Expat vs migrant – Talking about identity


During last October I visited an exhibition, presented within a project of “Open Source Government” called “Ideology Meets Implementation”. In this context I took part in an interactive artwork created by Pendar Nabipour, an Iranian artist, living and working in the Netherlands. As presented in the attached picture, visitors were asked, at the entrance, to choose between acceding the place as either expats or migrants. Instinctively I’ve chosen the “expat” gate, without questioning my choice. Later on, while talking with the artist, I understood that the big majority of visitors emphatically identified themselves with the migrants. The experience made me feel uncomfortable and it stirred an inner debate. Why did I so confidently choose the expat identity? After some deliberate reflection,  I began to understand why.

I’ve reflexively chosen expat because I’m a Romanian and, as Romanian, I carry the fear of being discriminated or facing prejudices. In front of that symbolic border, I’ve subconsciously ran away from a potential negative, collective, perception. While personally I have never encountered direct discrimination, for a long time, media around West of Europe had a very inflammatory coverage of Romania and of workers coming from my country. Despite Romania being a Member of the European Union(“EU”) and my fellow citizens, as EU citizens, having the right to work in any of the countries forming the Union(fully since 2014), we were called migrants, more precisely migrants ready to invade different national, labour, markets. This attitude made us feel stepped on primarily because a “migrant” is defined according to the EU law, as a citizen of a country  outside EU . For Romanians this confusion was painful especially because we had to face it right after our accession to the EU, after the long process of preparations, when we were eager to enjoy the perks of what we thought it was our well-deserved reward.

In this context I’ve become, like many other fellow Romanians, defensive and I’ve gradually taken up an alternative identity, a cosmopolitan one, with an larger dimension, namely that of citizen of European Union. For me such an identity equalled  the freedom of movement, but it also gave me the feeling of belonging to an wider community of those who study abroad, work abroad, travelled, was mobile and existed in a transnational environment.

However, the moment I’ve settled down in the Netherlands, where the big majority of the population still perceives “EU citizenship” as a very conceptual notion, I came to realize that at “national level” society is still divided between nationals and foreigners. Enjoying my residence came however smoothly.  Moreover, after learning Dutch I was not only able to integrate, but to also better understand the local culture.  Today I don’t really feel as a foreigner, but neither as a Dutch. Netherlands is my adopted homeland and I’m just a Romanian, married with a Dutch citizen and a mother for our little girl, who happens to have a Dutch citizenship. We do live in a suburb of Amsterdam, known as “the expat’s heaven” and we are accordingly surrounded by people having very diverse backgrounds. Here people communicate in English alongside Dutch and kids usually speak more than two languages. There is a syncretism of cultures, but also a strong appetence for experiencing different cultures, including the local one.

What defines us and people around us is an element of transnationality, but also unpredictability. We love the Netherlands, and we would love our daughter to absorb the Dutch identity and culture, but we could very much end up living in a totally different corner of this Planet. We developed an emotional bond to all the countries we have lived in or visited. And exactly because of this bond, we don’t label our identity, but we also don’t know anymore which country to call “home”.  Therefore we don’t perceive our identity as fixed, but fluid, nomadic. We believe in a world where human mobility is a fundamental right, protected universally. In the end we are all “native foreigners”, aren’t we?

Ps. If it happens to be in Amsterdam in the coming months, please go and visit the exhibition “I am a native foreigner” at the Stedelijk Museum


10 Replies to “Expat vs migrant – Talking about identity”

  1. Interesting topic which I also love to explore, how people see their own identity related to countried etc., and how each person relates so differently to it, especially with these moving, fluid national identities due to our nomadism nowadays. I have also seen big round eyes while explaining to Dutch colleagues I was mostly feeling “European” identity-wise. They came from such a different perspective, couldn’t relate to it at all and looked like me like I was crazy haha

  2. There is a great book about this concept of identity based on nation fading away which you should like if you like to explore the topic: In the name of identity by Amin Maalouf.

  3. A very interesting post, my dear. Although, I do think that there is a bit of a difference between a migrant and an immigrant. Migrant seems to me more transitory. I think of myself as an immigrant. I could never quite understand the word expat (ex-patriot), as I have never thought of myself as a patriot of any country. It has been a terrible burden, being the descendant of immigrants who went to the other side of the globe (literally). I have no sense of true history, of “a people” – my people, I do not know when they went to africa, nor where they came from. I have this terrible sense of loss and yearning that will never be filled. It is a sadness I will carry forever. I have felt myself cut off, culture-less, rootless, homeless, a stranger and a sojourner in someone else’s land for all my life. I can only hope that in years to come I may call this place ‘home’

  4. There are many sides to this story and as with other positions it is very hard to label people and put them in boxes. But because we are constantly trying to get a grip on the world and we need to regulate it for practical reasons, this is exactly what we are doing. My mother was born here during the second world war and she and her family left to the other side of the world to look for work. After a decade they had to flee to yet another country, the US. I was born there from a dutch father. My mother returned with me to the Netherlands. She was dutch athough it took her untill her seventy’s to tip the scale to have spent more years in her country of birth. For the Netherlands I am dutch because I was born of dutch parents. For the US I am American. Technically my children are ‘allochtoon’ (even if I would have married a dutch man). But because I am born in a Western country and my children look ‘white’ they will not be called ‘allochtoon’. Life is so much more complicated than the labels we can invent to explain it, package it and market it.
    I loved your article, because it explain the intricacies and delicacies that come with how each life path gets formed. And each path leads to a very personal outlook on life. It becomes interesting when there is a time and a space to give a little insight into that personal outlook, as you did here.

  5. We moved 20 years ago thinking we would move back within 3 years so always identified ourselves as expats. Even though we speak the local language and have gone on to take Dutch passports since we loved what this country has to offer in terms of life and work balance, I would possibly still identify myself as an expatriate as there is always a tiny thought ringing that I will go back to my roots in the next few years!

  6. Yes, great article indeed! It proves that we are still at the beginning of the process of assimilating ourselves with what I like to call “citizens of the planet Earth”. A process that can be accelerated up or slowed down. It all depends on us all and ,unfortunately, on politicians and economical interests. Migrant or expat? Great question and I can see that the large majority prefers to be regarded as expat rather than a migrant. Because the term expat has a connotation of specialization,. An expat is a person who lives in a foreign country because he/she has a qualified job and can share his/her experience, while a migrant is a person who leaves his/her country because of political instability, war, natural calamity or poor economical conditions. Nobody thinks of adding a positive connotation to the word migrant, although there are many migrants who are well educated and have a lot to share. And yet, we are still prisoners of labels. So proud to be white and Westerner, so humble not to part of this category. You may be white, highly educated, cultivated, open minded, but what if you are Eastern European? Are you regarded as an expat or as a migrant? You may regard yourself as an expat, your friends and those who know you may regard you as an expat, too. What about the large majority?
    I think that we need to regard ourselves as citizens of the planet Earth, a large family united in our diversity, capable to accept and respect each other regardless race, gender, religion, culture and to understand that in this way we can live better and make our planet Earth a more beautiful place to live. Should we wait for the aliens to realize this? It can be too late.

  7. This was so interesting and not something I have ever really considered until recently as my husband and I had entertained a potential job in both Australia and Abu Dhabi…I did a lot of research on expats there and realized how big an issue identity was for them. Great post!!

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