Expat, Immigrant, or None of the Above?

What do you call someone who moves abroad for “a year or two” and never goes home?

By John Bocskay


An anonymous wag once observed that a farmer who has sex with a sheep is a pervert, but an aristocrat who does the same thing is an “eccentric”. I’ve always loved this joke for the humorous (if slightly crass) way it bares a fundamental truth: social class and privilege profoundly affect our perceptions of people, and these biases are reflected in the language we use to describe them.

A case in point is the recent flurry of pieces discussing whether we who live overseas are more appropriately labeled immigrants, expats, or something else.

Some have argued that factors like social class, economic status, and country of origin are the more relevant determinants of who gets to be an “expat” and who gets saddled with a less glamorous label. Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, editor of SiliconAfrica.com, has argued that the words ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ are primarily racial distinctions. Writing for The Guardian, Mr. Koutonin notes that “expat” is an example of a “hierarchical” word “created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else.”

Hemingway in his Paris apartment

Hemingway in his Paris apartment

When it first appeared in English as a noun in the early 19th century, expatriate referred to a person who has been banished from his country (it comes to us via the French verb expatrier, meaning “to banish”). In its current usage, it more often refers to people who have chosen to live abroad, but it still carries the old sense of exile, whether voluntary and romantic (think Hemingway)  or involuntary and sad. Expatriate still has negative connotations among stateside Americans (some of whom mistakenly parse it as “ex-patriot” and draw the inevitable conclusion) because as any avid reader of American bumper stickers well knows, you can “love it or leave it” but apparently can’t do both.

While a word derived from Latin “ex” (outside) and “patria” (fatherland) should ostensibly apply to anyone who resides abroad, Koutonin claims that “that is not the case in reality; expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.”

I can’t speak to the truth of this in Europe, though I think right away of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, celebrated African-American writers whose “expatriate” label has never been challenged. Whatever the case, it doesn’t completely square

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

with the situation here in Korea, where “expat” is the general term that white-collar professionals use to describe themselves, regardless of color.

This is not to say that people of color don’t experience discrimination in Korea – they do, and it’s unfortunately not very hard to find recent examples of that – but merely to suggest that the “expat or immigrant” question, at least in Korea, is moot. Foreigners here are free to call themselves whatever they please, but the Korean language lumps us all under the term waegukin (literally, “outside country people”), which, as far as Korea is concerned, is the most salient fact about us: we’re all from somewhere else.

Koutonin’s call to deconstruct these terms is well-taken, but it’s hard to get on board with his remedy. Rather than extend the “expat” label to anyone residing overseas regardless of race, color, or class – a suggestion which would have the virtue of being both egalitarian and linguistically precise – he encourages readers to “deny [white expats] these privileges” and to “call them immigrants like everyone else.”

It’s not clear exactly what type of ‘expats’ he’s referring to but it’s important to recall that immigrant means (from Merriam Webster) “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.” Expats then are a free-wheeling, mobile bunch, while the immigrant plants his stake and settles in for the long haul.

“Immigrant” also raises the question of intention. I’ve talked to a lot of Western expats over the years about why they came to Korea, and I have yet to meet even one who has said, Yeah, you know, I figured I’d go to Korea and spend the next forty years there. I mean, why not?

I have however met many expats who have no plans to return to their home country, and to be fair to Mr. Koutonin, a lot of us do end up not going back. One more year leads to one more year until you reach a point where you understand that the effort required to pick up start over far exceeds the effort required to stay where you are. For better or worse, this has become your life.

A substitute teacher lives the dream

A substitute teacher lives the dream

Many expats will say that they remain open to the hypothetical cushy job that could lure them back (but which never comes looking for them); others give repatriation a go and come scurrying back when they get tired of substitute teaching or suburban monotony; still others stick it out in Asia and resign themselves to being blown in the winds of a global economy that requires more of us to migrate to where the jobs are and doesn’t always enable us to end up back where we started. To the extent that it is predicated on choice, calling oneself an “expat” may turn out to be a privilege after all, and the uncomfortable truth is that after so many years abroad the path leading back to the West for some of us is radically narrowed or effectively closed.

Does this then make me an immigrant, if only with the benefit of hindsight? Or can I claim to be an expat as long as I occasionally entertain idle thoughts of moving on? Other phrases like ‘international migrant’ and ‘global nomad’ strive to capture both this uncertainty and the willingness (or necessity) to flee to more promising shores.

As I quietly figure out where my life is headed or not headed, I find myself not concerned with labeling that experience. I realize that this stance may itself be another form of privilege – that of not caring – but it’s also part attitude, which may best be summed up by paraphrasing another old joke:

Call me an expat or call me an immigrant; just don’t call me late for dinner.


