I have decided, against all odds, to stop being an immigrant. I admit this is a somewhat difficult task. After all, I was born in Jamaica but have been living in Scotland these past three years; I am a black man living in a largely white country and whenever I open my mouth what comes out is many miles away from a Glaswegian accent. How many miles can in fact be calculated precisely. The point is I look like an immigrant and I sound like an immigrant. But I have made my decision all the same.
I have been wondering about the words we use to describe those who engage in the act of migration. The words are not all equal, though in all fairness, words never are. (Incidentally, I remember a wonderfully titled chapter in a book trying to make this point about words. The chapter’s title was: ‘A Portly Pig is not A Fat Hog!’). No, the words describing people who migrate invoke very different things, and the processes of migration, I guess, can be quite different.
As a high school student in Jamaica we were given the history book ‘The People Who Came’. It went from Book One to Book Three. ‘The People Who Came’ was a nice catch-all phrase to acknowledge the fact that almost everyone in the Caribbean had migrated there, the original people having suffered an unfortunate allergy to small-pox and bullets.
And whether migration to the Caribbean was forced or bribed or voluntary, making these newcomers slaves or indentured workers or colonials respectively, begins to hint at the vastness of the problem – if you decide it is a problem – that there are so many words for ‘immigrants’.
In some countries like Australia and the USA, white people who left all that they knew and went bravely into the new frontiers have been nobly called ‘settlers’. This word has quite the opposite effect of unsettling me. I know it is supposed to suggest the act of establishing a settlement, the act of settling (as in to make a home) but it invokes for me too strongly this Conradian notion of a wild primitive landscape in some riotous uproar, untamed and waiting for the right people to come in and ‘settle’ things, to beat the landscape and its natives into submission. And it is not just me today who feels unsettled – it is all of history that was unsettled by the settling of settlers. And I know this is not something we can continue to work up too much righteous indignation about. This is the history that has borne us into today. We are the products of so many acts of settling and unsettling.
A word that has fallen into recent disuse is ‘emigrant’. It is hardly surprising the falling away of this word, for everyone who leaves one country for another is both immigrant and emigrant. Technically I would be a Jamaican Emigrant but a British Immigrant. Immigration speaks to the act of arriving while emigration speaks to the act of leaving. But those who complain usually complain about those who arrive rather than about those who leave. Governments don’t much care about the emigrants. They care about those who come, and the bad ways and things we bring with us. A friend at Glasgow, a biologist who works in tropical diseases, tells a wicked story of having been paid a courtesy visit from a member of the Royal Family. Upon hearing my friend’s area of research, HRM commented, ‘Oh isn’t it dreadful the diseases that are coming in since we opened up our borders?’
Yes, I might have responded wickedly, and the dead natives of the Caribbean who suffered that aforementioned allergy to both small pox and bullets, think very much the same thing.
My problem with the word ‘immigrant’ is probably me just having a bit of a huff, but we all need one of those every now and then. My problem is this – that all summer I have been appearing on panel after panel talking about being an immigrant writer. And I have accepted this. I have tried to speak to what this might mean – and I have spoken and spoken until I am no longer sure it means anything much. A few times I’ve even gotten visibly annoyed by the perpetual question, ‘Why Scotland, isn’t it so very different from Jamaica?’ – and now I want to say, No, goddamit, it really isn’t. Why do you insist that I should be culture-shocked by this move? Why do you think the world is still so small? Don’t you recognize that we now live in a world where it isn’t a peculiar thing to have one close friend that lives in New York, and another in Nairobi, and another in Rio de Janeiro, and another in Kent, and that we should meet occasionally in random cities, but mostly we would meet everyday in a whole new country called Facebook?
My problem with the word ‘immigrant’ is that it forces me into some overly-rehearsed and expected experience of exile (oh it is so very cold!), of shock and awe (oh look on the shiny cars and the tall buildings and how everything sparkles!), of freedom and possibility – possibilities which I supposedly could never have conceived of before. It expects from me both a sort of gratitude and a kind of anger as I rail against the vestiges of institutionalised racism – the failure of the host country to recognize the ways in which I help to culturally enrich this new landscape. And though this is admittedly a broad spectrum of positions to take, from praise to protest, it’s still a script which I am not sure I can always follow.
