A subject of white privilege, I liked the sound of “expat” much better than “immigrant.” One had panache, cachet, a spirited sense of ennui and adventure; the other conjured up black and white images of poor, huddled masses needing to be purified in the melting pot purée.
When we first arrived from the USA to seek residency and retire in Portugal, I self-identified as an expat … assuming it meant nothing more (or less) than an American abroad living in another country for an extended period.
From time to time, I was challenged and corrected on my presumption: Expats are here for a time or a purpose—a couple of months or years, studying or traveling or working. Then, they return home.
Immigrants, on the other hand, have no plans for returning whence they came; they’re looking forward rather than backward, their feet firmly planted and taking root in another country.
Travel isn’t just about the destination (immigrants and refugees). Getting away is a way of life for millions of people who take breaks for self-indulgence, employment opportunities, cultural enrichment, education, and other pursuits (expats).
We had no intention of returning to the USA when we left the country three months after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
What had begun as a knife cut to our souls soon led to ever more blood-letting—a lethal wound to our morals, values, and decency. Reading the handwriting on the wall, we fled for our lives.
The United States had become a rogue nation, perhaps the world’s most powerful country to possess a massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction commanded by a delusional despot who flaunted his favoritism, white nationalism, personal profiteering, and cruel inhumanity towards others.
The path to “greatness” included savage treatment and banishment of Native Americans; ownership of other people as personal property; denigrating migrant workers whom its landowners depended on for hard work; establishing internment camps for people with slanted eyes; and, more recently, isolating immigrants from their families—deporting many, while caging children in abominable conditions.
“Chronic ills – a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public – had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms,” wrote George Packer in The Atlantic.
Violence, hatred, and malice became the chalice of communion among fanatics and their fans, flaming the fires of defiance and discontent.
Emboldened by the tone and tenor of tweets from the bully pulpit, the ugly American – once again – reared its head … with increasing violence, attacks, and confrontations against minorities and the marginalized: Immigrants. Black and brown skinned people. LGBTQ+ individuals. Jews. Muslims. Asian-Americans. People who speak different languages. In other words, the “others.”
Rather than expat or immigrant, we felt like refugees, who, “due to a well-founded fear of persecution, war, or violence, feel forced to flee their homeland.” To qualify as a refugee, a person must have solid grounds of a “well-founded fear” that they are facing real danger. Moreover, refugees should fear oppression, hostility, and/or violence so badly that it forces them to leave their country of origin and seek sanctuary elsewhere.
Elsewhere for us is Portugal with time spent in Spain.
Bruce H. Joffe is the author of Expat: Leaving the USA for Good and Spanish Towns, Portuguese Villages: A Journal for Expats and Immigrants.