Expats, Immigrants and the globalisation of love

Here is something I wrote for The Displaced Nation about the difference between the term ‘expat’ and ‘GloLo’.

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‘.

„Oh no, “ the features editor 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?

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 ‘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 let’s get to the heart of this worldly weighty matter. An expatriate, in my understanding, as well as that of Merriam Webster and even Wikipedia now that it is back online, 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 and 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 that they will be going home at some point, even if there are more international postings along the way.

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, 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 the kids go to the local school. They may live in his country or her country, and even if they 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 the word has taken on some negative connotation in our nilly-willy live-here-work-there globalised society. Barring bureaucracy and ludicrous immigration laws (Austria, this means you), GloLo partners may even gain citizenship in the country into which they married. At the risk of more shameless self-promotion, I call it the globalisation 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. Glad we cleared that up.

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 …

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