I am an expat. I am an alien.
Both of these terms apply to me.
An expatriate is NOT an ex-patriot, someone who no longer supports their country of origin. The Latin word expatriātus means someone who is longer physically in their home country. Although there is no time-limit on how long one can remain an ex-pat, after one year of living abroad (providing you’ve stayed in the same place) you’re then (officially) considered a migrant (whether you are documented or not). Most people still refer to themselves as ex-pats though, as the word migrant sometimes has other (unwelcome) connotations.
As for being an alien, well …. I have been accused of going bump in the night! I am an alien here in England because I am living here even though I do not “belong” to this country. I may have temporary guest status, but that still makes me an alien. It’s interesting to me, rhetorically, because the term is typically used in the States only in conjunction with the term “illegal” … so much so that the negative associations with one have been societally imprinted on the other. Alien = illegal alien, simply by association. And so by defining myself as an “alien”, I am actually alienating myself from others, as they react to my word choice. The definition of alien and the perception of alien are no longer aligned, meaning that one or the other will eventually have to change.
An interesting concatenation of language and culture, isn’t it? Especially as ex-pat is a term typically self-selected (while alien is one that is applied to others). Ex-pat is a label that I choose to wear, one that I use proudly, and one that identifies many of my cultural values and philosophies. And yet “alien” is a term that I do not use. I’ve never thought of myself as an alien — an alien is, by definition, “the other” … everything that I am or we are not. It is a term we use, most often pejoratively, to describe someone (or something) scary, something to avoid, something to send back to where it came from.
I have to say that while most people have welcomed us to the UK gladly, there have definitely been a few moments when I have been acutely aware of my status as an alien. One gentleman, when he found out I was not British, immediately accosted me with “Well how did they let you into the country, then?”. My immediate reaction was to withdraw … because the question was entirely too intimate! What right does anyone else have to know my status, or how I acquired my right to be in this country, or even whether I have that right at all? Because my accent immediately “gives me away”, I feel as though I’ve lost a level of personal privacy, something that I treasure.
Being both an ex-pat and an alien (although concurrent, I believe the difference is an important concept to grasp) has caused me to think a lot about how I define myself, but also how I define others. Especially with all the immigration issues (both in the UK and US), I am very sensitive to the issue. I shouldn’t have to justify my presence to anyone who enquires. And I don’t think that I, or any other ex-pat, alien, documented (or undocumented) migrant, should have to carry papers 24/7 to prove the legal status of my presence.
So how did I answer the man who asked me the rude question? I’ll be honest, I was tempted to say that I offered sexual favors to the security guard at Heathrow and he let me through. But I couldn’t say that and keep a straight face. Instead I just hemmed and hawed, and eventually the subject was dropped. But the whole encounter made me realize that my personal situation, whatever it may be, is not public property to be discussed openly. My Visa status is between myself and the responsible governmental agency.
A wise man once told me that your politics, your religion, and your sexual preferences are private and should not be discussed with anyone, ever. I would be tempted to say that “legal status” should be added to that list.