Escaping An Extended Childhood

The other day it was reported American Amanda Knox (who had been convicted in Italy of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia in November 2007, had seen that conviction overturned in 2011, and then saw that overturning itself overturned in March 2013) had sent an email from the U.S. – via her Italian lawyers – to the appeals court in Florence. That court is expected to rule in January on the original conviction. In the email, Knox maintains her innocence, and again asserts she was mistreated by Italian authorities.

Syracuse, Sicily, street signs. [Photo by me, 2006.]

Syracuse, Sicily, street signs. [Photo by me, 2006.]

The specifics of the case, and her claims, are not the concern here. Rather, given Knox’s email, suddenly I flashed back once again to an NPR piece from March 2008, a scant five months after the murder. It addressed the issue of U.S. students in Florence, and may be worth revisiting here briefly:

Every year, tens of thousands of young Americans decide to take a year and study abroad. But in places such as Florence, Italy, reports of widespread binge drinking and rowdy behavior are increasingly causing concern….

….Many of the Americans have never traveled outside their home states before. And some turn the entire school semester into one long spring break….

What is evident about Knox is not how unique she was in Italy, but that prior to the murder it seems she was unremarkable there. As with others, she appears to have viewed her sojourn mostly as a get away from home lark. Similarly, her lifestyle seems to have been, one might say, fueled by finding herself able to enjoy alcohol legally and frequent bars and clubs for the first time…. at age 20.

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Expat Or Immigrant?

NPR is wondering about the difference between “immigrants” and “expats”:

    Project Xpat: When Do You Become An ‘Immigrant’?

Indeed, what is the difference? Opening the piece, NPR asks a Mr. Horn for his definition; he is a 35 year old American in Kazakhstan “teaching a course called Global Perspectives.” Clearly he would have a view, and it includes, curiously, this observation:

“all immigrants are expatriates, and all expatriates are immigrants.”

Hmm. The first part of that statement is reasonable in this sense: immigration may have begun with expatriation. But I feel his second assertion is decidedly inaccurate. Why?


Let’s start with a dictionary. First, “expatriate,” as defined by the Cambridge Online Dictionary:

    someone who does not live in their own country

Next, from the same source, “immigrant“:

    a person who has come to a different country in order to live there permanently

I have written about this previously elsewhere. That NPR piece having caught my eye, I figured it is worth re-offering my two cents/ pence/ centimes here.

“Expat” or “immigrant” is actually not as complicated, or blurry, an issue as it is often assumed to be. Based on my experience and observations, “permanence” in the mind, and actions, of the individual in terms of “settlement” is what most underscores the distinction between the two words.

The American who dwells in Britain or France “temporarily” is an “expat.” However, the moment he moves to take British or French citizenship and embraces life and roots himself there to the extent he entertains no serious notions of ever returning to the U.S. to reside, he has now become an “immigrant.” Likewise for British or French, or anyone else, in the U.S.

That is the fundamental difference. The “expat” may admire and even love the country where he is domiciled, but he recognizes, and accepts, it is not his country. On the other hand, you become an immigrant the second you decide (for whatever reason) that your life is and will be lived permanently in your new land. In fact, you may well have made that decision the moment you had stepped onto the ship or plane and departed. You could well be an immigrant from the outset, without first being an expat.

Essentially, when Mr. Horn in Kazakhstan chooses to seek Kazakh nationality, begins to “feel” himself Kazakh, and, above all, abandons serious plans to live permanently in the U.S. again, he has then crossed the line to an immigrant. Not before. Until then, he remains an American teaching in Kazakhstan: an expat.