the language, customs, become part of the country. In Greece I suppose I was an ‘expat’ as we knew we were only temporary, but we had no ‘expat’ community to turn to, to speak English with, so we had to learn the language and struggle to fit in.
    Our first two years were so difficult in Finland because we thought it wasn’t a permanent move, that we would go ‘home’. So I didn’t make a lot of effort to learn the language, I did try and fit into my community for my children’s sake and learn the Finnish way to do things, but my eye was firmly fixed on returning to Scotland. After a disastrous and lonely first six months trying to get to know the Finns, I made a conscious effort to find other expats to spend time with.
    Deep down I felt like I had given up on Finland, by not committing myself to the move. After years of trying to be part of Scottish life, I felt like a fraud in Finland for not making a true effort.
    Having my partner’s job made permanent has made a big difference to my view of Finland and being an expat. I can do both and not feel guilty. I can have English speaking friends and activities, but also continue to learn the language and trying and adapt to Finnish life. I will never be Finnish, but I can live and raise my children as American/Scots in Finland and have the best of all worlds. It has lifted a great weight off my shoulders.
    Sorry a long blether, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about as well.

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    • This sums up very nicely what I was thinking when I first started this post. One friend has lived this sort of ‘expat life’ in a Saudi compound. She says it was very easy to live the same sort of life as you would at home, although some of the boundaries fell away within the compound.

      I’m glad you’ve found a good balance of expat / resident. That is one of the keys for adapting I’m sure.

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  4. Great article Heather!!! Stuff that I thought about a lot when I lived in the US for twenty years. There they called us green card holders resident aliens and I sort of liked it because it was very funny, described how I felt on many occations: an alien landed in the great USA from another galaxy, far, far away. Then I became a citizen, an American, and soon after moved back to my native Finland. And to my big surprice Finland did not feel so native any more. So what or who am I now? A native expat?
    Heather I really want to join your expat groups to find myself!

    And please consider sending your article to Helsingin Sanomat! There is a big debate going on about immigrants and foreigners living in Finland. I have a contact for you there. Give me a call:) Thanks!

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    • Jaana, we are a merry band! It would be great to catch up with you soon.

      The first time I went back to Australia after a long time here it felt very odd, I know exactly what you mean. I’m sure there are many ‘native expats’ just like yourself.

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  5. I celebrate my Canadian home in my 20th year, this year. The British passport I still travel on lasts for a decade and when I first came out, I had just renewed it. 10 years ago I wondered if I shoulg go Canadian, and didn’t. Now that I’ve stopped travelling, should I finally say goodbye to’ The old Country’? Everytone I know says that I still sound English and I have never taken the local accent on. What to do? Am I still British?

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    • Should we judge ourselves by the passbook we carry, the language we speak or the accents we pick up along the way? Are these even important in the long run?

      Another aspect you touched on is when the new country and the old country have a common denominator (s). I’m sure that makes for a different experience.

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  6. To me, expat always meant exactly what it says and implies — a person who chooses to live in a country other than their native country. But to me, expatriot has political undertones. Then again, I am not living away from home. Since I can’t imagine living elsewhere unless I choose to, my definition includes my own plan to set up a compound in Fiji when George W. Bush was elected president!

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    • Certainly immigration has been politicized and in the process it’s forgotten that peoples lives are in the balance.

      I like the idea of the compound. Had I been living in the US at that time I would have joined you Judith.

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  7. Good post Kanerva, I can relate on this level. I have lived here for 14 years, but never called myself an expat… Immigrant has such a negative connotation to it, so I don’t call myself that either. I have called myself a Canadian living in Finland, though like you, I am also a Finn these days.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you in that you’re stuck somewhere between here and home. I am getting further and further from being Canadian every day, but like you, I feel I will never be a Finnish Finn. There are so many hurdles to being a complete part of society and language is the number one barrier. I could spend the rest of my life trying to learn Finnish and hence spend the rest of my life on the fringes.

    You’ve echoed a lot things I feel, but haven’t gotten around writing in my own blog. Cheers…

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  8. I was born in Hungary, came to Australia at age 4, grew up bilingual, became a naturalized Australian at age 18 and finally /felt/ like an Australian at age 21 when I returned to Hungary for a visit. Now I’d feel like an expat if I ever decided to live in Hungary. I think you have to consciously choose the country you call home.

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  9. “An Englishman In New York” holds a special place in my heart as it was one of my grandmother’s favorite music videos.
    Yes, grandma watched videos from time to time, and this one touched a special, rarely seen place in her consciousness. Thanks you for this post..

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