A trip to the Ausländerbehörde (immigration authorities office) is a rite of passage for any foreigner who has made Berlin their home. The life experiences of the people who pass through its gates are not as universal.
Photo: Imago

BerlinWords are powerful, and since I returned to Berlin almost three weeks ago to join the team on the Berliner Zeitung’s new English site, there have been some that have struck fear into my heart more than others. Anmeldung. Finanzamt. Mietschuldenfreiheitsbestätigung.

There is also one that has puzzled me and provoked some uncomfortable feelings since I landed at Schönefeld, only this time it’s an English word: expat. “Expat” is a word I’ve encountered pretty frequently recently – it’s used ubiquitously on websites for people recently arrived in Germany, which offer helpful guides on navigating the above three sore spots besides a whole lot else. It’s also come up in conversations with friends and family about the new life I’m starting here.

I think “expat” doesn’t sit well with me because I once used it, without thinking, when telling a friend about another friend’s job in a private international school which, I said at the time, largely catered for the children of “expats”. My friend was quick to point out the dissonance of having used “expats” to describe wealthy people from some of the world’s most affluent countries, whereas “immigrant” would be more readily applied to a citizen of a less well-off country, perhaps working a less prestigious job.

The dictionary offers some differences between expats and immigrants. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an expat (or expatriate) is “a person residing in a country other than their native country” – and that hasn’t always meant voluntarily, previously referring to those in exile. Some sources attach other conditions: expats might be abroad temporarily, whether for work or pleasure. By contrast, the OED defines an immigrant as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country”. Several sources make references to “illegal immigrants” in their examples of usage alongside the definition.

From Gastarbeiter to Wahlberliner

In reality, the amount of time spent abroad is not the distinction people make between expats and immigrants. As the sample sentences in the dictionary demonstrate, the word “immigrant” is (wrongly) used with largely negative connotations. That’s true in English and German: an expat in Berlin might be called something like a Wahlberliner – a Berliner by choice. Our understanding of the word “expat” speaks of adventure, new opportunities, becoming more cultured. But when people talk about their problems with foreigners in Germany, they talk about Ausländer – a term meaning foreigner, but still seen as pretty loaded by some – or Einwanderer – immigrants.

The former SPD politician and serial spouter of nonsense Thilo Sarrazin has a new book out in which he claims “immigration has almost always been linked to serious disadvantages for local people”. But the man who previously wrote a book claiming Germany was “abolishing itself” through its acceptance of people from Turkey and other Muslim countries focusses specifically on immigration from African and west Asian countries when calling for “more restrictive immigration policy” from Germany and Europe.

There’s a snobbishness in terms of the jobs people do abroad too. The way these words are used teaches us that expats are people like diplomats or businesspeople, and immigrants are blue-collar workers like cleaners or builders. West Germany’s post-war economy was built on the backs of Gastarbeiter – workers from countries like Turkey, Italy and Morocco who came over on temporary permits to help rebuild the country. Temporary work would seem to fit the technical definition of an expat – but is that how the Gastarbeiter, many of whom stayed in Germany and made contributions without which the country would be unrecognisable today, would be regarded in the expat vs immigrant debate?

Expat privilege

The double standards are clear. As we established in last week’s editorial, English is a global language – and there’s certainly a demographic of people from the Anglophone world who move to Berlin, sometimes long-term, without ever learning German, relying on the omnipresence of English. You rarely see people like Thilo Sarrazin kicking off about that. But other foreigners in Germany, including refugees, are often required to attend an “integration course” – mandatory for those who “cannot make themselves understood in German at a simple, adequate level”, as per the Immigration Act of 2005. Berlin has English-language theatre, comedy and cinemas that run English subtitles on German films, but I don’t know of anyone – myself included – who has been accused of refusing to integrate into German society by partaking in those offerings, even if they enjoy consuming the city’s cultural output auf Deutsch as well.

The question of privilege rears its head too. Wahlberliner is a useful term here, because it literally spells the issue out. I chose to come to Berlin from the UK, where I could also live comfortably and work in my chosen field, but right now I’d just rather live in Germany. It will be easy for me to “go home” once I feel I’ve had enough of Currywurst and Pfand – the definition of an “expat”. But there are those living in Berlin, among them refugees fleeing war and conflict, who don’t get to choose when to call time on their European jaunt – because the place they came from isn’t safe for them. So don’t get me started on “Brefugees”.

Most of Berlin’s “expats” must know the word’s implications, because it’s clearly the one they prefer to describe themselves. There is a myriad of “expat” Facebook groups, the largest of which has over 64,000 members. Others are a bit more niche – there are several groups for expat women, one for expats with pets, and even one for expats who are into hiking. By contrast, there seems to be just one with the word “immigrants” in the title – and that only has seven members. In some of the expat groups, flat-hunting members have asked others for advice on “immigrant neighbourhoods” – by which they mean the dodgy ones they want to avoid.

Rejecting harmful tropes

Moving to a new place for any length of time always has its challenges, and officially it remains impossible to tackle the hefty bureaucracy that accompanies your arrival in Germany in any language other than German. History is peppered with examples of foreigners newly arrived in a new place perpetuating stereotypes and prejudice against those recently arrived from other places, so as to legitimise themselves as the “good immigrants”. Perhaps in Berlin, everyone’s just trying to get their share of the “poor but sexy”-ness, but fear too many others doing the same will devalue its cool capital.

But Berlin has long held a reputation as a cosmopolitan, international city, and is estimated today to be one quarter Ausländer. That’s part of what makes it what it is – so a two-tier division of expats vs immigrants feels entirely out of character. It’s undeniable that the lived experience of the almost 890,000 foreigners in Berlin is not homogenous, but the negative aspects of that variation, and the views of people like Thilo Sarrazin, only get reinforced through the idea that there are “good” and “bad” foreigners.

Whether consciously or not, and whether it’s true to the dictionary or not, that’s a trope fed by the choice between calling yourself or someone else an expat or an immigrant. So, as someone who would more likely be filed in the “expat” drawer, I’d encourage others in the same position to get more comfortable with the idea of being an immigrant – because it doesn’t need to be the weaponised, fearmongering word too many have come to think it is.