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Expat by any other name

February 10 was my two-year anniversary in Colombia. When I moved, my friend, Kathryn, was doing a documentary about people emigrating from the U.S. So, I am fortunate enough to have footage of this huge change in my life.

It seemed fitting that we would watch it on my anniversary weekend. I sat there with tears in my eyes (I mean, you know I cry at anything). But these tears were of so many emotions: a reaction to my cousin who cried when I told her I was moving, the scenes of family prayer and laughter around the table, and my sweet friends.

As she interviewed me, I realized it’s not just about those warm and fuzzy memories. I tried to describe those first days when I got off a plane and stepped into a country I had never been to. I was completely alone. I walked into a country whose reputation was drugs and violence.

She filmed me walking through the city for the first time. She filmed me looking for apartments with, even after years of studying, debilitating limited Spanish. She filmed the breakdowns after smiling, brave-faced phone calls with my family that melted into terror. And this weekend, I sat there watching myself, almost unrecognizable, reliving it all.

She asked if I remembered what I was feeling. And I will never forget. Immigration is tough. The idea of moving somewhere for a better life is idyllic and beautiful. But the overwhelming pressure that you constantly feel? Most people don’t hear about that.

As an expat, people always view my move as positive. Some brave soul who moves to another county to create their best life. Someone with the guts to move to and through the unknown with grace and toward adventure. When I talk about what I’ve done and those first few months, I’m usually met with admiration and high esteem.

These are the same people I see speaking so vehemently against immigration. And before this turns dangerously political, let me say I’m not arguing restrictions or policy. I’m arguing attitude.

In my first blog post on the way to Colombia, I said:

I was asked about my decision to [move] and how that affects my patriotism. To be honest, I never knew my patriotism was in question. But I answered. So many times, we, Americans, use our love of and devotion to our country, at the exclusion of all others, as a litmus test for true Americanism. But I think that undermines what America is really about.

America is the most ethnically diverse, multicultural nation in the world due to immigration. Our national DNA is rooted in pretty much every country, culture and religion around the world. To be honest, I believe traveling is more likely to make me a better American than a worse one.

If I can be the face of humanity in a world where America’s compassion and humility are sometimes unrecognizable, I will. And if I can bring back to the land we call home stories of love and acceptance, I will. And hopefully, we will all be the better for it.

The only difference between an expat and immigrant is that we tend to use the word “expat” to describe people from a predominantly English-speaking, wealthy country. When I look up photos for “immigrant” and “expat,” I get completely different photos.

To those who know me, I ask, how would you feel if you saw me standing at a counter struggling to figure out how/what to order? How would you react if you knew people turned around to me and demanded I speak their language knowing that when I tried, they would make fun of me? Would you jump to my defense if you heard them yell for me to go back to my country (oddly, that’s also a phrase that’s been yelled at me in the U.S., but I digress)? What would you do?

None of this has actually happened to me here. But it has happened to some of my students who have recently traveled to the U.S.

Still, I live in their country. I speak English. I celebrate Thanksgiving. I wear my Texas shirts with pride. I am not Catholic and I do not practice Catholicism. I have not completely conformed to their culture. And yet, I feel perfectly comfortable doing those things without hearing obscenities or disparaging remarks.

I have stood before strange-named fruits and wondered what to buy. I have fretted in lines about what denomination of bills to give so I don’t look like an idiot that can’t count. I have used Spanish words incorrectly and pronounced them wrong (still do). I have had to navigate rent, employment, and health insurance contracts in Spanish legal-ese. I’ve given wrong addresses to frustrated cab drivers. I’ve asked people to repeat themselves countless times and at slower speeds so I can understand. I’ve smiled and nodded at inappropriate times because I didn’t understand. I have walked into my home and burst into tears because of all of this stress. I have literally worried myself sick. And I have confined myself to seclusion, ordering food from a phone application because the outside world was just too much to handle.

And the funny thing? I’d say 90% of the time the people have been gracious, patient, kind, and helpful. So I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I were treated like and talked to the way some people in the U.S. treat immigrants.

Many of you know me, love me, and supported me on this journey. You encourage me and have told me that you are encouraged by me; which is an undeserved burden I humbly accept.

When I moved, my uncle’s parting advice was, “May you find something transformative and liberating. May you lose something that held you hostage. May those things force you to be a better citizen of the world…”

And as citizen of the world, I am sharing the stories of love and acceptance I promised. I am not an expat. I refuse to wear my American privilege.

I’m proudly proclaiming that I am an immigrant. See my face. Hear my story. Acknowledge my fears. Admire my bravery. Praise my efforts. Recognize that this life, this change, was not easy.

And as a citizen of the world, I hope that changes how you view and treat some of the immigrants in my homeland.

Create hope. Forge a path. Change the world.


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