Expat, or Immigrant?

There has been a lot of discussion recently, in light of events in Europe, over when an immigrant becomes a refugee. And most people seem to agree that there is an element of choice in being the former, but not the latter. It might not seem that important a point, but when the choice is between debating this or actually doing something to help the thousands of people fleeing war-torn countries, it suddenly becomes crucial,

So it got me thinking. As a Brit living in Hong Kong, I’m not a refugee (though maybe I could have claimed asylum from the terrible British weather, or the SNP) yet I’m never referred to as an immigrant. I’m an ‘expat’.

What’s the difference then? Both terms refer to a person who goes to seek work, and thus to live, somewhere other than their home country. Is an expat, then, a professional? While an immigrant performs more menial jobs? Is an expat someone who, because of their passports, can easily get a visa while immigrants can’t? Or is it as simple as expats having white faces and immigrants having dark faces?

I came across this article last week and, behind all the silliness, it makes a pretty serious point: in the UK, certain newspapers, and political parties, base their existence on a merry-go-round of articles of articles concerning ‘immigrants’ taking jobs, failing to integrate, not learning the language and not making any effort to understand noble British traditions. Meanwhile, in the mid-levels of Hong Kong Island, thousands of Brits live this very same way, with perhaps some added drunkenness, without a second glance from the locals.

That’s not to suggest for one second that Hong Kong is a haven for expats, immigrants, refugees, whatever… If you’re white, or from one of the posh Asian countries (Japan, Korea, Taiwan) you’re alright. Mainland Chinese is another story altogether. But try being a Pakistani family trying to rent a new flat… Or a Filipino maid that has her passport taken from her on arrival…

It seems that, wherever you are in the world, there isn’t much of a difference between an ‘immigrant’ and an ‘expat’. But there’s a world of difference in how you will be treated.

Ferry ‘Cross the Harbour

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The buzzer goes, the gates creak open and you rush (no matter how quiet it is, you rush…) down the gangplank. There’s a high-pitched squeal as the ferry rubs against the dock. Ropes tighten and groan. Once on board you step back fifty years: all rivets and polished wood. There’s something undefinable in the air: salt and…something else. You pull the row of seats to face either forward or back. Kowloon, or the Island? You move off and it’s surprisingly quite – afloat in the middle of the city with only the chug of the engine and the slapping waves. And there, in among the photo-snapping tourists, is a business man, briefcase in hand, and there – a maid with bags of shopping. Because this boat isn’t just a relic, an ‘old Hongkong theme ride’, it’s still, for many, the best five minutes to be had in the whole city.

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