My problem with the word ‘immigrant’ is that I am only an immigrant because I am Jamaican and I am black. I watch shows on British television of Britons who want to move to ‘A Place in the Sun’ – to a small village in France, or Morocco, or even Jamaica. Their impulses are the same as the woman from Kingston or the man from Lagos who moves to the UK. No one migrates for a worse life. But when the British pack their bags and leave they become Expats, not Immigrants. What a thing! The same process. The same act. But different words. Immigrants are not equal to Expats. Immigration is a problem; expatriation isn’t. Immigrants are expected to always be grateful, but a little bit angry. Expats are allowed to just be – to simply enjoy this new country that they have chosen to live in, and which they might very well choose to leave. The expat is allowed to be a savvy, cosmopolitan person who simply lives somewhere else than the place in which they were born and they don’t have to appear on panel after panel angsting about it all.
So there you have it. I may look like an immigrant, and sound like an immigrant, but get it right – I’m a Jamaican Expat.
i love this. cant wait to start throwing the word expat into people’s faces. not that anyone has ever called me an immigrant. in fact maybe the immigrant/expat terminology is more about class/education (as everything is). the unwashed poors from any country would be called immigrant but the professor who has moved to teach is always just known by their nationality or as an expat. or maybe its tied to a sense of freedom and flexibility as “i live here now but i’ll move back in a hot minute if i feel like”
or maybe we should use the word “exile”.
Well done Kei. I love how you highlight the differences between the connotations of the words ‘immigrant’ and ‘expat’!
Hey thanks Julie!
Shauna, yeah — maybe it is something about attitude – the attitude of the immigrant being, ‘lawd! Foreign pretty eeeh!’ and the attitude of the expat being, ‘look! Mi nuh frighten fi Foreigh! Oh!’
Yes Kei – I feel there is much more along this road !
A wonderful mind and a brilliant storytelling…
I wonder what I am having been born in London, brought up in Jamaica and returned here as an adult? I’m both immigrant/expat and emigrant and I sound more English (with a bit of hubby’s Irish lilt) by the day. Language does tend to lag behind and/or belie reality.
I agree completely! It’s a strange thing, because on the other side of the coin, people seem unwilling to accept that someone is an immigrant if they’re from an overdeveloped country. I’m a white American (who grew up in a predominantly Jamaican-expat town, actually) living in Scotland for nearly a decade, and one (white) acquaintance actually said, “oh, you’re not an immigrant – you’re white and you speak English!” The government calls me a migrant even though I’ve been living in the same flat for years – as if I’m some shady character, disappearing in the dead of night. Obviously I don’t stand out as much as you, and don’t have to deal with racism, but as soon as I open my mouth, people look at me differently and start with the predictable questions. So anyway, thanks for this post, I really enjoyed reading it – good food for thought!
Hey – I love your article! I am a ‘Trinidadian Expat’ living in Aberdeen!!! xx Gonna try to get some of your work as I just really enjoyed your article. x Emalene
Yes, when you are in any group of Irish people in Ireland, it is unusual to find any of us who haven’t lived somewhere else and who haven’t got relations in England, Scotland, Australia, the US or Canada. And that’s not counting the missionaries! I actually think people’s origins are defined by their listeners more by accent than anything else… expat or immigrant… ‘Where are you from?’ is asked when an accent is unfamiliar. Living in England, finding like you that I was thought to ‘have an accent’ was exhausting and made me glad to come home and be one of the linguistic crowd.
Thank you for writing this, and for reiivitsng it. I’ve been in Belgium for 4 months, and I’m just starting to emerge from my own BBC coma. My teary outbursts have confused my Belgian boyfriend, and I don’t dare worry my family and friends at home. But I’ve started to meet some other expats and, as you say, talking with people who know what you’re going through is oh so helpful. That is my best advice for people in the beginning months of being an expat: talk to some other expats. Meet for coffee and confide in them. It lifts a weight of your own chest, and off of your relationship. I’m looking forward to things getting even better
My experience of moving from Bermuda to America was supposed to be so easy. I moved from one socio economic right into the same socio economic group in the states. A group where people had vacationed in Bermuda, may have a home there, knew my Bermudian family etc.
It was an invisible transition until I realized it wasn’t. In my painting firstly, and then in my writing secondly, I began to name the differences between growing up on a British semitropical island and living in the American Northeast. This led me to be able to finally call myself an immigrant. I still do.
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Obviously, I’m not an immigrant, myself. My parents emigrated from Taiwan and my grandparents “emigrated” (read: did the good ol’ refugee flee) from China. We really don’t talk about white expats a lot, though, do we? Most of the expat-ing was done a long time ago; nowadays, it looks more like extended tourism/study abroad/work abroad/something.
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