* Are you an expat? An immigrant? Late for dinner? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

**This piece originally appeared in Haps Magazine

Leave Me Alone

by Mr. Motgol

Over the last couple of years there has been a proliferation of what I call “small beer” joints in the city I call home. These places are great. I can now can grab a cheap, cold, very drinkable glass of lager in my neighborhood without being required to purchase any anju, the often pricey “side dishes” that are de rigeur in any Korean bar. These small beer joints are cozy and friendly. They’re the very antithesis of the dark, sequestered, giant-couch vibe that used to dominate the Korean beer-drinking scene, an arrangement that purposely discouraged interaction between patrons. These places are bright and stylish and take a cue from Japan and the West, with both tables and bar/stool space, all crammed together with an eye for aesthetics. They’re usually run by hip younger folks who don’t spazz out at the fact that a foreigner has sidled up at their counter, even if I come alone. I am a regular at several and they never fuss or stare or bat an eye, but rather treat me just like any Korean patron. But the best part, for me, is proximity. There are five or six of these places within a couple minute walk from my house. No longer do I have to jump on the bus or subway or pay taxi fare just to make my way to one of the sanctioned watering holes for my kind—the so-called “foreigner bars.” I live in a bustling neighborhood with plenty of nightlife and almost no expats, and am tired of the tyranny that one or two districts have held over the drinking options for the waegookin. Finally, I have a local. Well… a few locals, to be precise.


Tuesdays are a grueling day for me this semester. I teach 9 to 9, and though I have an extensive break in the morning, I usually fill it up with my non-teaching work, which often means writing. By the time the day is done I am zapped, and usually ready for a cold, wind-down beer. So last week I headed to the newest small beer joint in my ‘hood, a great place called “Hero Salon.” The proprietor is a skinny, long-haired artist who has done the whole place in a superhero theme, with numerous pop art paintings and murals featuring Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, borrowing heavily in style from the late Keith Haring. Like many small beer joints this one has not one, but two tiny outside counters just a step up of the street. As it was late summer and still warm, I sat my ass at an outside stool, ordered a cold one, and proceeded to get lost in Kindle world.

For a moment, I had found basic bliss. I had finished a long, productive day of work; I was on a quiet side street just minutes from my house, sipping a beer, engaged and transported by the book in front of my eyes. It was proper unwind alone time, and at that moment I couldn’t have been happier.

“Oh, hello.”

I glanced up from my reading as a man approached from the street. He looked familiar.

“Do you remember me?” he asked

I then recognized him. He was a professor from my school. A colleague.

“We work together at Suyeong College. I saw you at the restaurant a while back with your wife.”

“Of course…” I said. “Hello.”

“Are you waiting for someone?” he asked. His English was good.

“Uh… no.”

He appeared confused by my answer, as if the idea of a man enjoying a drink alone was too much for his brain to process.

“I’m just reading,” I said, motioning to my Kindle. Please. Go. Leave me alone.

“Oh. Do you live near here?”

I stifled the impulse to lie. “Yes, just around the corner.”

“Me too! What … what a… what’s the word?” He searched the files in his head.

“A coincidence?” I offered.

“Yes, yes… coincidence. But I was thinking of another… hmm… oh: fate. I think our meeting is fate.”

Red flag. Red flag.

With that he took a seat next to me. He would not be fucking off anytime soon. Lucky me. I now had a “buddy.”

He was from Seoul, but worked in Busan. His wife and kids stayed up north, while he sent them cash and maintained a tiny apartment just up the street from the bar. He just came back from playing ping-pong with a friend. He asked me if I ever played ping-pong. I told him that I have only ever really played ping-pong once in my life, twenty years ago, and that it had been a disaster.

With that he switched gears.

“What is your religion?” he asked.

I knew at once where he was headed.

“Uh… I am a Catholic.”

This is true: I am a baptized Catholic, though my beliefs now firmly run on the agnostic side. But when I sniff an overzealous Christian trying to suss out where I stand with God, I always affirm my Catholicism. Being a member of the One True Universal Church can sometimes work as fundie repellent. This can sometimes appease their missionary zeal, though with others, winning me over to “their side” becomes an even more attractive challenge.

“Oh, I see.”

I shifted on my stool, grabbed the beer, and took a big gulp.

“I am a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Do you know about this church?”

“You’re a Mormon?”

“That is right. What do you think of Mormons?”


“Well… I have a lot of respect for Mormons. I just find their beliefs a bit too conservative for my tastes.”

