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Ex-pat or Wetback?

[From the Budapest Week Archive Classics]

By Dork Zygotian

Last Saturday night my friends invited me out to a local Budapest "ex-pat" bar. Of course, they complained, as "ex-pats" are wont to do, that the summer's tourists had ruined this particular "ex-pat" bar, and so we sauntered over to the door and picked up a copy of an "ex-pat" newspaper. It directed us to another "ex-pat" bar, this one being a favored haunt for local American ex-pats. Sitting at a table full of compatriots we exchanged ex-pat news: how much a dollar gets today at Keleti, which consulting firm went belly-up this week, and what a drag it is you can't get real balsamic vinegar or cheap sushi in Hungary.

I nearly ex-pactorated.

What, exactly, is an "ex-pat" and why are all these foreign people calling themselves "ex-pats?" In my day, which wasn't all that long ago, they were called "foreigners" as in he's a foreigner, he comes from another country. Simple.

Ex-pat is short for expatriate, which is used by english speakers to designate themselves while living abroad in foreign countries. To be specific, it has a British background in that it was a way to deal with a category of person during the years of the British Empire that was neither a "colonist" nor in the military. The term took on a broader meaning in post-colonial days to refer to large foreign communities "resident" in the ex-colonies for any length of time.

Interestingly, the Webster's dictionary definition of expatriate does not conform at all to the present Budapest ex-pat usage of the word.
Expatriate 1. to banish a person from his native country. 2. To withdraw (oneself) from residence in one's native country. 3. To withdraw (oneself) from allegiance to one's country. 4. expatriated, exiled. (

Banished? Exiled? Are all those perfectly sculpted yuppies sipping tequila at Picasso Point really banished from their homeland? Did the Clinton administration start rounding up Young Republicans, tossing them into the dark holds of overcrowded, stinking cattle ships, exiling them to barren shores with no hope of ever seeing their beloved New Jersey ever again? (And if he didn't, then why the hell did we elect him?)

Are the "ex-pats" the poor Huguenots of the twentieth century, sent by strife and politics from their ancestral fields into unabated exile, seeking merely to ply their modest trades and crafts wherever some benevolent monarch will grant them respite from their beleaguered exodus? If we collect enough signatures to send to the US congress, will they be allowed to go home?
Returning to Websters, we ask did they withdraw themselves? It isn't unthinkable, in this era of safe sex propaganda. The ex-pat community, however, is anything but withdrawn. They brought Burger King and bagels with them, so that their residence here definitely isn't a case of intended interruptus. There is some sense of staying power.

Did they withdraw their allegiance? Easy to answer. How many US citizens are voluntarily serving in the Hungarian army. I don't see anyone raising their hands.

No, the term ex-pat has definitely mutated towards a new usage since Americans started flooding into post 1989 east Europe. The Brits have some right to use it at will, since the term got started in their colonies. Americans didn't really have colonies (Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa, the Philippines and Toronto don't count) and in place of The Commonwealth the best Americans have come up with are overseas tax shelters and franchise food outlets. A token burger outlet really isn't the same as having 30,000,000 sweating coolies working for King and Country.

For Americans, the idea of emigrating from the US doesn't really have a tradition. We are brought up to think that people emigrate from somewhere else into the Home of The Free and The Brave. Americans don't have a unified tradition of living abroad. When Hemingway or Arthur Miller wrote about "ex-pat" American life in Paris earlier in the century, they were commenting on a rather snug literary circle, rather than a mass movement of Americans out of the US.

Today, at least in east Europe, Americans foreign residents have taken to using the term "ex-pat with relish, the way "travelers" like to distinguish themselves from "tourists." The overuse of the term ex-pat does not just designate a foreigner, but somehow a better class of foreigner. Foreigners who are justifiably making two to three times the local wage, but still not as much as a dishwasher back in Jersey City. "Ex-pat" is a term dripping with class conceit. Not that anything is wrong with conceit. Conceit is fine for some folks.

Are the Italians living in Budapest "ex-pat Italians" or the Romanians here "ex-pat Romanians?" A German living in Hungary might describe himself as "a German living abroad in Europe." If a middle class citizen of the Dominican Republic moves to New York City, lives there for five years, speaks English, marries an American, and has children in America, is he an "ex-pat Dominican?" Are the Hungarian-Americans who have returned "ex-pats" or returnees?

