How do you feel about being called an expat?
If you live in any place outside your native country, then by standard definition, you are an expatriate.
The term harks back to the 18th century and comes from the French verb expatrier which combines ex or out of and patria, Latin for native land. In the 19th century, to be expatriated meant to be banished from one’s country. Since then, the definition of expatriate has evolved into one who chooses to live abroad.
Being called an expat also signifies that you are not a native of the country where you reside. It can be a way to differentiate between the foreigners and the locals or to distinguish the “insiders” from the “outsiders.” No matter how well integrated you are or how long you have been living in another country, you are still not a local. It’s just a matter of semantics or linguistic nitpicking, one might say. But is it?
Ixelles Councillor Bertrand Wert says, “Terms are important because they are framing our way of thinking and framing our perception of the world.” Originally from France but a resident of Brussels since 2000, Wert believes the term “expat” is no longer relevant particularly in the context of European integration. He points out that under the 1992 Maastricht Treaty or Treaty on European Union, citizens of any EU member state are also citizens of the EU community. “Expatriation means outside your patrie or nation. Being European citizens, Europe is our patrie.”
Greek national Nektaria Margaroni agrees with Wert. As an 8-year resident of Brussels and a former employee of the European Parliament, she says she often feels more like “a European among Europeans than a European among Belgians.” But according to Italian national Gregory Stabile who has been working at the European Parliament for 12 years, different EU nationalities can display different social customs and particularities. “Even if I do feel more like an EU citizen than an Italian one, there are still deep national roots that somehow force you to identify nationally.” Stabile says he still feels like an expat, but he likes it that way.
Marilyn Asuncion is not originally from Europe, but she minds it when people still refer to her as an expat. As a Filipino who has acquired Belgian citizenship after 14 years in Belgium, she considers herself a fully integrated citizen of this country. “Expat sounds like you’re an outsider and I’m not an outsider,” says Asuncion who owned and managed a restaurant in Brussels.
But whether you are from the EU or not, Councillor Wert says “expat” can be a restrictive and alienating term. “Words are just tools to express perception, and perception is far more complex than words or language. Using just one word to define an individual or collective perception is very limitative.” He further asserts that the term has no more place in present times. “This word is so 20th century because in the 20th century, Brussels wasn’t Brussels as it is today. Brussels was not composed of 65 percent people not born in Belgium. Words are linked to history or a period of time. In this globalized world we live in, ‘expatriate’ sounds old-fashioned and out of reality.”
“The term ‘expat’ is losing its real sense at least in Brussels,” says Boro Milovic, founder and curator of WeLoveBrussels. “I’ve been living here nine years and I don’t feel anymore like an expat especially not in Brussels where you have so many other expats so you don’t feel like you are different or special. I don’t even feel like I’m from Montenegro, I feel like I’m really from Brussels.” The same goes for Aris Setya, a freelance photographer and much-followed Instagrammer in Brussels. Although loyal to his Indonesian roots, he says, “After three years here, I feel more like a local.”
Whether they see themselves as expats or not, non-Belgians can sometimes feel like outsiders in Brussels. Margaroni remarks, “Locals can make you feel unwelcome. It’s really the international community that makes you feel welcome.” Asuncion says this is particularly true when it comes to language. As a fluent Flemish speaker, she often finds it difficult to communicate with Francophones who either can’t speak English or refuse to speak to her in English even if they can.
But for Swedish national Marianne Skjold who has been living in Belgium for three years as a member of the religious congregation of the Assumption, it’s all a matter of attitude and perspective. “To be an expat is something only you do to yourself. It’s not the way people are looking at you. If you don’t want to integrate, if you have a negative attitude towards differences in tradition, custom, and culture, you make yourself an expat. If you have a positive attitude, then everything is fine.”
How about you? How do you feel about being called an expat?