In China, Who Is An Expat And Who Is An Immigrant?

People from all over the world continue to flood into China’s big cities like Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai to make a living. They often have much in common; leaving family and friends behind and being exposed to a new puzzling culture. But there’s one thing that separates them.

Often, people from the U.S. andEuropeare defined as expatriates, or “expats,” while those coming from, say, Somalia or Pakistan, are branded as “immigrants.”

Why is that, and what’s actually the difference, if any?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary,expatriatemeans someone “living in a foreign land,” while the definition ofimmigrantis “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.”

But lately, there’s been a debate about the terminology with some saying the definitions are outdated and today more symbolize privilege, race andsocioeconomic status.

People walk past the British-themed bar, Old China Hand, in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, who runsSiliconAfrica, recently wrote in theGuardianthatit’s evidence that “in the lexicon of human migration, there are still hierarchical words, created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else.” He quoted anAfrican migrant worker living in Europe: “I work for multinational organizations both in the private and public sectors. And being black or colored doesn’t gain me the term expat. I’m a highly qualified immigrant, as they call me, to be politically correct.”

So what’sthe situation like in Hong Kong and Mainland China?

Holing Yip, research officer of the Hong Kong Unison, an organization that advocates policy reforms to benefit disadvantaged ethnic minority residents, said the distinction between “expat” and “immigrant” cements an already destructive segregation between people.

“There’s been quite a lot of buzz about these words recently and different people have different definitions. I definitely agree with the declaration that the word ‘expat’ is related to privilege. But what’s interesting is that it’s a perceived privilege – what I think when I meet or see someone; how I treat them. It’s often aligned with race and socioeconomic status.”

Schools, in particular, play host to racial segregation between local, expat and immigrant children, she said, with many schools being like parallel universes.

As a professional expat in Hong Kong, you may be granted permanent residency with full rights and protections after seven years. But for those hundreds of thousands of Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers that take care of the city’s babies and scrub the bathroom floors, permanent residency is often merely a dream. Some locals fear that grantingforeign domestic helpers, and their families,permanent residency wouldoverwhelmthe public systems.

The expat vs. immigrant phenomena can be seen in many of those Chinese cities that attract workers and professionals from the international community. Typically, websites focusing on expats in Beijing or Shanghai display photos of white, smiley families.

InterNations, the world’s largest network for people who live abroad, has almost 50,000 members in Mainland China, with most of them in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Its mission is to “make life easier for expats.”

The organization’s co-founder Malte Zeeck said in an interview that the distinction between “expat” and “immigrant” is a sensitive topic but that their members are from a range of countries across the globe. Most are from the US, the UK and Germany.

“What most of these people have in common is that they have higher qualifications, some kind of university degree background and that they are going abroad for a certain period of time,” he said.

When traveling in China, he also noticed that members there were more likely to brand themselves as “expats” than members in Europe.

An InterNations survey also showed that expats in Mainland China are less likely to befriend locals than in most other countries, possibly due to “the culture gap between expats and the local culture.”

Shanghai Expat recently published an articlesayingthat as an expat, you’ll risk “public embarrassment” by using local rather than expat-orientated hospitals.

Not all agree it’s a question of race. In aWall StreetJournalblog, journalist and “global nomad” Ruchika Tulshyan added more nuances to the term than just rich-white-person-moving-abroad-with-no-desire-to-integrate. “Today’s expats are from all over the world, from diverse backgrounds and with different skin colors, most with a desire to integrate within the new society they have joined,” she said.

Warsaw based American journalist Andrew Kurethoffersan alternative definition: “An immigrant is on a desperate search for a better life. An expat is on an adventure.”

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