Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ex, but not ex-

One of the first labels I encountered when I arrived in New Zealand was “expat”, which is short for “expatriate”. The word is derived from Latin and means, basically, living outside one’s own country.

In America, I was vaguely familiar with the term, though in my mind it conjured up images of Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris, with all sorts of artists and writers hanging around, being witty and profound and eating and drinking too much.

My real-life adventure in New Zealand was nothing like that, apart from the overeating and drinking, of course (yes, I’m joking). But the main reason, I think, that I didn’t know the label very well was that it’s kind of alien to Americans. There, a common attitude would be, if you’re not Gertrude Stein or Ernest Hemmingway or whoever, why on earth would you leave America?

Shortly before I left the US, a work colleague said to me, “I could never do what you’re doing; I love my country too much.” She was an ordinary, reasonable person, not some knuckle-dragging ideological throwback, so her comment caught me totally by surprise. I thought to myself, in the words of the song, “What’s love got to do with it?” I have friends and family I never see, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love them. For me, it’s the same with my homeland, and, anyway, I don’t think that love of a place is an either/or situation.

Over the years, I began to suspect Americans’ problem with the word is pronunciation, and maybe a misunderstanding of the spelling.

The “ex” means “out of”, not “former”, as some people apparently think. The second part is derived from the Latin “patria” or native land. Many people pronounce the second part so it rhymes with “patriot” so, in their minds, one is an “ex-patriot”, which really amounts to some kind of traitor. I prefer the pronunciation “exPATtriat” instead of “exPAYtriat” to stress that it’s a different word.

One of the podcasts I listen to is The Gay Expat (“An eclectic multimedia conversation with a 30 year-old gay expat in Paris.”). He discussed this subject recently (especially in GEP23—there’s a link to that podcast on his site), and apparently he’s come across some of the same reactions among Americans that I have. He basically suggests that some Americans may use the hyphen (the incorrect “ex-pat” instead of the correct “expat”) in order to express disapproval of someone being an expat. I’d agree with that.

Americans need to get over the idea that the whole world wants to be American (they don’t, by the way). And Americans also need to realise that someone can live outside the country and still be fully American. I’ve said over and over again that I’ll never, ever renounce my American citizenship. It’s as much a part of me as my eye colour or anything else. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t also love New Zealand and be a citizen of this country.

So, I’m an expatriate American, but I’m definitely not an ex-American, though some people in the US of A might wish I was. Probably like a lot of New Zealanders, I think of myself as a sort of citizen of the world. And that, too, is a common feeling among expats the world over.

Imagine what the planet would be like if more people—and Americans in particular—felt that way. It’s never too late to start.

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