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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