If not an Expat…?

I’ve been out of the UK since summer. Switzerland is turning to winter – the air is biting cold, the leaves are turning and falling, it’s still dark by the time I get into work in the mornings. With the shift of the seasons it feels like I’ve been away for a long time. And I’m realising that there are many types of expats, especially in Basel. Basel, the city bordering France AND Germany, with several large multinational pharmaceutical companies calling the place HQ.

You have the temporary expats – relocated on temporary contracts for a period of a few months to a few years. You have the expats who’ve married residents and are raising their families in local state schools. You have the expats who brought their family with them to a new country – often keeping their (slightly older) children in English-language schools. The extent and way that these types of expats integrate with their new country – and interact with the old one – varies. An expat with an friendship circle of other expats/English speakers has less need to learn German than an expat with a German husband.

It was over a chat with my work colleagues I realised I don’t neatly fit the bill of an expat. Somebody asked me if I had a British drivers’ license (because if you stay out of the UK too long it becomes invalid). I don’t have any sort of drivers’ license. I don’t have any significant investments back in the UK – I’m a recent ex-student, so I haven’t exactly clocked up savings worth talking about. No houses or cars, either. I hold nothing in Britain that I’d be able to declare on a tax return form. In fact, the only truly worthwhile “British” thing I have to my name is a British passport proclaiming British Citizenship.

I’ve been asked several times about my plans to “return home” for Christmas break, etc. The question confuses me, because as far as I’m concerned…I am home. Basel is my home. Same as Philadelphia was my home. Same as Edinburgh was my home. Home is where I am: I take it with me. Britain was my home, but I don’t think it is anymore. I’m not planning on postgraduate study in the UK . I may apply to UK jobs after my postdoc…but I don’t feel like that’s my only option. I’d happily go where the jobs are.

An expat is characteristically defined by the fact that they still have links (cultural, financial, legal) to their home country. My links always feel quite vague.

On that note, what you’re counted as also depends on the country you came from: if you come from a third world country to work in America or Europe then you’ll be called an immigrant. If you come from Britain and move to Australia then you’ll be called an expat. I doubt there’s much difference in “state of mind” between being an immigrant and an expat. The connotations and public perceptions towards “expats” and “immigrants” are poles apart, though…

What am I then?

I then stumbled upon this website The Displaced Nation. It shares anecdotes and advice about living and travelling in foreign countries in a generally upbeat and humorous way. The writers advise that you always travel & live with a sense of humour and touch of self-deprecation: accept and celebrate your displaced-ness while keeping your mind open. Don’t forget that you made a series of consenting choices to displace yourself, either.

It was through browsing this illuminating site that I came up with an alternative classification: nomad. When I travel, I take my (metaphorical) tent with me. Or I’m possibly a world-beater. I’m not sure the labels matter anyway: it’s how you choose to live in your “foreign country” that matters.

What do you think?

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