The Privilege of the Word Expat

Dear Asian Youth,


When I entered sixth grade, I found myself surrounded by other dark-headed kids with brown eyes. This was Hong Kong––the land of culture, food, compact streets. And here I was, another Asian, with my other fellow Asians. This was my first move abroad.


Because my parents wanted to continue the American education that I had been pursuing back in New York City, I found myself putting on a white polo shirt and knee-long shorts in the mornings, just before attending my international school. Everyone spoke English at school, and we were our own little bubble. My school was located in the depths of the mountains in Tai Tam, where the roads were long and curvy. We were hidden from the outside world; conflicts were never known, like the tensions between mainland China and Hong Kong. Besides the people at my school who were locals, I hardly made efforts to become friends with the Hong Kong around me. To acknowledge Hong Kong as my home was just another way to acknowledge that I was letting this culture become a part of me, and I didn’t want that to happen.


Although by the time I had learned the meaning of the word “expat”, I had already lived in Asia for three years, I hadn’t noticed or realized, what the word “expat” really meant. Of course, I had heard the word many, many times before: “oh, all the expat families come here”, “most of the expat kids come here to get their braces done”, and “many expat families have helpers.” I had assumed that it meant international kid, maybe even a white immigrant, but it never crossed my mind to look it up and understand the meaning.


What is an “expat”?


Short for “expatriate,” an expat is a person living in a country other than their native one (note: I have taken this from the online dictionary). I struggle to understand how and why privileged, educated people have been labeled as “expats” when we don't seem to be any different to immigrants. Meanwhile, we have the phrase “migrant worker.” The “official” definition of a migrant worker is a worker who migrates within their own country or to a foreign country to work there temporarily. What’s the difference between a “migrant worker” and an “expat?” Both move to foreign countries beyond their native country to pursue a job and usually for temporary reasons.


I live in Singapore now and since the pandemic descended upon our lives, I have seen the widening chasm between the migrant workers and the Singaporeans. On the way to school, I look outside the window: trucks drive by with migrant workers, often from Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, or Thailand; they sit in the back, side by side, unable to social distance. Because of the bad living conditions and not high quality sanitation, the dormitories where they live are still rapidly increasing with COVID-19 cases. In my mind, it seems as if the word “migrant workers” has become a way of describing the working lower class subconsciously. Most people in Singapore automatically associate migrant workers with immigrants from countries entrenched in poverty. However, the same occurs for expats: most people are reminded of upper class white, Korean, Chinese, and other races/ethnicities.


Then I look back at myself, here, in this Grab (the Uber of Singapore), wearing my international school white polo and dark navy skirt, listening to music. I don’t think this privilege, the ability to be here, is necessarily a bad thing. Don’t feel guilty about your privilege. Privilege is not a fault or a flaw. But you should feel guilty if you use your privilege to be ignorant of all the prejudice around you that harms the lower and working class.


Expats live in their own bubble, especially internationally. Many go to the American club, sample tasteful cuisines, and head to popular areas to hang out. I appreciate having this community to bond over the experience of being an international student and a teenager when many others don’t have the luxury or ability to have this. But we also tend to forget how privileged we are to be labeled with such a name that automatically grants us greater power in society. Expat is an elite term for immigrants. The one million of us residing in Singapore are all immigrants. So why call ourselves “expats?”


-Hannah Chen


Cover photo source: Elsa Court, propertylistings.ft.com