Ya te digo: What's an expat?

Ya te digo: What's an expat?

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Expatica blogger Ivan Larcombe attempts to shape the meaning of "expat" to a favourable definition that fits his lifestyle as one who chose the Spanish lifestyle.

Just the other day I heartily agreed with a friend of mine that the term 'expat' isn’t a good description for people who choose to make their home in a foreign country.

For him the term is most closely associated with corporate employees who spend a year or two recreating their own country within the borders of another while waiting for their tour of duty to end; never learning more than a few words of their host culture’s language and little else about their surroundings.

And then I happened to notice that I use the very same term on my blog site, which I describe as ‘An Expat’s Exploration’.

Hmm. Am I such a hypocrite?

I had completely forgotten my use of the word here during that discussion. Of course I don’t liken myself to those who fit the above profile; of course the point of leaving a place is not to return to it as quickly as possible without absorbing anything from your surroundings,

But does the term describe only them? Or do my friend and I fit into the expat category too? Is expat a bad word?

Yes. Only because it’s a really unnecessary truncation of the word ‘expatriate’, which has a more pleasing cadence and a solid etymological foundation. But then, despite my tendencies towards selective linguistic despotism, I’m no bulwark of grammatical purity; I say ‘gunna’ and ’shoulda’ and other things worse than ‘expat’.


Expatriate then: is it a bad word? I tend to say no, if only because I think the full word has escaped that close association with the disinterested corporate nomads of today’s global landscape.

For me, the term invariably reminds me of two books that I read for the first time at the age of 13: The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. There was a real allure to the romantic vision of expatriate life that the personas of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and the rest of the Lost Generation represented.

In fact, now that I think about it, it must be at least partly due to an overly romanticised notion of their expatriate existence that I set out for Europe in the first place. (Thanks boys!)

But my life - thankfully - bears little resemblance to the portrait that Hemmingway painted of Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, nor to that he painted of himself, well, just about everything he ever wrote. And really, as an adult, there is no point trying to live a life that appealed to the uninformed, fanciful imaginings of your 13-year-old self.

And yet, should I refrain from using a term, or its common abbreviation, simply because it was once imbued with impractical adolescent ideals? If that were the case, I’d have to drop a lot of useful words from my vocabulary. (I was a raging romantic in my time.)

As with most research that I do, I was happy to stop when I found that answer that I was looking for. In this case, a definition of the term expat/expatriate that I was comfortable with. This one comes from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

Main Entry: ex•pa•tri•ate

Function: verb

2: to withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country; intransitive verb: to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere; also to renounce allegiance to one’s native country


I’ll derive my meaning for the noun form from this definition, which I find quite suits me and the other ‘expats’ that I’ve met along the way. We have all voluntarily left those ‘native’ places, we are living elsewhere - not just passing through - and we may or may not have renounced allegiance to our various homelands.

At the risk of offending any and all Canadians reading this, I have to say that I haven’t felt the need to renounce allegiance to Canada because I’ve never really felt any in the first place. You might attribute this to the fact that I was born in England, but then Katie (born and raised in Canada) feels much the same.

I know some Canadians who have patriotic tendencies, but in many ways Canada’s identity is best described in references to others’. Our spelling is a mix of British and American standards as are most of our cultural norms. It’s often a desire to not be American that causes Canadians to focus on the minor points that differentiate ‘us’ from ‘them’.

But my views on Canada’s cultural identity can wait. For now, I’ve come to terms with the term ‘expat’ as one that’s fairly open to interpretation.

The closest thing to patriotism that I have ever felt has been directed towards Spain, but I’m no patriot. Today, Valencia is our home and I am enchanted by it and the country of which it forms such a vital part.

One day we may move on, who knows? I haven’t sworn undying allegiance to Spain any more than I ever did to Canada.

I suppose the best term for me would be something like ‘no-pat’. But I’m just not prepared to start describing myself with such a silly made-up term. I’m happy to use the more accepted, if not less silly and invented, term.

I guess I am an expat after all.

For Ivan, all roads lead to Valencia. After living in Madrid for nearly three years, he returned to his native Canada in 1999 and chose a Hispanic Studies programme at university. He then returned to Spain in 2008 until his latest departure back to Canada. You can read about his experiences on his blog - Ivan in Valencia.

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