As a middle-class Iranian citizen, I imagined the United States to be a desirable destination for new beginnings, despite many years of revolutionary propaganda against the imperial power. But after spending some years in the United States, I returned to my hometown of Tehran, in search of work.
In this act of ‘reverse immigration,’ I spent a good amount of time with foreigners and hyphenated Iranians who were in the country for relatively long stays. They never identified as immigrants, however, even if they were in Iran on a one-way ticket or were escaping economic recession in their home countries. They were always expats who perceived their purpose to be one of exciting business or humanitarian opportunities, personal explorations and adventures. They thought themselves nothing like an Iranian immigrant to America, an Egyptian professional on a journey to Europe, or a Bengali worker in Dubai. They were always expats and never immigrants.
This distinction in status was justifiably true in a fundamental sense. They had come to Iran under conditions far less daunting compared to those faced by immigrants to the West or migrant workers in the Persian Gulf states. They knew European languages and this enabled them to secure high-paying positions without professional knowledge of Persian; they were coming from the West and thus had a halo of prestige over them, receiving immediate acceptance and even deference from their hosts. They did not, as a result, have to bear the soul-crushing burden of assimilation, which immigrants to the West confront on a daily basis. They had an unspoken assurance that, unlike their immigrant counterparts, they could return to their home countries without a great deal of financial loss or social shaming―after all, they were in Iran on an adventure, not “to make it”; they could not “fail” in the same way an immigrant who was compelled to return home had.
Writing on this distinction between expat and immigrant, African activist Mawuna Remarque Koutonin commented:
Expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad. Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races.’
While Koutonin is right to express frustration over this difference, it is misplaced. Semantic and conceptual differentiation are intended to capture divergences in social reality. African, Arab, and Asian men and women in search of new beginnings lack the privileges of a white European in Asia and Africa. It makes sense, as such, to think of them as separate categories. In fact, calling the European an immigrant―as prescribed by Koutonin (“if you see those ‘expats’ in Africa, call them immigrants”) ―would erase the real differences between the two groups, including the privileges attached to one and the inevitable hardships experienced by the other.
A more interesting critique of the immigrant/expat divide would examine their respective social realities—namely, the colonial legacies that elevate the expat but inflict violence on the immigrant’s everyday experience.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon candidly and vividly describes a divided social reality. On one side, there is the settler-colonist and, on the other, the native-colonized. They exist side-by-side in geographic proximity; yet, their social realities are deeply divided. “The colonist’s sector,” Fanon tells us, “is a sector built to last, all stone and steel. It’s a sector of lights and paved roads, where the trash can constantly overflow with strange and wonderful garbage, undreamed-of leftovers…the colonist’s sector is a white folks’ sector, a sector of [well-off] foreigners.” The sector of the colonized, on the other hand, is inhabited by “disreputable people” and it is a “famished sector, hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, and light…”
In our postcolonial world, where movements for national independence have had notable success, the same, stark Manichean contrast no longer holds (perhaps, with certain major exceptions like Palestine). In their decades-long struggles, the colonized exchanged servitude for apparent sovereignty, though they continue to bear the burden of domination in other forms, like unfair trade policies and prosecutions for violating international criminal laws, which disproportionately affect leaders of formerly colonized countries. Still, postcolonial sovereignty makes the old colonial settlements appear like a distant nightmare.
The expat does not create a social order of violence that could ever be meaningfully compared to that of the colonist-settler; yet, colonial legacies remain with us in less apparent ways. The expat is not simply materially and economically superior to the immigrant. He is a beneficiary of an ideological world, according to which the immigrant is a burden, undeserving, and above all inferior to him.
Nothing reveals this reality more than the unequal accommodation the immigrant receives compared to the expat. When overwhelmed by a new life of hardship, an immigrant to the West complains about life in her new home, seeking sympathy, the responses she receives can be rather disheartening. In many cases, she is reprimanded for her ingratitude—a reprimand brutally summarized in the injunction “go back to your country” and formulated into official policy.
By contrast, an expat can express his frustration all day, about the poor infrastructure of the postcolonial nation, the repressive regime, and the silly manners of the natives. He either receives sympathy or an apologetic explanation as to why the locals do things in a particular way.
Another example is the different manner in which expat and immigrant are prepared for their new life. The former receives minor instructions on cultural norms in his host country, and is mostly subjected to ‘safety’ orientations from his employer about how to avoid ‘local dangers,’ even in the most stable and violence-free of postcolonial nations. Conversely, the immigrant (with some exceptions such as recently-established university orientations) is left to her own devices—even though she may face very real restrictions and dangers in the form of daily prejudices.
These double standards have no necessary connection to class status either. Immigrants and expats with comparable class status, social standing, and professional training may experience their new home very differently. A middle-class, Western-trained professional can, with relative ease, secure an opportunity in most postcolonial nations, while a professional immigrant, similarly trained and faced with comparable economic conditions, has a more difficult time finding something she is qualified for—she may even have to suffer downward ‘mobility’ for several years, if not indefinitely.
Another legacy of colonialism is a phenomenon that has been called “white savior complex” or more aptly the “reductive seduction of other people’s problems”—the condescending idea that outsiders engaged in entrepreneurial or humanitarian activities can ‘solve’ the deep problems of their host nation—here, the expat and the immigrant could not be treated more unequally.
There is an entire institutional framework of registered non-for-profit organizations that enable expats to “solve” problems in postcolonial nations. Indeed, many of these organizations, especially those with deep connections to local actors, do real work in times of crisis and need. But, many also enable the expat to indulge in his desires and fantasies—of finding meaning, of adventure in an exotic destination, of ‘saving’ the global poor, or most repugnantly, of building a public perception of himself as a tireless altruist. The assumption underlying this kind of expat humanitarianism is always the same, that by virtue of being from the West, he is able to ‘solve’ the problem of postcolonial nations.
By contrast, there are no national or international organizations, no institutional framework that offer the same opportunity to an immigrant. It would be unimaginable for a professional from a postcolonial nation to come to the United States, to ‘solve’ or mitigate America’s problems such as gun violence or police brutality. Although similarly situated, an expat expatriates to ‘solve’ other people’s problems but an immigrant immigrates to solve her own problems. She can only learn something new—at best assimilate her past learning, her intellectual capital into preexisting arrangements—and can never contribute something ‘indigenous’ to social problems in her host country.
The social reality that divides the material wealth of the West from the poverty of postcolonial nations will not be remedied for many years to come, nor will the distinction between the expat and the immigrant. We can, however, start by reforming our ideology, by resisting temptations of colonial mentality, to borrow from Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.
We must subject the expat mentality to critical scrutiny, including his ahistorical assumptions of Western superiority. We must also stop viewing immigrants as burdens on Western societies. More radically, we must see the immigrant as more than a passive recipient of her host country’s benefits, as just a minimal agent in a so-called multicultural society. After all, immigrants have much more to offer than their “ethnic” food and “exotic” dance. They must be enabled, institutionally and otherwise, to apply their native political, cultural, and historical knowledge in their new homes. In this way, we can finally move closer to greater equality between expat and immigrant.