One of the best things about being a teacher is the inspiration you receive from your students. I had been hopelessly stalled out on this post for the last few weeks; that was until, during a lesson on the past perfect tense, a student raised his hand and asked, “Teacher Zain, I know this is out of subject, but what is this word “expatriate” mean?” Without even blinking an eye, I replied, “Me. I am an expatriate. An American expat to be specific.” He smiled and nodded and we continued the lesson.
Since I arrived in the Kingdom, I’ve probably used the term “expat” more times than I can count. I’ve heard it used by co-workers, newfound friends, acquaintances, hotel and restaurant staff, and (now) students. Before I arrived, I scoured sites such as Expat Blog to get intel on the teaching and living environment. I found my driver, who literally refers to the both of us as expats every single day, on a site similar to Craigslist called expatriates.com. And when I reflect on where I grew up, I associate expat with the formative years that took me to Nigeria, Brazil, the Netherlands, and eventually Uzbekistan. So I was caught by surprise when I stumbled upon a conversation that described the term expat as a colonial holdover with racial and prejudicial connotations.
It started with a friend who posted an article from The Guardian on the lexicon used to describe people who work away from their countries of origin. The author, Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, who first posted this semantics challenge in Silicon Africa, said that expat is a term exclusively reserved for people of European origin, while everyone else gets stuck with the term immigrant.
“There are still hierarchical words,” he wrote, “created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else. One of those remnants is the word ‘expat.’”
Koutonin cited a Wall Street Journal blog entry from late 2014 to support his case, saying that one’s social and economic class as well as cultural background determined whether or not you’re an expat” or immigrant” or even “guest worker” or “migrant worker.”
Now, I don’t doubt the existence of a double standard as it pertains to pretty much anyone of color from sub-Saharan Africa on a variety of topics, including this one. But I’ve had a different perspective in Saudi Arabia these past two and a half months on what it means to be an expat.
Simply put, there are those who were born here, those who hold Saudi citizenship and, by law, must also be Muslim. And there are those who aren’t. Whether you’re fresh off the plane or you’re a seasoned veteran of the energy industry from the United States or the Commonwealth of Nations, you’re an expat. If you’re a Pakistani or Indian who has lived here for 10 years and knows the life, the language, and the culture in and out, you’re an expat. If you’re a Filipino who has established a profitable business serving Saudis and fellow expats alike, you’re an expat. If you’re from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka and you’re making ends meet by washing cars on weekends after laboring in the petrochemical industry during the week, you’re an expat.
I suppose the thing we share is we’re part of Saudi Arabia’s unique expatriate archipelago; a tapestry that, to me, is as diverse as many American cities. I could walk out my door and if I didn’t know any better think I was living back in Queens, New York–the most ethnically diverse place on earth. And like Queens, the term “expat” offers doesn’t divide us into the haves and have-nots. Instead, it provides some level of egalitarianism that puts us all on the same playing field–even though in reality we may be living very different lives. Expats all of us, with one foot in Saudi Arabia and one foot back home.
photo: British “expats” in India, circa early 20th century.