Recently I was taking part in a focus group for non-Danes and the facilitator asked an interesting question: how do we define ourselves? Expats or foreigners? I have lived here for nearly eight years and I don’t think I have ever really defined myself as either. I am British but I live in Denmark. I met many new people when I first came here at my Danish language school and I don’t think any of us defined ourselves by either term but rather by our nationality.
I was interested in what the words ‘expat’ and ‘foreigner’ bring to mind when applied to me and others like me.
The term ‘expat’ tends to be used, certainly here in Denmark, to refer to people who have come here from other countries for work on a short term basis, yet I know many people who have lived here for a long time who refer to themselves as expats.
Interestingly a friend from Scotland who is moving here from Berlin was refused a rental property as she wasn’t a ‘real expat’ since her husband had a permanent contract here. Retired people from England who live in France refer to themselves as expats. To me the term seems to be used by people who want to separate themselves slightly from the country they live in and to hold onto their own identity. Almost as if they don’t want to immerse themselves too much in a place that may be a temporary stopping ground.
Many expats exist in a very carefully-created environment and this can be a way of self protection. This is often a choice I understand. If you are moving every three to four years, you need to have some continuity in life. So international schools for your kids, a social life centred around other expats who ‘get it’ and not learning yet another new language (what’s the point for a few years?) seems to work for many. To me this is an ‘expat’.
‘Foreigner’, meanwhile seems to be a word with very negative connotations. Whilst many expats live quite separately from the community they live in, the use of the word foreigner to me excludes the person from the community. I have never been called a foreigner here in Denmark but I was regularly referred to one, and most often in a negative way, when I lived in Berlin. In playgrounds I heard mothers telling their children not to play with my son because he was a foreigner. To be generous, I hoped it was because they thought there might be a language issue but I doubt that is really a problem for two year olds! Foreigner puts an emphasis on ‘the other’. Foreigners are different and to be defined as such can make integration difficult.
When we first moved here we planned to stay for at least three years and to me it was important to learn to speak Danish, to understand how Danish society worked and to explore as much of the city as I could so to that end I never really put a label on myself.
I suppose being European, there was very little obvious difference between me and many others around me, at least until I opened my mouth, so fitting in was a little easier. I also didn’t feel the need to hold onto my national identity too much and now I am not sure how British I actually feel anymore - I find that, on rare visits back, it is a place that feels quite alien to me.
When people ask me where I am from I always say I am British but I have lived here for a long time. My son is clear about his identity but I think others struggle with it. Born in Denmark to English parents with grandparents in France and the US - he has no clear idea of what being British is, he’s never been to the UK and we have our own hybrid of traditions melded together from our own upbringings and our life here in Denmark. I suppose the slightly pretentious term of ‘global citizen’ applies to him. He is not an expat nor a foreigner and, I suppose, neither I am.
Melanie Haynes is originally from the UK and has lived in Copenhagen for seven years. She writes about life in Denmark on her blog Dejlige Days.