“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” ~Dr. Maya Angelou
I was 23 years old when I moved to Chicago. It was my first major move and although everything seemed different and foreign, I still had a car. I still had Target. I still had Fahrenheit. I knew how much I was lifting at the gym and how much pastrami I was ordering at the deli counter. I still had Oprah.
Adjusting to life in a new place was exciting and fun. It was a time to reinvent myself and start anew. However, despite all efforts of the new Ken, the comfort and security of familiar seemed to always return. Eventually, my old self and old habits would return. And to be completely honest, I liked when that happened.
Adjusting as an expat has been different. And by that I mean it sucked. Suh-hucked. One minute I’d be smiling, and the next I would be standing in a grocery aisle sobbing because they didn’t have Fritos. Now looking back, I know I wasn’t sobbing for corn chips. Instead, it was my need for love, protection and security- feelings and qualities typically associated with home. I was missing what was normal, what was routine, and the larger sense of social space. Without the normal being allowed to eventually return, I was flouting aimlessly without purpose and even worse, without Fritos.
Before I knew it, I was becoming an expat. Physically living in one world, with my mind in another.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently, in light of events in Europe (and things being said by that funny orange-faced clown…), over immigrants and refugees. As an American living in Hong Kong, identifying as an expat, all this talk got me to thinking. What’s different about me?
What is an expat? Who are we, exactly?
In Hong Kong, one of the world’s most transnational cities, everyone seems to have their feet in two places at once. It’s a city built by immigrants under colonial British rule, but one that still enjoys a special status within China.
It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. By definition, anyone with roots in a foreign country is considered an expat. But this distinction is not always the case in Hong Kong. Filipino maids are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats, but they are certainly not locals. By contrast, a native Cantonese speaker earns an automatic right to belong, even if they spent most of their life in Canada.
The Canadian consulate estimates there are around 300,000 Canadian citizens in this city of 7.8 million, while the Hong Kong government says there are just 16,000. Why the discrepancy? Because most Canadians here are originally from Hong Kong, so they are regarded by the Hong Kong government not as foreigners but as Chinese nationals.
Like other global cities, Hong Kong is a portal of immigrants and refugees. Chinese people head west, while Americans seek jobs in the east. Some of us arriving as expats, while others as immigrants, and some as refugees.
If you ask me, the current definition of the term “expat” has more to do with privilege, social class, and country of origin. Expats are free to roam between countries and cultures, privileges not afforded to those considered immigrants or refugees.
Hong Kong may be a city between worlds, but not everyone enjoys equal passage between them. Even if a foreign maid spends the rest of her life in Hong Kong, she is unlikely to be granted permanent residency. Did you know most Filipino maids have their passports taken from them upon arrival to Hong Kong?
Today marks my 4 year anniversary living as an expat. Even though I’ve decided this will be my last year living abroad, I find it extremely unjust that Hong Kong would automatically extend all of its rights and protections to me if I were to stay 3 more years. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
It seems that, wherever you are in the world, there isn’t much of a difference between expats, immigrants or refugees. But there’s a world of difference in how you will be treated.
Unless of course…
Google, founded by Sergey Brim, immigrated to the United States from Russia.
AT&T, founded by Alexander Graham Bell, immigrated to the United States from Scotland.
Colgate Toothpaste, founded by William Colgate, immigrated to the United States from England.
Big Lots, founded by Sol Shenk, immigrated to the United States from Russia.
Kohl’s, founded by Maxwell Kohl, immigrated to the United States from Poland.
eBay, founded by Pierre Omidyar, immigrated to the United States from France.
Procter & Gamble, founded by William Procter and James Gamble, both immigrated to the United States from Ireland.
Sara Lee, founded by Nathan Cummings, immigrated to the the United States from Canada.
Kraft Foods, founded by James Kraft, immigrated to the United States from Canada.
Goldman Sachs, founded by Marcus Goldman, immigrated to the United States from Germany.
Nordstrom, founded by John Nordstrom, immigrated to the United States from Sweden.
Polo Ralph Lauren, founded by Ralph Lifshitz Lauren, is the son of Belarus refugees.
Apple, founded by Steven Jobs, was the son of Syrian refugees.