What is an expat?

*Warning: Long and possibly boring post ahead. I’ve tried to break it up with some pictures, but I will forgive you if you decided not to read…*

The question “What is an expat?” is something I’ve been thinking about recently. You may have noticed that nowhere in my “about me” do I refer to myself as an expat. English girl currently living in Germany, yes… but never using that word. The main reason is that, until this year, it had never even occurred to me to refer to myself in those terms. I basically moved abroad straight from university… my entire real (i.e. grown up) life has been spent outside of my birth country. And after moving around so much with the army, the question “Where are you from?” had always been a difficult one anyway. I’m here now, what does it matter where I was before? And for most of my time abroad, I’m not sure anybody else would have referred to me as an expat either…

Deutsches Eck
All the German state flags

I first came to Germany for a year abroad as part of my degree. Spending a year in a German-speaking country was a requirement to gain my Bachelor’s, and Karlsruhe was where I ended up. I had actually wanted to go to Austria, but we only had one place there and somebody else was quicker, so I got my second choice. During that year, I wasn’t even sure whether I would ever come back to Germany. And I certainly wasn’t experiencing anything like “real life”! As an exchange student, I spent most of the year partying, with the occasional trip thrown in there as well. Even lectures didn’t seem too much like hard work… apart from in German class, I didn’t have to do anything. My university only required us to attend a certain number of lectures, there was no requirement to take part in any assessments. (We did have to make a year abroad dossier to submit to our home university though).

A trip to Speyer during my year abroad
A trip to Speyer during my year abroad

Back in England, a few months before the end of final year, I realised I should probably start thinking about what I was going to do after graduation. Jan and I had been in a long-distance relationship for almost a year at that point (he was actually in America during my final year at university!) and I thought it might be nice to live near him again, so I started looking for opportunities in German. I came across an application form for British Council language assistantships and decided to apply. Then I saw the list of available countries and realised Austria was on there! Immediately, I changed my mind. Sod Germany! I had been dreaming about Austria for years. And Austria and Germany are at least neighbouring countries… nothing like the distance between England and the US! I applied, and managed to get an assistantship in Feldkirch. During that year (well, ten months… an academic year) I still wasn’t really an expat. To all the Austrians I met, I was just another graduate on a gap year. My time there was finite  and, while it would have been possible to extend the assistantship for one more year (two is the maximum they allow), it didn’t take me long to realise that I probably wasn’t going to. My boyfriend was in another country and, although I loved Austria, I had trouble making friends with the other language assistants and no idea how to go about meeting Austrians. I wasn’t supposed to socialise with the people in my classes (although some of the older ones were almost the same age as me!) and most of the teachers were as old as my parents! When it came to time for reapplications, I did, in fact, ask to extend my assistantship… but requested to switch countries. I chose Baden-Württemberg as my Bundesland and added a note saying I was familiar with Karlsruhe… and almost got my wish. I actually ended up at a school closer to Pforzheim, which meant nearly an hour’s tram journey there and back, but it was worth it to be with Jan again…

A snowy day in Feldkirch
A snowy day in Feldkirch

… and still I didn’t think of myself as an expat! I had no idea where my relationship was going or whether we could even survive actually being in the same country again after two years. Until almost the end of my assistantship, I hadn’t even thought about what to do next! Initially I had thought I might go in for a CELTA qualification, but when I ended up hating teaching at the school in Germany I was lost. In the end, I decided to go for a Master’s in translation. I was all set for a move back to England when I discovered two things. 1) A university in Bristol that was offering a Master’s in Translation via remote learning and 2) An internship in Germany that was actually paid! (Very, very rare). I applied for and managed to be accepted on both… so I now had a one-year internship and a three-year study programme ahead of me.

Once again, I had chosen something with a definite end date. At that point, I was also still living in a student residence (I was a student as well as an intern so it was allowed) and couldn’t have afforded anything else. It still all felt very temporary. During my internship, Jan finished university, started a PhD (which comes with a research position and pays a better wage than I get!) and decided to move out of the student residence. A that point, he didn’t want to get a flat with me… in fact, he chose to move in with someone he was only sort of friends with rather commit to us living together! I’m sure you can see why I wasn’t expecting to stay in Germany for too much longer…

As my internship drew to a close, Jan and I discussed what I should do next. For the first time, he actually expressed an interest in me staying in Germany, so I started looking for jobs. I managed to land one at a translation company close to Karlsruhe and, after a few months earning a proper wage, I moved into a little flat of my own… the very first time I’d had my own place! Jan still didn’t want to live with me, although he might as well have considering he spent more time at my place than at his! After ten months of work, I lost that job for financial reasons (the company had lost a lot of customers) and ended up on unemployment benefit (Hartz IV for anyone who is in Germany and knows about these things). At that point, I was seriously considering giving up and moving back to England… but for whatever reason I decided to give it one last try. That’s when I managed to get the job at my current company… and was immediately given a permanent contract.

The bed in my old flat
The bed in my old flat

Roughly six months later, Jan wanted to move out of his flat… and actually agreed that we could move in together! Initially he wanted to look for somewhere big enough for two that I could move in to later, but I was having none of it! There was no way I was moving in to his place. If we were going to live together, I wanted somewhere that would be both of ours from the start!

The sofa, just after we moved in... at that point it was the only item of furniture in the living room
The sofa, just after we moved in… at that point it was the only item of furniture in the living room

Which brings us to today… I’ve been in Germany for seven years, at the same company for four and living with my German boyfriend three and a half. My exchange student days are far behind me and , while I’m not sure whether I’ll stay in Karlsruhe permanently, my gap year days of trying to figure out what I want from life are behind me. Somehow, over the past seven years, I’ve gone from being English girl spending some time away from “real” life to something that, realistically, can only be defined with the term “expat”. I haven’t quite decided what I think of that yet…

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29 thoughts on “What is an expat?

