By Tommy Mulvoy
My grandfather was an immigrant, I married an immigrant, and am now one myself. At first glance, the circumstances behind each of our immigrations look different, but in reality, each of our decisions to emigrate from our places of birth was based on the desire for a better life. The national discourse surrounding immigration over the past 18 months, and more specifically the last few weeks, has had me thinking deeply about my relationship with immigration and immigrants and how that coincides with the term that most people would call me and my wife — expatriates.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out the “real” difference between an expat and an immigrant. According to the Oxford dictionary, an expatriate is “someone who lives outside their native country” while an immigrant is someone who “comes to live permanently in a foreign country.”
If that is the case, the Pew Research Center report published this past fall, which stated that more Mexicans are now leaving the U.S than arriving, should encourage Americans to refer to Mexicans in the U.S. as expats and not immigrants. And, a closer look at my family’s history has left me even more confused about the two terms.
My grandfather’s immigration to the United States in 1921 from the small village of Oughterard in Galway, Ireland fits neatly into the narrative that many have of what it means to be an immigrant. In my grandfather’s case, he, his widowed mother, and two of his three sisters left their life as tenant farmers in an increasingly dangerous and fractious Ireland for the U.S. Though, a closer look at documents from the time suggest otherwise. When my great-grandmother arrived at the immigration gate, she told authorities that she and her three children intended to stay in the U.S. for about ten years, which would have seemingly made her an expat. While this might have been a ruse to get by authorities, her intentions are bolstered by fact the for four years, she lived and worked as a domestic worker for a wealthy family in Boston before returning to Oughterard for 13 years.
While my wife’s immigration to the U.S. from England in 2008 was not done under the same economic and political duress as my grandfather’s, taking a position in Boston with a consulting company allowed her to work with more established biotechnology companies and build her knowledge-base of the industry more quickly. In simple terms, Vicky’s move to Boston was, like my great-grandmother’s more than a century earlier, a wise economic decision. Vicky’s six-month swap turned into an eight-year stay that included two years of graduate study and a great deal of networking that wasn’t possible in London. Similarly, after teaching in Connecticut for eight years, I took a position at a boarding school outside of Amman, Jordan. The Middle East was fascinating to me for many reasons, but it wasn’t lost on me that my experience there would surely aid in future employment.
Vicky and I both moved to New York City in the summer of 2013 and started dating soon thereafter. Nine months later, we rented an apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Our pre-tax combined salary allowed us to enjoy a high standard of living, but after taxes, insurance, and basic living costs, we saved little money.
A year ago, just six months after our wedding, Vicky took a job in Basel, Switzerland. Moving to one of the most expensive countries in the world might not appear the wisest economic decision, but when we added it all up, our monthly savings would be much higher — mostly due to higher salaries, lower taxes, no car expenses, and cheaper rent. Also, our quality of life would be above and beyond what we experienced in Brooklyn. My wife would no longer have to stand on an absurdly packed subway for an hour-and-a-half every day, and I could <leisurely> ride my bike to work.
Much like my great-grandmother, Vicky and I had a rough timeline for how long we wanted to live overseas. But, after Brexit and Trump’s electoral victory, we are in no rush to return to either England or the U.S., and our lives as immigrants is likely to last much longer than expected.