I’ve always thought of the word “expat” as code for “white traveler”. But the concept of “expat” has less to do with the privilege of one’s skin color, and more the power behind your nationality.
Thirty years ago, my parents immigrated from the paucity that lay behind the iron curtain of communist Bulgaria to the bright, beckoning lights of the United States. They came as religious asylum seekers, clutching two suitcases with their hands, hope and faith in their hearts.
My whole life has been framed by their immigrant experience: the working-class jobs they held, the old-world values they couldn’t let go of, the accents that marked where they were from, the names I inherited that no one could pronounce, the foreign language they passed down to me, and their inability to help me navigate this brave new world. Because they weren’t from this world. And I was somewhere in-between the two.
When I finally began to travel on my own, my experience wasn’t that of immigrant anymore. Something changed in the thirty years it took me to start migrating on my own. I had shed the immigrant experience. By the time I moved to France in 2019, I wasn’t an immigrant anymore. I was an expat.
But how does one go from immigrant to expat in one whole generation?
English is the current language of power. It also happens to be one of my native languages. There’s nothing about my American accent that will tell you I’m from anywhere but good ol’ California. When I want to, I can keep my Bulgarian identity a secret. Because of my white skin, no one is the wiser. Unless someone asks me about my name. When I’m in Europe, a continent a little more versed in the nuances of people’s global identities, it does come up. But in the United States, most people are not so well-versed in the geographic etymologies of people’s surnames. Especially when the origin is non-U.S.
When my parents moved to California, they didn’t speak a language of power. My father spoke a little English, tainted by Slavic phonemes but good, nonetheless. My mother didn’t speak any English, and after thirty years of living in the United States, her tongue continues to betray her. But by virtue of living in an English-speaking country, I acquired the global lingua franca as any child does and now my tongue bears no foreign imprint. My tongue has shed the mark of immigrant.
On April 13, 1991 my mother gave birth to her third daughter in Oakland Children’s Hospital. Upon instant arrival on earth, and by virtue of what soil my parents were standing on when I opened my mouth for the first time—I gained U.S. citizenship. I was the first person in my family that possessed this type of power. And I couldn’t even feed myself. But I had a U.S. passport. It is with this blue ticket that I’m able to travel to 184 countries visa-free. Now that’s power. When I pass through passport checks and security points, nobody bats an eyelash at me. And yes, I know a part of it is the color of my skin, my age and my gender. But an American of any skin color, age or gender passing through borders with a U.S. passport gains the automatic assumptions of everyone around him or her. Rich. Professional. Educated. Safe. But the assumptions that accompany the privileged come at the expense of the non-privileged; namely, those from the global south. For every privileged American traveler comes three, four, five or more global citizens with bureaucratic, cultural and monetary blocks to their ability to travel the globe, as well as access jobs and education. That’s the price of power.
Like all immigrant mothers who sacrificed everything for their children, my mother pushed me to go to college incessantly. But she couldn’t show me how to get there. In high school, I went to seminars on how to fill out FAFSA, the online application for financial assistance from the government for higher education. The auditoriums were full of parents, because parents were supposed to fill out the forms. But not in my family. Every year, I filled out the form on my mother’s behalf. So I could get money to go to college. I had to ask my best friend how to sign up for classes at the local community college. I sent emails to former high school counselors to ask for help with university applications. While everyone else’s parents were helping them apartment hunt and co-signing their leases, I had to handle my student housing myself. And while my peers were putting off work to solely pursue their studies, I had to work through college. Because I didn’t receive a check from my parents. But all the hurdles I faced getting to and through college didn’t stop me. I knew it was my only ticket to the middle-class. So, I didn’t stop at my bachelor’s, I went on to get my master’s. Both from the best public university in the world. I was the first one to graduate from college in my family. That’s a fact that I wear loud and proud.
My diplomas elevated me to a completely different lifestyle than that of my parents, but it created a vast divide between my family and me. Between the immigrant experience and the expat one. Now when I travel, I easily connect with other expats, with professionals who graduated from prestigious universities and work in sectors like finance, politics, business, and education. I network, I exchange business cards printed on shiny cardboard, I make jokes about people’s lawyers, I talk about my former college acquaintances who are running for office or writing research papers or pursuing their PhDs. I am now part of a world which my parents could never touch. It’s a world that travels with me as I travel, a world that finds me even if I don’t actively pursue it. The world of expat. The world of an unsaid, unseen power that I paid for with six years of my life and cost me $46,000.
My profession also follows me when I travel. By trade, I am an English teacher. This gives me the ability to travel all over the world and immediately find jobs for both long and short periods of time. Last year, I barely even looked for jobs. They found me. While living in Hanoi, my best friend got me a few substitute teaching jobs at local elementary schools. It was an easy way to make quick cash once in a while. But I didn’t “need” the money; I was living off my savings, and working on my first novel. I wasn’t looking for a job—it found me. The same thing happened to me once I moved to Paris. I’d go to apartment viewings and get an English teaching position. I’d make friends waiting in line at the bathroom at church and be referred to online English teaching companies where I could work from home.
Teaching English in Beijing
My profession alone makes me an expat, because educated English-speakers move all over the world to do just that—teach English. Which negates the whole moving-to-another-country-to-find-a-better-life thing. I have found a better life—it’s all over the world. But it’s a life my parents paved for me through irreversible sacrifices, health compromises, blood, sweat, death and a lot of hard work. That’s the price of power. I wouldn’t be an expat if my parents weren’t immigrants first.
I know most global citizens don’t have the opportunities that I do, so I count myself as one of the lucky ones. As one of the privileged ones.