“That is right. No smoking or drinking. I quit 25 years ago.”

With that I ordered another beer. He ordered a Coke. Shit. He’s camped. He had no wife in town to go home to. He was bored and lonely and now had a mission: To win my soul for Joseph Smith and the gang. I would not be getting back to my book. I would not be left in peace. I would have to come up with an exit strategy, STAT.

“What is your wife’s religion?” he asked.

For fuck’s sake.

“She’s a Catholic too.” This was true, her family was as Catholic as mine, but like me, she stopped attending mass years ago.

“I see.” He smiled. “So, what do you usually do on Sundays?”

I usually recover from soul shattering hangovers by drinking goat’s blood.

What he wanted was so nakedly apparent. It was obvious that he was feeling me out, fishing for a chance to try to invite me to his church or rope me into some kind of Mormon’d up activity. It’s happened so many times before, that I can feel it coming. You know how some people have great gaydar? Well I have a highly developed sense of Modar. I remember ages back, 1989 or ‘90, sitting in a park in Lacey, Washington, with three friends, stoned off our asses. We had a guitar and were jamming a couple of songs. Suddenly a couple of clean cut kids our age showed up and asked us if we were hungry, that they were having a barbecue and had extra burgers, hot dogs, and pop. We were in the grips of the munchies and took them up on their offer. As soon as we arrived I felt the zombiefied fake happy/enthusiastic Christian vibe (the weed helped attune me), and sure enough, the whole posse of them were Mormons. They shared their food, only to then push us with the hard sell. They pressured and leaned on to join them at their church the following Sunday. We told them, very politely, to go fuck themselves.

But this guy was a co-worker. He was a professor, a colleague. I had to tread lightly. I needed to occupy that middle ground where he would know, in no uncertain terms, I would never, ever, attend his church, even if they were giving out fistfuls of free cash. But I also had to be nice about it. After all, like most Mormons, he was a nice guy. If he hadn’t played the religion card so early in our conversation, I just may have made a bit of time for him. But probably not. Like I said, I was very happy alone, more than content to NOT participate in new Korean buddy interrogation time.

Now that I knew that what he wanted and that he would not leave me alone that evening, I feigned receiving a text message from my wife.

“Oh, man. I gotta go. The better half requires my presence at home.”

“I see. But we must meet again!”

“Sure, sure.”

“What is your phone number?”

I was trapped, so I gave it to him. He even called me right then and there to make sure it went through (it’s harder to just give a bogus number these days). Luckily I saved his name in ALL CAPS, my particular code for DON’T EVER TAKE THIS CALL. EVEN IF YOU ARE ON FIRE.

I paid the bill—including his Coke—which he took for an invitation for him “treat me next time.” And as I walked to the store across the street (I had to buy a few things for home) he followed me, lingering outside for a disturbingly long time while I did my shopping. Finally, when I emerged, bag in hand, he was gone.

I have lived in Korea a long time now, and am pretty accommodating when it comes to slight acquaintances or strangers approaching me to try out some English. I am not one of those douchey foreigners who moans about being a “free English lesson” any time a local wants to talk a bit with a real, native speaker. I know how it can be. I remember when I was learning Spanish, all those years back, and would sometimes approach a Spanish speaker to attempt a conversation. My heart would be beating through my neck, and the first few times I tried the words got jumbled like unevenly shaped stones in my mouth and I came across like a gasping fool. I try to smile and be welcoming of most any folks who address me here out of the blue, but this is only when I know that they’re doing it out of pure curiosity and kindness. I don’t deal well with shallowly hidden agendas.

And sometimes, just sometimes, I really want to be left alone. This was one of those times. I wanted, more than anything, to sip a couple of beers and enjoy the rich harvest of my reading in peace. I didn’t want to talk to ANYONE, foreign or Korean, friend or family. And then when my tranquility was shattered, when I was forced into a conversation that I had no interest in being in, it was with a guy who pretended to want to get to know me as a friend, when we both knew all along that he really didn’t give a shit about what I was really about. He didn’t care about the real me at all. He only wanted to get me to go to his church, in hopes of converting me and earning a notch on his tally of souls. I’ll never have time for that.


Introducing Expat Extractors, LLC

by Fred Colton

Hey you, over there. Yeah, you—with the hoodie and pit stained T-shirt, hunched over that convenience store ATM seeing if you’ve got enough in the account for a one-way flight back to the motherland.

