EP. 15: Defining “Expat”

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I am an expat (possibly). I host a podcast called Expat Life Germany, where I interview expats. You’d think I’d have nailed down the definition of the word “expat”, wouldn’t you? 

But in actual fact, turns out I haven’t. I mean, I thought I had. For me, the term was similar to the dictionary definition: “A person who lives in a foreign country”. However, some conversations I have had recently, both on the podcast and off, and certain articles I have read, made me realize that not only are there several definitions of the word, but that it might also be problematic. 

Common Usage

A German listener of the podcast told me one day that he found it interesting that I was interviewing certain people as “expats”, even though they hadn’t necessarily come to Germany for work. This surprised me, until I looked up some other definitions on the Internet, including this from Wikipedia (emphasis is mine): 

In common usage, the term often refers to professionals, skilled workers, or artists taking positions outside their home country, either independently or sent abroad by their employers, which can be companies, universities, governments, or non-governmental organisations. 

This seems to be an instance where common usage has diverged away from the dictionary definition, which does happen in language. So while the definition might officially be “a person who lives in a foreign country”, most people will associate the word with the common usage definition. And this definition seems to be a lot narrower, because it specifically includes only foreigners who might be well-educated, highly skilled, or in a specific artistic field. 

What about people who moved to be with a partner? What about students? 


There is also another level of this: the term “expat” seems to infer some intrinsic biases. For example: a British citizen living in Spain might be referred to as an expat, while a Spanish citizen—with exactly the same qualifications—living in the UK might be labeled an “immigrant”. As the Wikipedia article puts it: 

The varying use of these terms for different groups of foreigners can thus be seen as implying nuances about wealth, intended length of stay, perceived motives for moving, nationality, and even race.

My Definition

Needless to say, when I named my podcast, I meant neither of these things. In fact, as I explain in the episode, I want the show to be a look at Germany from the standpoint of outsiders, be they expats, immigrants, migrants, or even tourists. I didn’t intend to limit the audience only to those foreigners who came here for work, and I certainly didn’t want to exclude any groups of people. 

The other, more personal aspect of all this is: what am I, then? I came here 12 years ago with my wife (not for a job), settled here, and became a German citizen. Am I not an expat? At which concrete point did I go from “expat” to “immigrant”, if at all? What if I left tomorrow to go somewhere else? 

All of this has gotten me thinking that perhaps I need to rebrand the podcast. But is this even necessary? What are your thoughts on this? I’d love to hear your opinion, so leave a comment below or join the Expat Life Germany Facebook group to join the discussion.  

Additional Reading

As a reference, in my discussion in the episode I quoted from the following two blog posts:

Geopat, Not Expat, written by the talented and always-interesting Steph Fuccio

“Expat” OR “Migrants”?, from Settle-in-Berlin.com

Other Topics in the Episode

Image by annca from Pixabay


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