In my whole life I don’t think I ever used the word “foreigner” to refer to a person (except for the band) until I moved to China. In America, we have a strong immigrant culture and an extremely diverse population. Seeing someone with a different skin color from myself or with a different accent doesn’t mean they are any less American than me. If I see a Chinese person walking down the street, I would just assume he was an American citizen. I would have no way of knowing he wasn’t unless he told me. Unfortunately in China, “foreigner” is the common term when referring to anyone living here who wasn’t born here and sometimes it really bothers me. But I don’t know what I should be called instead.
Even though immigrants aren’t new to China, they are still a stark minority. And the more rural the area, the more likely you are to stand out if you aren’t Chinese. Usually the stares, the smiles, the “can I take a picture with you?” don’t bother me, but nothing will rile my ire faster than a child pointing at me in the supermarket and saying with a voice loud enough for everyone to hear: “laowai!” – foreigner.
I don’t really like the word “foreigner” when referring to people. I have always thought of the word “foreign” as meaning “something that doesn’t belong.” For example, if I get a splinter, my finger will natural expel the “foreign” object because it doesn’t belong there. Or if a concept is completely “foreign” to me, it is something I can’t understand. But I do belong in China and I am easy to comprehend. I live here; I work here; I am part of my community; this is my home. I am not a “foreigner.”
How about “immigrant?” In America, we have immigrants, but these are people who come to America to live, become citizens, and stay. In China, very few people who move here, even long-term, stay permanently. Last year, columnist Mark Kitto wrote a viral post about “why you’ll never be Chinese” in his manifesto about leaving China (even though that was a year ago and he is still tooling around). In it, he talks about how even people who marry locals, have kids, run businesses, and stay in China for decades are never really accepted. In fact, I have heard several of my friends say “eventually, we all go home.” This is probably true in my case as well. Even though I have no plans to return to America now, I can see it happening someday. So I guess I’m not an immigrant.
The term I am most comfortable with, but I still have issues with, would be “expat,” short for “expatriate.” “Expatriate” literally means “one who lives outside his own country.” I’m generally ok with this term because it’s basically true; I don’t live in the country of my birth or citizenship. But it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. “Ex,” obviously, means “former” – I am formerly from America. But I am still of that country. Many people think that expats leave their native lands because we hate them. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I have a much stronger appreciation for America after living in China. It’s easy to call America polluted when you haven’t lived in a place where the smog is so bad that you don’t see the sun for four months straight. It’s easy to criticize America’s schools when you haven’t seen 12-year olds slaving away for fourteen hours a day, seven days a week to get those slightly higher test scores than American kids. I don’t think it is possible to ever really understand just how great America is until you look at it from the outside. I think if you really love your native country, you should leave it for a while to gain a new perspective. Author G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” There really is nothing sweeter than getting off that plane at the Orlando airport every year and being somewhere familiar, even if it has changed somewhat.
So what do you call someone living abroad? While “expat” is the safest bet, I don’t know that there is a word to clearly define us. But I don’t really like to be defined anyway.
Amanda has been living and writing in China for nearly three years. You can read more about her experiences at her website, Two Americans in China.
Editor's note: Amanda has also taken her experiences living (and cooking) abroad and turned them into a fun project that promises to fuse her cultural experiences in delicious ways. She has promised us enough dumpling variations to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner from main course to dessert, and you can support her Kickstarter project to do so.