I’ve seen your type before. You’re one of those infamous night fliers, stealing softly away from Korea as if from a one night stand before sun-up, never to call or Kakao again. And you’re in good company, fellow expat. It turns out that all manner of folks are trying to get off the Korean peninsula, and not just the northern half.

So who are you, sir?

-Maybe you’re an ESL teacher, a hagwon hustler, who’s found the job to be a brutal, futile one, like dumping water into a bucket with holes in it?

-Maybe you’re a rascal and a rake, a globetrotting lothario who just unceremoniously dumped your latest Korean broad (who got plastic surgery just for you,) only to find ALL CAPS death threats and severed rodent heads on your doorstep every morning?

-Maybe you’re a rookie entrepreneur who married a native and then borrowed seed money from your in-laws (their retirement savings) to launch a coffee shop in Seoul, only to see all hope of recouping your investment dashed by spectacularly flaccid first quarter earnings? (Also—what made you think Seoul needed another coffee shop?)

-Maybe you’re a rising star in the Korean drug trade, and those fine, intrepid young officers over at the local PD are closing in on your Thai hash smuggling operation?

Hell, maybe you’re all of the above, and you need to punch the eject button STAT.

Enter Expat Extractors, LLC. Who are we? We’re the only friends you’ve got now, that’s who the hell we are. We’re fixers, problem-solvers, those who believe “laws” are elastic barriers meant to be stretched. We’ll get you out, and we’ll do it right. We here at Expat Extractors offer a variety of packages tailored to your unique situation…

The Gold Package:

Also referred to as “The Mourner.”

Our graphic and web design team will create a bulletproof alibi—the sudden, tragic “death” of a family member or close friend—for your rapid departure. Comes complete with a doctored Facebook profile for the departed, forged obituary, and short blurb from the web edition of your hometown newspaper. Also includes private transport to Incheon International Airport (or your closest long-distance hub) any time of the day or night.

The Mourner is a perfect fit for you hagwon teachers on your high horses, acting like you don’t need us because “you’ll never come back to Korea.” Well, climb on down out of that saddle, because like Michael Jordan, Jesus, and boomerangs, you’ll be back. You’ll get home and take a few swift kicks to the teeth courtesy of unemployment, realize the grass there is even browner than Korea’s ever was, and frantically start Googling teaching jobs again. Do Future You a favor and keep your reputation intact and your bridges unburned so you’ll be able to acquire another E-2 visa, or at the very least score a recommendation letter if you want to skulk off to try your luck elsewhere on the continent.

The Premium Package:

Us in the biz call this one “The Hero.”

You happen upon a mugging-in-progress in HBC after sundown and spring into action as a thuggish band of purse-snatchers corner a saintly ajumma. After a vicious brawl you emerge victorious but while the ajumma keeps her purse, you pay dearly for said victory, because you’ve got sixteen broken bones, a ruptured spleen, and you’re also stuck in a deep coma like you did “Inception” wrong.

But you’re The Hero now—thanks to our stunt team you’ll be the star an obsessively choreographed show of pulled punches and the precisely-timed bursting of fake blood packets. l And the hero needs to be flown back to his homeland for an extended recovery, of course. The Hero package is perfect for earning the sympathies of your Krazy Korean ex or your newly-impoverished in-laws. No one’s going to sue you to recover the money you lost them when, for all they know, you’re back at home, mummified in the ICU, racking up an insurmountable hospital debt while fighting for your very existence.

Private transport to airport provided.

OK folks, enough child’s play. We understand that some of you need real, definitive, max-firepower solutions. So you’ve run afoul of the cops and the heat’s coming down on you fast? Allow me to introduce…

The Platinum Package:

A commuter bus T-bones a barricade on Seoul’s Banpo Bridge and explodes and—dear God in Heaven!—you were on it. You, along with twenty-three poor Korean souls were instantly immolated and sent off to the great beyond. But wait—plot twist—the corpses were from a local morgue and the bus was rigged with flashy pyrotechnics.

Folks, this one is the big daddy. The Nuclear Option, the re-set button; guarantees no government agent, loan shark, or process server will ever catch up to you and you’ll never be extradited. Includes facial modification surgery in Gangnam, new passport and identity (you’re now Chad Baker of Idaho), and employment position in a Bali scuba shop. Private transport to airport (in a blacked-out SUV) provided.

Call us today at Expat Extractors, LLC. Because a proper withdrawal is difficult to execute. You don’t want to just pull out real fast and leave a mess behind.


Fred Colton

Marketing Director, Expat Extractors, LLC



Come Again

It always helps to speak the language. Except when it hurts.

