June 5, 2009

Immigrants vs. Expatriates

Immigrant or expatriate?

Second in a series of articles expounding on expatriates

In the last article, What is an Expatriate?, I mentioned how the words 'expatriate' and 'immigrant' have different connotations. Some people think of an expatriate as an adventurer who has gone off to live in an exotic foreign land, while some − not most, hopefully − but some think of immigrants to their own country as somehow lesser beings, not quite equal to a natural born citizen.

Throw in illegal status and neither noun needs to be used. Those people are simply called 'illegals.' Most ironic of all is when illegal immigrants in Honduras complain about 'illegals' in their homeland. Hah! Yes, believe it or not, it happens, and they don't seem to recognize the irony.

In the past few years, I've begun to think of myself more as an immigrant than an expatriate. Being married to a Hondureño makes the challenges of Hondurans more real to me. I see and feel the injustices, the fear, and the hopelessness. I'm not sure where I fit.

When thinking about the current times in Honduras or looking at Honduras' future, I think in terms of 'we/us'. We need to stop corruption. We need to be safe. Our children need decent educations. Even if I was here 20 years, I could never say "We Hondurans need....". That wouldn't be allowed. I would be told that I am not Honduran. But just because my individual needs are being met, I can't ignore what is going on in the country.

Putting aside the seemingly growing pockets of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the US, people can become Americans and will be accepted by most of their neighbors and co-workers no matter where they or their parents were born. (I hope that is still true!)

After all, the USA was built by immigrants. "Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Though the immigration issue has become more complicated, many of us still believe in those words on the Statue of Liberty. Those words bring tears to my eyes! Am I romanticizing about my home country?

No one can become a Honduran. Not ever. It is possible to become a Honduran citizen and attain the right to vote but you will probably always be considered the gringo or the extranjero (foreigner) no matter how tightly intertwined your life is with Honduras. Innate things that you can't change, such as your accent, posture, the way you walk, even your height or hair color may point that out. I realized this one day when a neighbor referred to a man who has lived here for some 20 years, is married to a Honduran, has Honduran children, and to my ears, speaks perfect Spanish as "the old gringo". I'll always be an American and I know that I'll always be treated like a gringa in Honduras. I can't change that but I accept it.

Eddie of A Third World Shopkeeper wrote a couple of excellent articles comparing immigrants to expatriates that have stuck in my mind for many months now. In Migration - Are we all expatriates now?, Eddie mentioned that the difference between expatriates and immigrants is a matter of future outlook.

Immigration implies a permanent move. As an expatriate, there is always that possibility that you could repatriate (go back to your home country) if you wanted to. Some expatriates are here for a definite term, 6 months, one year, two years. Those might even be called 'visitors' instead. A set future move date helps with acceptance and provides a mental lifeline. "If I can just get through the next 6 months, I'll have electricity and clean water 24 hours a day!"

In the old days, immigration implied a goal of complete assimilation, if not for you, certainly for your children. In part II, Eddie mentions how expatriates sometimes set themselves apart from the general population. Their friends are expatriates, they belong to expatriate clubs, go to expatriate restaurants, maybe live in expatriate enclaves or developments catering to expats and the more affluent of the local society. Some try to fit into both cultures and some immerse themselves into the new culture. Eddie mentions how global communication helps expatriates and immigrants to keep in touch with the homeland. That is a comforting thing that can make the transition easier, but in some ways can also serve to maintain the 'difference'.

In my opinion, the difference between those who think of themselves as expatriates and those who think of themselves as immigrants also relates to degree of commitment. By that I don't mean commitment to length of time, but a commitment to the country. 'Visitors' often find it easier to ignore the more unpleasant aspects of the country. Immigrants should care about what is happening in their adopted country.

Oh, I don't have the answers. The truth is that some days I think of myself as an immigrant and some days as an expat. Other days I feel like a lost soul and some days I even feel like the million desperate Hondurans who want to escape to anywhere else. But I feel a strong commitment to Honduras and want to see it a better, safer, kinder place for its citizens.

I'd love to read your thoughts on this. Please comment.

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