In the Garage

Differences Between Expats & Immigrants

April 19, 2015 | 4 Minute Read

Ever since I arrived here in Shanghai, I noticed there's a huge expat community here. The magazines TimeOut Shanghai and City Weekend are every expat's guide to the city; they review restaurants, put up the latest happenings, list events, and so on, all in English. One common thread that pops up regularly is how the expat community is in a constant state of flux, mostly because people continually come and go. This got me thinking about the differences in the terms "expat" and "immigrant."

I renamed this blog "Expat Hoch Zwei," which is the English term "expat" mixed with "hoch zwei," which in German means "squared." Expat squared because I was an American living in Germany who moved to China. But am I really an expat squared?

The Oxford Dictionary defines each as follows:

expatriate (noun) - a person who lives outside their native country.
immigrant (noun) - a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.


Based on these definitions, then, an immigrant is also an expatriate, but an expatriate is not necessarily an immigrant. It's the permanence that sets the two apart. In my experience, "expat" generally has a romantic flair about it and expats can leave whenever they want. It's obvious here in Shanghai that the expat community is exactly that -- people who don't imagine settling here permanently. Moreover, the expats here in Shanghai tend not to learn the language at all. It's easy to get by without really knowing any Chinese; just hang out in specific restaurants and bars, show addresses to cab drivers on your phone in Chinese, order things online that cater to the foreign population. Admittedly, I think it's easier to get by without knowing Chinese if you don't look Chinese (i.e you're not me) because the assumption is that you don't speak the language, but that's its own story.

Quite often, expats here are sent by the companies for which they already work, their spouses and children in tow, and get a generous compensation package. They send their kids to international schools and can hire an ayi, a Chinese woman hired to help with various chores (though they are not necessarily like live-in maids like in Hong Kong or Singapore). Their social circle is composed of other foreigners in a similar situation. Generally, everyone knows that they're in Shanghai for a limited amount of time, though of course, this can change if a contract is extended. Like I said, the expat community is in a constant state of flux.

The immigrant experience and the word "immigrant," I think, can be a politically charged term, especially in the United States. The media highlights how communities think immigrants are taking jobs, how they don't learn English (though the U.S. doesn't have an official language), how they don't integrate into the community, how there's waves of them coming. In the United States, it sometimes can feel like the word "immigrant" is not perceived in the most positive terms, even if the country was actually a country founded by immigrants.


My experience in Germany has made me come to the realization that I myself am an immigrant. I'm saying this out loud, and it's a bit weird to write it, but it's the truth -- I don't know when I'm moving back to the United States. For now, I'm an expat in Shanghai because at this point, my time here is limited, I'm not integrated into the local community (though I am learning the language), and I can't see myself settling here permanently. In Germany, I'm an immigrant and not an expat. I've integrated myself into the local community and it's my second home. The United States is my Heimat (homeland), but Germany is zu Hause (home).

So returning to the question, am I an expat squared? No, I'm not, and it is precisely the distinction between expats and immigrants that makes all the difference. I'm not going to change the name of this blog again, but I've given a lot of thought to "expat" and "immigrant" and my own experiences. In Germany, I don't really know what the expat scene is like. I did my master's at the local university, and it helps that Christian is from Düsseldorf so I've gotten to know local Düsseldorfer. Here in Shanghai, I'm naturally a part of the expat community because of my limited language skills. Even if I wanted to become more integrated, it's going to take more time than it did in Germany and based on the fact that my time here is limited (for now), it's unlikely that becoming integrated is possible. And even if it were, the question is if I would want to stay here on a more permanent basis, for which the answer currently is "no."

The actual truth is that this blog should probably be called Expat Turned Immigrant Turned Expat. Originally, I was an expat in Germany, but turned out to be an immigrant and now I'm an expat again. But that's an overly complex name, and nobody would be able to remember it.