  1. Thanks for this post. I guess many of us “expats” (defined so by others) slide into this box without really knowing it and realize only afterwards that they were leading an expat-life (or are still leading one). I’m an expat-since-birth and did realize to be an “expat” in my late thirties, when someone classified me among those kind of “foreigners”. – btw. it’s Hartz IV (Hartz vier ;-))

    1. Oops, I always get IV and VI confused. I’ll change it now 😉

      My grandad was from the Ukraine, and I never heard him referred to as an expat (mind you, he was sent over after being liberated from a German labour camp, so he was probably a refugee, if anything). I suppose I grew up thinking it was “normal” for people to live in a country other than where they were born… it never occurred to me to put a label on them!

  2. I’ve only ever heard Brits (and Americans?) refer to themselves as “Expats”. As of late, I do use it every now and again to refer to myself, but, to be honest, in my mind it has negative connotations that I don’t like. To me, expats are people who refuse to integrate and only hang out with their own kind. I never really thought of myself as an expat during my 20 yrs in the UK, I was only 19 when I arrived, and I slotted in from the get-go.

    The language barrier virtually evaporated after three months, and I didn’t know any other German people there. I think I met maybe six Germans during my entire two decades, and only one of them I made friends with. Ironically, we mainly speak English to each other, even when we’re alone. Now I’m in Spain, and I barely know any foreigners here either.

    1. Yes… I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the negative connotations. Even though it’s officially just defined as “a person living outside of the country they were brought up in” I can’t help but think of expats as hanging around with their own kind, failing to integrate. Admittedly I speak English A LOT (Jan and I speak English with each other) and hang out at an Irish pub, but most of my friends here are German. I’ve never even tried to find other English speakers! The only one I hang around with regularly is someone I met entirely by accident…

      1. I guess I read a lot of horror stories about the expat bubbles along the Costa Del Sol… I remember one about a retired British couple, who (inadvertently) did something illegal and thought they couldn’t be prosecuted because they weren’t Spanish.
        I wouldn’t mind finding someone I could speak German with to stop it from atrophying… hmmm… maybe once I move on from Toledo to a bigger city.

  3. I think an expat is someone who is living in a country which is not the one they were born in. If you are born abroad, and your family roams all over the world, are you still an expat? It’s difficult, isn’t it? I also think ‘expat’ is a relatively new word. In your Grandad’s time I don’t think people used it. My aunt and uncle lived and worked abroad for years in the 1940s and 50s, but there was never any mention of the word ‘expat’ until I was one myself.

    1. My brother was born in Northerm Ireland! He’s not an expat though… and neither are my cousins who were both born in Germany. Army children aren’t counted as expats though. Maybe that’s also part of the reason I don’t like the term… for me, it’s normal to live aborad, we don’t need a special word for it!

  4. I loved reading your story and hearing more about you. To me, it seems like, you never needed the term expat because your immersion in Germany (seems to me) has gone along quite well. I think countries where it’s normal to see foreigners, the term expat isn’t needed – yeah, you’re foreign, but it doesn’t really matter. For example, in America I’ve never met anyone who called themselves an expat.

    Why do I call myself an expat? No matter how much I like Russia, I’m always acutely aware (and Russians make it known) that I am 100% a foreigner because the culture is not one of those which is particularly open to or accepting of immigrants.

    1. I’m accepted because I’m white and British. I don’t look foreign and my culture is similar enough for me to be accepted. Sadly, it’s a different story if you’re Turkish… there are a lot of Turkish people in Germany (they fetched them here themselves when they needed workers!) and there is a lot of prejudice against them. Of course, they don’t get to be expats… they’re migrant workers. Expat seems to be a term that’s reserved for rich, white people who move abroad because they want to. Maybe that’s also part of my problem with it?

  5. I just recently started thinking about being an expat myself. For some reason I always associated the word with either Americans or Brits living in other countries. But really it applies to anyone who lives in a country other than their birth country, I guess. And like pollyheath said, I’ve never really met anyone here who calls themselves an expat. Part of that I think, is the immigrant mentality America has – unless you are Native American, somewhere down the line there was an immigrant in your family!

  6. Funny, I was just talking to my dad about what being an expat meant. I’d only ever really heard it used by Brits living away from their country. Which I guess my dad is (and my mom too, tho she’s not British), except now he and my mom are naturalized citizens so I guess they’re not anymore? I just figure, you’re living in a new country – what an exciting adventure!

  7. Great post – really interesting hearing more about you! Lucky you didn’t give up on Jan totally 😉 I definitely do see myself as an expat but I don’t think there’s anything negative about it. I have plenty of local and foreign friends here. Although there are those that just live in an expat bubble of course, I know people who’ve been here for roughly the same amount of time I have but still can’t count to five in Latvian or tell the difference between Latvian and Russian… 🙂

    1. I haven’t given up on him yet anyway… I still want kids though and I’m getting on a bit now…

      I think part of the problem is that I’d lived abroad for years before I ever heard the term expat, so I’m uncomfortable with people suddenly wanting to put a label on me. I never had one before and I don’t want one now!

  8. I’m with you. “Expat” for me always conjures up images of 40 year old drunk guys in a bar bitching about America. I know that’s a very silly thing to associate with the term, but I can’t help it, it’s there.

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