The truth is most Americans living here are economic migrants, people who were willing to leave home in search of rewarding employment lacking at home. Middle class employment, to be sure, but being a "development consultant" sure beats being the griddle boy back at the Burger Hut on Route 17 at home. A joke current around Boston goes" How do you call your software programmer? Waiter!" Those programmers/waiters are now voting with their feet, or their plane tickets, at least. I haven't heard anyone speak about "helping Eastern Europe" in several years.

A good many young people arrive in east Europe simply to find an honest way to keep their white collar work resumés alive, even if it means making much less than one would at a similar job in the states. Twelve years of Reaganism bankrupted the middle classes in the US, and today entry level white-collar jobs are as rare as albino orangutans, and the competition for them astronomical. We are witnessing the first wave of emigration, or at least economic migration, away from the United States.

When I arrived here in 1987 there were a lot fewer foreigners living in Budapest, and most of them drove Tupelov tanks instead of Volvos. The few Brits and Americans around then tended to know each other, lived well on Ft 5000 a month teachers' salaries, and it seemed that Hungarians were a lot more enthusiastic about our presence than they seem to be nowadays. Longtime foreign residents in Hungary, the "Old-timers" are now viewed as moldy relics, oddly fluent in Hungarian, endlessly reminiscing about the communist era when everyone called each other "comrade" at work and there were no non-stop stores or fast food outlets and a restaurant meal cost Ft 60, with wine.

One gets the feeling that "ex-pats" are serving the role once played by the Russians, or Hapsburgs, or Ottomans. Overpaid, overfed, and over here. Many "ex-pats" are far too conspicuously enjoying the thrill of upper class life on the cheap in a country that is rapidly returning to the kind of class-stratification that has weakened it so often in the past.

My favorite example of the kind of thinking that exemplifies "ex-pat" mentality is in the pages of a certain local "ex-pat" newspaper (not this one, nor our sister paper, or even the one published by the fat guy who hates the Clintons.) There, in the restaurant listings, we find the Chicago restaurant listed under the heading "Continental Cuisine." Now, the Chicago is an oasis of good, stick-to-your-ribs American food, a veritable Beef Heaven for Yanks in search of Tex-Mex, but "Continental" it definitely ain't. It is ethnic. Damn good, classy ethnic food, too, but when you are located in Budapest, "Continental" does not simply mean coming from some continent or another. In the same newspaper listing, we find the Carmel Jewish Restaurant listed as ethnic, although it serves cuisine that is entirely native to this part of Europe. Ooops! We forgot what continent we are in! Ex-pats do that sometimes.

I don't suppose that suddenly ex-pats are going to suddenly find some new terminology for themselves. Maybe we can start by considering the Hungarian term: idegen. It means, simply, alien. The Hungarian root derives from the Old Hungarian root word ij (bow) from which derives ideg (nerve) and ideges (taut, nervous.) Viewed from the Hungarian etymology, aliens make people nervous.

But don't guests always make one nervous?

Rick E. Bruner | Budapest Nostalgia, Expat Philosophy | Apr 2, 2004 | Comments (8)


i will probably never visit again as i only came to see the defin of expat.
ME = withdraw loyalty (seriously intend to start a unique empire in africa)
i am trying to help the east europe.
for example i am trying to use ex-comunist techies to create intilectal works eg e commerce, bespoke software e.t.c
with these services i punt to the richest countries of the world, so that strong money heads east without any form of material stocks or rescources going west.
when choosing employees, i specificaly try to find the older married with kids generation and pay them high. this allows the money to permiate eastern economy well.
i am a new and annonimus player with no allegiances whatso ever.
by some i am considered a genious by others a nutter, eitherway the successes and plans i have in progress certainly have nothing to do with plans formed of an education(bad parenting).
for every idea i have i need to learn new skills.
i only tell you this because i like the matter of fact way you put things.
keep your eyes open for a new player in the IT and Software markets and soon a whole range of renewable energies.
when i can no longer hide my success you will know me by the above clues, but the world needs to expect a lot of changes over the next few decades...

GiGaBaNE | Sep 1, 2004

GiGaBaNE, Thanks for the note, and best of luck with your scheme. Personally, though, my money is on "nutter."

Rick Bruner | Sep 1, 2004

hahahahhaa, ditto, Rick, well put.

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