I have been called an expat because I have lived in New York City on and off since 1999. The off time was spent living here in Sydney. I live in two countries and I am not an expat.

When someone in Australia calls me that they’re usually saying I don’t have the authority to comment on what’s happening here because I’ve been away too long. People like Germaine Greer1 and Clive James are called expats. Often with a sneer.

I am not an expat.

I am not an expat in the sense that Australians use it: “Someone who has abandoned Australia and has no clue about it anymore.”

I have never lived outside Australia for more than a year.

I am not an expat in the sense that many others use it either.

I have no Australian friends in NYC. I do not go to Australia clubs to hang out with the other Australians. I don’t eat at Australian restaurants. To me that is expat behaviour. To go to another country and try to live there as much as you can like you were still back home.

Now, part of my not seeking out other Australians in NYC is because I also live in Sydney and there are quite a few Australians here. When we’re in Sydney we’re with our Sydney friends, most of whom are Australian. In NYC we’re with our New Yorker friends, none of whom are originally Australian.

I admit I’m puzzled by people who want to live in another country but once there only hang out with people from their own country. Why not stay home?

Yet, that is what my grandparents did.

But they were refugees. They ran from the Nazis and landed in Australia.2 They did learn English, but it took a long time, and they were never comfortable speaking it.3 All their friends were East European refugees like them. They weren’t wild about Australian food. Sometimes I got the feeling they weren’t too impressed by Australians either.

But, you know what, they lost almost their entire families, almost everyone they’d ever known or loved. They were forced to leave their home. Refugees get a pass.

And their children and their children’s children are very much Australians.

Refugees can’t be expats. To be an expat you have to have chosen to leave your home country; not be fleeing certain persecution.

Those who move to another country to live, who engage with that country, rather than perch on top of it, are migrants, not expats.

I’m a migrant, not an expat. Some of us migrants go back home. A lot. Some of us live in more than one country.

Ever since I started living in two different countries I’ve met more and more people who do the same. I’ve met even more people who would love to do that but simply can’t afford it.4 The old path of migration meaning you left your country forever and ever amen is not the only path.

I have a friend in NYC, originally from Guatemala, who goes back there for a few months every year. I’ve met many Mexican-Americans who go back and forth between Mexico and the US. And Indonesian-Australians who go back and forth between Indonesia and Australia. The closer your country is to the other country you live in the easier it is. Not that I’m jealous . . .

I know loads of mixed national couples like me and Scott who alternate what country they live in. Even couples with kids who do that. Though they tend to do years-long chunks in each country. The Belgian/Australian couple I met recently have just spent five years here and now are moving there with their two children where the kids will be attending a trilingual school.

In conclusion: do not call me an expat! Or something . . .

  1. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why Germaine Greer is so hated here. Mostly by men. I love her. She’s hilarious and has been amazingly important to feminism. Yes, she can be wrong. Yes, I disagree with her as often as I agree. So? She’s a possum stirrer. Always has been. It’s a noble pursuit. Though it sure does seem to be more admired in men than women. []
  2. They would have preferred Argentina but the Australian visas came through first. []
  3. Mind you they had six other languages to use. []
  4. Living in two different countries is expensive. We’re very privileged that we can do it. []


  1. Caroline on #

    I lived in NYC for 6 years after college and have been back in the UK for two. I don’t think I ever thought of myself as an expat, because the move was never intended to be permanent. But I’m lucky enough to have not encountered the assumptions you mention from home friends, or to have met the awful expats you describe (although I can picture what you’re talking about exactly – maybe I’ve blocked it out?!).

    I think there’s an intermediate path. Lots of people love the place they’ve moved to, but still miss things about their home country. (I was ridiculously excited to see really green grass and brick houses the first time I went back to the UK after 18m in NYC. And I hadn’t even been consciously missing them). I don’t see anything wrong with going out for fish and chips and stocking up on meat pies, or whatever your nostalgia equivalent is. I even think it’s possible to be involved in an expat group without being too insular (we went to some great kiwi club events). As long as those things aren’t all that you do.

  2. Justine on #

    Caroline: Absolutely. Why do you think I spend half my time in Sydney? I’d be too homesick otherwise.

    I definitely only meant if that is all you do and are completely unengaged with this new country you’re living in. That I will never understand.

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