And yet, turn it round, and the English-language terms used to describe ‘foreigners’ living in an overseas country are also unclear. Pick up a dictionary, and a British-born subject living outside of their native country temporarily may be classified as an ‘expatriate’. It’s a 19th century term, but it sticks. Conversely, the equivalent Mexican in the US, who is also a temporary overseas resident, will be labelled an ‘immigrant’. The same goes for all the Indian and Sri Lankan workers earning a buck in Singapore and the majority of the thousands of Filipinos making a living in Hong Kong. If you are Khmer and come to Vietnam for work, you are probably an ‘immigrant’, if you are Thai, then you are an ‘expatriate’.
And yet, take the original 19th century definition of the word ‘expatriate’, and all of us living temporarily overseas are ‘expatriates’, no matter whether we’re returning Viet Kieu or from Nigeria, Korea, France, Russia or India. So, what’s gone wrong? And how should we define ourselves?
Expat or Not?
The fact is that these days the terms ‘expatriate’ and ‘immigrant’ not only come laden with stigma, but also take on a socio-economic meaning. In the process they have got confused. For example, the word ‘expatriate’ is usually used as a moniker to describe skilled professionals hired from overseas or sent abroad to work by their companies. These people could be from anywhere, but what they have in common is some sort of mid to top-level management position, and a remuneration package that includes monetary benefits such as cost of living and/or hardship allowances supported by non-monetary incentives such as housing and education for their family.
Conversely, these days the socio-economic term ‘immigrant’ is no longer used to only describe people who move permanently from one country to another. Instead it has negative connotations, and is used to pigeonhole people moving from less developed to more developed countries, these days often temporarily and for work. Take the case of Mexico and the US. Mexico has a less well-endowed economy than that of its northern neighbour, the standard of living is lower and there is large underemployment. So, it is no wonder that millions of their citizens look to the north for sustenance. But, let’s say someone from the US went to Mexico City or Cancun to find work, would they be called an ‘immigrant’? No.
Back in the ‘Nam
This leaves us with a problem. In Vietnam, the majority of the 100,000 or so non-Vietnam born people now living in this country (the real figure could be far higher) are neither ‘immigrants’ or ‘expatriates’. Rather, they are best described as overseas residents living in Vietnam. And with this country developing so fast and both international and local companies replacing expensive overseas hires with local hires, so the number of true ‘expatriates’ in Vietnam is dwindling.
As with when the Vietnamese call Africans My Den or categorise Caucasians (as in the past) as being Lien So (from the Soviet Union), so in English we shouldn’t give the ‘expatriate’ tagline to all overseas residents of Vietnam.
And one thing’s for sure, this mythical ‘expat community’ that we talk of is far smaller than we would like to presume.