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What Is an Expat?

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Man relaxing with his laptop near the beach
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Buen dia y Feliz año nuevo! I spent the last few days thinking about the best way to kick off Mi Vista in the new year and decided to answer a frequently asked question: What is an expat?

This question pops up regularly in our YouTube channel comments, so I offer a few definitions that I researched for my book, “Adventurers Abroad: The New American Expat Generation.”

First, you should know the United Nations doesn’t use the term expats. It considers anyone, regardless of socio-economic factors, to be an international migrant if they move from one country to another, whether or not they intend to stay permanently or acquire citizenship.

But a more common definition of an expatriate is anyone who lives outside of his or her nation of origin for at least six months of any twelve-month period.

Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, defines expatriate in more pejorative terms: “To withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country.” The idea of renouncing allegiance to your country has been the way expatriates have been viewed historically.

The contemporary interpretation of expatriate, though, is rooted more in the notion of choosing to live abroad, without renouncing citizenship.

In America, the first use of the term expatriate was Lillian Bell’s early 20th century novel, “The Expatriates.” Most Americans seem to associate the word expatriate with the romantic “Lost Generation” of writers and artists who flocked to Paris in the 1920s. Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and other creative souls gave legitimacy to being an expat for reasons other than immigrating to another country, although even they believed the term expatriate had a negative undertone that questioned their fealty to America.

By mid-20th century, global mobility and economic globalization began to change our understanding of expatriate to mean someone sent abroad to work for a multinational company. Today, an expat is someone living abroad permanently or for a specific period of time for a wide range of reasons.

Globalization, modern technology and transportation improvements have literally shrunk the world we live in, and those changes are reflected in the large and growing number of expats in Mexico and other countries.

The U.S. Department of State estimates well over 7 million Americans are living around the world and over 750,000 in Mexico, the largest concentration of expat Americans anywhere. The government data exclude U.S. military and non-military government employees.

By the way, the global American expat community abroad would be the fourteenth largest state in the U.S. Adding our Canadian friends and expats from Europe and other regions of the world, the number of expats in Mexico now exceeds 1 million.

Felice and I will be in Puerto Vallarta next week, so I’ll be blogging on what’s new there from our deck overlooking the Bay of Banderas.

Hasta luego, amigos.

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