The word "expat"
For most of my life, I was simply known as Efthymios Kotronias from Athens, Greece - the son of Evgenia and Giannis, the brother of Sotiris, a good friend and a fixture within a much wider social network.
On October 1, 2010 I left my home and moved to the Netherlands. In my mind, I simply moved from one European land to another. I did not foresee any differences. However, I realise there are some.
The fine distinction known as "expat"
Existing within a new community does not necessarily mean that you are part of it. This is not just a feeling, but the reality of the situation.
And, in order to become part of this community, you need to go through an integration process that includes finding a job, learning the language and the cultural norms and developing a new support as well as social network.
For me, this is no problem. I am open minded and up for the challenge. Even if I was not up for this endeavor I would still have to go through this integration process as an expat. Oops! Did I say expat? Yes, when I moved to the Netherlands, I earned the fine distinction known as "expat."
It seems the word expat has not only entered into our modern day language but it has also gradually replaced the word immigrant. It is possible that this switch may reflect our current era of political correctness, but it is just another word that serves bureaucratic purposes. This is understandable.
However, I have larger concerns about the use of this term. Whether we like it or not, we still live in a world where humans find it necessary to label other humans. We still live in a time where words are used in a catachrestic way. This practice can promote bias, alienation and indifference. And recent experiences have taught me that "expat" is one of these words.
When expats feel like "expats"
There are certain moments when expats feel this most. Several friends have received letters from immigration authorities regarding bureaucratic matters they must take care in order to legally stay in the Netherlands, yet the letters were all in Dutch. Of course, it was all Greek to them…
And the question I have heard again and again is: "They know I am a foreigner and do not speak the language, so why do they insist on sending letters in Dutch?"
Other expats have expressed their frustration after visiting the doctor. They are often made to feel that even if they were bleeding from their eyeballs they would not be taken seriously.
Experiences like those may not seem such a big deal and there is a way to navigate through these situations. For instance, registered expats can take Dutch language courses for free. However, enthusiasm tends to wane after various attempts to use Dutch in their every day life and converse with locals only to be spoken back in English.
While these may seem like small issues, after a few experiences of this nature, expats can develop feelings of frustration, disappointment and exclusion.
The divide between expats and non-expats
It seems like a whole new world - this of expats - developing within the already existing world of non expats. The second group know the rules of the game within their own culture and - since they do not encounter integration dilemmas - demonstrate little empathy for the difficulties expats face during their integration.
On the other hand, expats pit themselves as soon as they come across situations which they think they can not handle just because they do not know how things work; and, blaming the others is sometimes more convenient than trying to find out the right way to resolve things. So, expats tend to bond and commiserate over their experiences.
Therefore, they find integration more and more difficult and the divide between expats and non expats widens, reinforced by both sides.
Just a guy who moved to Amsterdam
Within this context, I fully embrace my new label and all it entails. I will go on facing my integration’s difficulties, experiencing moments of enthusiasm and disappointment, taking pride in my achievements and pitting myself, while bonding with other expats as I try to understand and develop relationships with non expats.
However, since every single individual possesses a unique diversity, if you meet me, just know I am simply Efthymios, a guy who moved to Amsterdam.