The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Why “expat” is a misleading term for multicultural couples

Today we welcome author and “global love” expert Wendy Williams to The Displaced Nation. A Canadian, she lives in Vienna with her Austrian husband and their daughter. But is she an expat or an immigrant? Yes, that old chestnut! Except…Williams has a novel way of addressing it.

“At the risk of sounding like a snooty intellectual or immigrant diva, I think it’s time to clear up some confusion about the term ‘expat,’” I announced to a features editor recently.

“Oh no,” she warned me, “don’t get bogged down with tedious definitions and classifications. Just write something about the joys and the dramas of being an expat couple. And offer some good advice, too,” she added cheerily.

As the author of The Globalisation of Love — a book about multicultural romance and marriage — I am frequently asked for advice on “expat relationships.” And that’s my whole point today — what is an expat relationship, anyway? And are multicultural couples and expat couples one and the same?

An “expat couple” — what exactly does that mean?

Expat is a term that is bandied about, dare I say recklessly, to describe someone who is living in a foreign country and it is often used to describe couples where one or more partners are foreign born.

Exhibit A: I am Canadian and my husband is Austrian. We live in Vienna. Often we are referred to as an “expat couple” — or even as an “expat family” if our born-in-Austria daughter is included. Granted, I have pretty high standing as matriarch of my family of three, yet does just one “expat” in the family make us an “expat family”? My husband and daughter are living in the country where they were born after all. Other than a bit of English and a lot of peanut butter that I smuggle in from Canada, there is very little “expat” about them.

Yet expat is a label given to anyone with any kind of international flair.

So, time to get to the heart of this worldly weighty matter. An “expatriate,” in my understanding, as well as that of Merriam Webster and even Wikipedia, is “any person living in a different country from where he or she is a citizen.”

Expats usually start their international lives on assignment for a multinational corporation — unless they are Australian, in which case they begin by bussing tables in London’s grottier pubs or teaching Dutch guests to ski in Austria.

Typically, expats enjoy a long list of job perks to deal with the “stresses” of life abroad so they get free rent, paid trips back to the motherland and private school for the kids. Paying income tax seems to be optional. Expats are like visitors to a country: they deal with external issues like culture, language, and religion. Usually they live from one to five years in a given location “making the most of it” exploring the region and learning about the local culture. They always know they will be going home at some point, even if there are more international postings along the way.

Vs a “GloLo couple” — now there’s a precise label!

A multicultural relationship, by contrast, is one where each partner is from a different country or culture. Multicultural couples — or what I call “GloLo couples” in The Globalisation of Love (blatant self-promotion, I know) — deal with issues like culture, language, and religion within the relationship. GloLo couples do not usually have the job perks of expats because they work locally, so they pay their own rent, they have to pay taxes and their kids go to the local school.

Whether they live in his country or her country — or swing back and forth between the two countries every few years — there is a sense of permanence about the geography. The imported partner is an immigrant really, although “immigrant” has taken on some negative connotations in our nilly-willy live-here-work-there globalized society.

Barring bureaucracy and ludicrous immigration laws (Austria, this means you!), GloLo partners may even gain citizenship in the country into which they have married. At the risk of more shameless self-promotion, I call it the “globalization of love.”

So here is my point: An expat couple and a multicultural couple are not necessarily the same relationship constellation and should not be confused with one another. An expat couple can be a GloLo couple if they have different nationalities, however a GloLo couple is not necessarily an expat couple, even if one partner is an expatriate. It is only when a GloLo couple live in a third neutral country that they become an expat couple as well.

Aren’t you glad we cleared that up?

Meanwhile, the features editor still wants some advice on dealing with the joys and the dramas of being an expat couple though. Hmm, how about make the most of it, explore the region and learn about the local culture?

And my advice for multicultural couples? Well, there’s this book I should tell you about…

Question for readers: How do you define “expat” vs “immigrant” — and does Williams’s “glo-lo” term strike you as being useful?

