This post was originally published on Medium on 20 July 2017.
Sometimes news that seems small in the grand scheme of things is actually indicative of much deeper problems and shifts in society, which is something I had the chance to address in this piece, published at Roar.
I was inspired to pitch this while in a blind rage the day after a friend passed the news on to me that in a sort-of add-insult-to-injury-and-call-it-privitisation way, it would now cost a fee to email UK Immigration for questions regarding the application process. (Prior to this year, phone calls had an associated fee, but emails were free.) I actually never planned on writing it myself, thinking that I would share the news in a few groups of travel writers and fellow international students, and someone else might find a way into the story, take an angle on it. I didn’t want to rock the boat — I’m going to start applying for my own UK visa again soon, and it was bear-enough of a process the first time around before the added NHS costs. But the more I thought about it, and the more it was buried further under the surreal news cycle we all live within, the more I had to say something.
Now for some, as I wrote, this is just a matter of costs, a way to enforce a policy of austerity by reducing government spending in some way. But things that cannot be ignored — which I was only able to touch lightly on in the piece but which motivated it nonetheless — is that there is a distinct implicit bias revealed about how we decide who belongs where, and we can dig into that by considering the following question: Who is an immigrant, and who is an expat.
If we look up the definition in Merriam-Webster, an “expat” is defined as “an expatriate person,” and “expatriate” is defined as “to withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country” or “to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere.” “Immigrant” is defined as “One that immigrates such as a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence,” and “immigrate” is defined as “to enter and usually become established; especially: to come into a country of which one is not a native for permanent residence.” But, as discussed here, here, and here, the ways in which we choose when to use which term is a matter of semantics, and also, social constructions tied to colonialism regarding race and ethnicity. The summary: when we say “expat” we are often reserving that term for white westerners, and it is a bias that we don’t question, but we should.
The world continues to globalize. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer in the contemporary world. However, it is not lost upon me as an American student/graduate student that the value of my education is not the education itself, but what the debt subsidizes in turn through both higher fees at home and abroad, and fewer available funding options. When this adds up over ten years of higher education, combined with the perception of academia, the true value society places on education becomes clear. Contrary to what those who determine what school fees should be seem to believe, I am not landed gentry from the Regency period with nothing else to do with my time or wealth. Contrary to popular memes regarding academics, I did not choose to pursue a PhD because I can’t do anything else. I did not choose this path to hide from reality in ivory towers, as some think academics do. And in truth, I think that those academics who choose to do that, especially in this generation, are few and far in between.
I chose this because I am driven to solve problems. I’m not here on a whim, nor because I simply enjoy throwing myself at brick walls, but because the hopefully-to-be-peer-group who evaluated not only the quality of my work to date but my potential to contribute in a meaningful way to a specific field decided that, with a bit more training, I might have something useful to contribute. And then, as high as the bar is, and as much as it keeps shifting ever higher, I still know that my privileges shield me in this endeavor as much as they do in other parts of my life. The idiocy I face comes in the form of unwanted touching and comments because I look “exotic,” or with “striking features,” not because the world has been able to categorize me on sight and determine me threatening. There is surprise that I speak “normally,” confusion about where my name — and therefore my people — might be from. But I’m from a solidly middle class part of Connecticut; socio-economics and the way I am read by others because I tick the boxes of “American,” “from New England,” “educated,” and most importantly, “undefinable” means that I will always be the expat, not the immigrant. In most ways, I am almost always the “right” kind of people; institutionalized racism is not something that affects me, or creates extra barriers for me, as it does for many others.
Yet, it is because I straddle these hurdles, I feel compelled to write about them, and call attention to them. Because I know that if circumstances had been different, if I hadn’t been raised in New England, if I hadn’t been able to be sponsored for grants by a respected international organization, the next step on my way to Cambridge would not be an annoyance and a financial puzzle, but a financial impossibility. The weight of an un-lived other life begins to feel like a responsibility to speak when able. I don’t know how to fix the problems that drive immigration, the problems plaguing global economies, or the unrest that seems to be growing in this world. But I do know that commodifying global movement and education, while piling on cultural biases that continue to promote discrimination isn’t going to solve anything. Hopefully, if we can start naming that which is implied in these kinds of policies, we can better open up conversations about finding real solutions.
Also, don’t forget to head over to www.roarfeminist.org and check out the original piece “The UK Just Built a More Effective Border Wall Than Trump Could Ever Dream of.”