A few years ago, I came down with a bit of jock itch, and it got to the point where I needed something to treat it. I didn’t know the Korean word for jock itch, so I looked it up, but the best that my old Essence dictionary could do was mujeom, which means “athlete’s foot”. Same thing, I thought, and headed to the pharmacy.

pharmacyI walked in and the pharmacist greeted me in Korean, “Oseo osaeyo.” He was a man of about fifty, smiling meekly and leaning slightly forward in rapt attention. From his demeanor I sensed that his whole being was at that moment focused on comprehending whatever was about to come out of my mouth, and he seemed to be expecting trouble. Learning Korean has repaid the effort many times over, and though I’m not fluent, I speak it well enough to more than handle a simple transaction like this. As I stood at that counter, I felt a familiar flash of satisfaction from knowing that I was about to make both this guy’s life and mine a little bit easier.

“I have athlete’s foot,” I said in Korean. “Here,” I added, pointing to my crotch.

The pharmacist glanced down and then back at my eyes. He said nothing, cocked his head slightly and leaned a bit more forward.

“Here,” I said. I squatted and spread my knees a little to expose my inner thighs, and I swirled both index fingers in large circles over the affected areas. “Mujeom.”

He showed no sign of comprehension and just stood there squinting and blinking. I had assumed that athlete’s foot and jock itch were one and the same thing, just in different locations, but it seemed that part of me had harbored a germ of uncertainty – otherwise I suppose I would have just asked for athlete’s foot cream and left it there.

Now his confusion had nurtured that uncertainty into full-blown doubt. Maybe athlete’s foot and jock itch aren’t really the same thing, I thought.  If they’re the same,” athlete’s foot” should have rung some kind of bell, right? There might be a specific medicine for jock itch.  Maybe I should explain.

“Actually, it isn’t athlete’s foot,” I said, “but it’s similar to athlete’s foot.” I paused to let that sink in.jock-itch

Still nothing.

“ It’s very itchy,” I said, trying to be as descriptive as I could. I winced and pantomimed vigorously scratching my groin.

The pharmacist continued to stare at me, squinting so intensely that it was hard to say whether he was smiling any more. This isn’t working, I thought, and I began searching for another way to explain myself. From experience, I knew that Korean health professionals often command a large vocabulary of English medical terms, sometimes even to the exclusion of nearly every other feature of the English language. I’ve met nurses who struggled to ask me my name and age, but were able to confidently gather whether I was suffering from “watery diarrhea” or “painful urination.” Another time a young doctor was showing me a magnified slide of my blood on a large monitor. He expertly named everything we were looking at, but when he tried to sum up the big picture in layman’s terms he told me that I “have the blood of the average bad person.” To be fair, I knew exactly what he meant.

Even though jock itch isn’t a medical term, it couldn’t hurt to try. “In English, it’s called  jock itch,” I said, pronouncing the word clearly. “Do you know jock itch?”

Anio.” Nope.


The fungus is among us!

“How about fungus?” I asked, again saying the English word very clearly. When that didn’t register I even tried pronouncing it the way a Korean might mispronounce it: pun-gus-euh. He shook his head.

Damn it. It would have helped to look up fungus before coming, but I was sure that mujeom would do the trick. And fungus isn’t one of those words that one just happens to know. It’s not like you often encounter it in daily conversations or in the practice dialogues in Korean textbooks, in which a concerned Mr. Park asks his sullen colleague, “What’s the matter, Mr. Kim?”

Kim: I am sick.
Park: Oh, really? Did you catch a cold?
Kim: No. Frankly speaking, it is a fungus.
Park: That’s too bad! You’d better go the hospital and take a rest.

I racked my brain but the closest word to fungus I could come up with was beoseot, which means “mushroom”. I knew it was a long shot, but I pointed to my crotch again, and in my best Korean, said, “Here is a mushroom-like thing.”

The pharmacist’s eyes widened.

“Mushroom-killing medicine – do you have it? This mushroom-like thing, I want to kill it.”

The pharmacist closed his eyes and quickly waved both hands in front of his face as if he were not only saying no but trying to manually erase me from his world. Only penis-mushroomafter the words were out of my mouth did it occur to me that a penis resembles a mushroom, and that he may have interpreted those sentences in profoundly disturbing ways.

Whatever he made of it, it was clear that he wanted no part in any sort of mushroom killing, so I gave up and asked the question I should have asked him three long minutes ago:

“Do you have just athlete’s foot medicine?”

He spun to his right, and from the shelves there plucked a small box, and slid it across the counter. I paid and thanked him, and as I walked out with my hard-won relief, I heard him say over my shoulder “Please come again,” more out of habit than anything else.