To-may-to vs To-mah-to: Expats vs Immigrants

A recent Reddit bemoaned the increased number of Chinese students in US colleges because they didn’t integrate well.

Sacoud: UK here, my post graduate course was 80% Chinese and although they were all nice they definitely segregated themselves. We would invite them to parties and they wouldn’t come but then they’d have their own parties and wouldn’t invite any non Chinese. Always talked in Chinese despite being in a social setting where non Chinese were there.

One of the great things I like most about Reddit is that it lets me be a lazy reader; invariably if the link has been up for more than a few minutes, some will have beaten me to the punch.

InsaneWorrier:  I live in China, and to be fair you see the same thing with Westerners here. The vast majority of them stick with their own and make no attempt to integrate with the local people, unless they need a Chinese person to help them with something. You’d be surprised how many see Chinese people as ‘beneath them’ or merely their servants.

Amidst all the immigration fear mongering that goes on in some parts of the States, many Americans fail to realize that the US visa system is a reciprocal one.  A country’s visa policy is called reciprocal if it imposes visa requirement against citizens of all the countries which impose visa requirements against its own citizens— i.e. a citizen of country A has the same rights in country B as a citizen of country B in country A.

In some sense, the fundamental nature of the reciprocal system belies this effigy of the nouveau American immigrant as some sort of ravenous beast suckling on the shriveling teat of Lady Liberty.  There’s a singular directionality to that mentality that starts to unwind when you start flipping the logic the other way, as InsaneWarrior does above.

So what’s the difference between an American in Paris and a Parisian in America?  Or a Mexican or a Chinese person?

The first time I heard the word “expat” used, some college friend of mine was describing an American writer he met when backpacking in Europe.  As the daughter of immigrants, I was immediately confused about the difference was between this man and my father— why was one deemed “expat” and the other “immigrant?”

The difference, it appeared, is mostly one of mise-en-scène.

Scene: The lanky American writer sits in the shadows of a Berlin cafe, his fingers idling caressing his Macbook Air as his tortured eyes beg for release from the wretchedness of life. 

Scene: The cleancut Chinese college student stumbles to his corner of the classroom, furiously scribbling notes in his threadbare notebook, avoiding the friendly gaze of his fellow American classmates.

The collective consciousness of Wikipedia writes that “the differentiation found in common usage usually comes down to socio-economic factors, so skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual labourer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labelled an ‘immigrant’.”  Yet, though Chinese college students would seem like the prime example of skilled professional, they are rarely raised to the loftier designation of “expat.”

In the end, it comes to an exercise in empathy.  How does our perception of immigrants to the United States change if we start putting ourselves in their shoes?

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