WENDY WILLIAMS is the author of The Globalisation of Love, which was featured in The Displaced Nation’s post Best of 2011: Books for, by and about expats. You can learn more about Williams and her book at her author site, The Globalisation of Love.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, an introduction to March’s Cleopatra(!) theme…

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14 responses to “Why “expat” is a misleading term for multicultural couples

  1. Dugutigui March 2, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Completely agreed with the difference of the terms… In my case I am not married and working in Argentina. Here they call me Gallego…
    I rather prefer expat ! :)

  2. giddayfromtheuk March 3, 2012 at 7:11 am

    Fantastic angle on this topic and very thought provoking. I’m glad you’ve cleared up the ‘couple’ thing and love the GloLo tag. But what about the singles?

    I have lived in London for 8 years now and don’t envision myself living in Australia again (although who knows really). There were no expat perks as such to smooth the path for me and although having been in a relationship with a local for over 5 years, I am now enjoying the perks of singledom in the place I have called home since January 2004.

    So, am I immigrant or expat?

  3. Windmiltales March 4, 2012 at 3:35 am

    I love the new Glolo name, the word expat is definitely something that is bandied around and has lost its meaning. I like to think that there are different breeds of expats.

  4. Jackie Broek March 4, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Wendy – I have the same situation as you and your family, except change the location to the Netherlands. I can SO relate to what you said. As a “GloLo” couple with young children visiting in the homes of some “expat” families with young children, I must admit, I sometimes had the feeling of being the ugly step-sister. I, however, had much more incentive to completely jump in, learn the language and the customs and make friends with the ‘locals’. It served me well.

    • Wendy March 5, 2012 at 4:09 am

      Expat families and GloLo families do have a lot in common. They tend to have an international perspective, be comfortable in different cultures, and travel frequently. They also have a lot not in common. Learning the local language, understanding local customs and having a bit of ‘insider’ perspective are typical advantages of being part of a GloLo family. It doesn’t mean that one is the ‘ugly sister’ – it’s just a different set of variables and there are advantages and disadvantages to both expat and GloLo families.

  5. Doris March 4, 2012 at 11:03 am

    We’re a GloLo expat couple! I’m from Germany, my husband’s from the Canary Islands, we met in Barcelona, then moved to Mexico, and have lived in the USA since 2007 – all on local contracts. The only perk were his hiring company pais for our plane tickets from Spain to Mexico, and for the transport of a few boxes from Mexico to the States. Well, no, the Green Card was sponsored, too, which is great.
    Still, I’d more go with the “out-of-homecountry” definition more than with “immigration”, because the latter has a legal component in my book, and I have no ambition to change citizenship and adopt the US passport. :-)

  6. Jennifer Avventura March 10, 2012 at 7:51 am

    I’ve found your blog via Twitter, and what a fantastic read. I’m a married expat living in Italy. Or maybe a GloLo … I’m really overwhelmed with your blog, it’s what I’ve been looking for. I will be back to read more. Thank you.

  7. Camden Luxford March 12, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    “…unless they are Australian, in which case they begin by bussing tables in London’s grottier pubs or teaching Dutch guests to ski in Austria.”

    This made me smile – oh so true!

    Terrific distinction… looking forward to future work on the different breeds of expat!

  8. Motherlands (@Motherlandsorg) March 15, 2012 at 7:45 am

    On being the foreign part of a traditional GloLo: When things go well, you congratulate yourself on having chosen the right partner, the right country, the right place to live. When life hits a rough phase, it is all too easy to start fantasizing about going ‘home’ or moving somewhere else. After all, the life you have built ‘abroad’ is serendipitous. It could have been anywhere, and it occurred in that particular country simply because your partner’s home was there, or your job brought you there. There are no extended families, childhood memories, cultural identity markers to root you there. It was an adult choice, and as such can be changed. I would suggest that this tension accompanies many such marriages, and adds an emotional dimension not present in an expat partnership, in which both partners are on an adventure in a foreign land.

  9. doshebu (@theartofthexpat) March 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    GloLo – like the new language – we definitely need this in our community. I have a glolo marriage and it you need to develop skills to relate to another person with a different cultural background. Good listening skills are essential and a process for communicating your observations and feeling helps maintain your relationship when you have disagreements or unmet needs.

  10. Pingback: Glamouria ja termeillä leikkimistä | wanderlustmanaged

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