How to Talk Expat

Sep 16, 2019 9:51:45 AM Sarah Rymer

Recently I realized I’ve learned another language. No, not Turkish, French, or Arabic, although I’ve learned each of those to varying degrees of proficiency. I guess it’s not actually another language I’m learning, but a dialect I call Expat.

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The term “expat” was part of what triggered a realization that there is a specialized English vocabulary that goes with living overseas. Recently when I was back in America, people asked what I meant when I said “expat” or NGO or any number of words that I use on a regular basis overseas. 

So, to prepare you to go overseas or to talk with your friends who live and work in other countries, here are a few words you’ll want to know:

  • Expat – Someone living outside their native country, most often used by Americans. Generally, it applies to people who live abroad by choice. For example, we don’t use “expat” for my Sudanese friends in Jordan because they are refugees who don’t have the option to safely return to their home country.
  • Home - In the Expat dialect, “home” is usually modified, such as “your home in Jordan” or “your home country.” If you say the word “home” without an explanation, you probably mean the place where you live in the country at that moment.
  • Foreigner – Context makes all the difference for this word. When I’m talking about life in Jordan and I say “foreigner,” I mean myself and others who are not citizens of the country. This can be confusing when I’m in the U.S., where “foreigner” refers to a non-American.
  • Local – This word applies to the people of the country where the expat is living. For example, if I say I’m going out with local friends, I mean I’m going out with Jordanians, not necessarily with people who live close to me.
  • NGO – Non-governmental organization. We call these "non-profits" in American English. So, for example, I work with an NGO called IDEAS.
  • TCK – Third-Culture-Kid. These are kids growing up outside their passport country. They aren’t local (see definition above) even if they were born in a certain country, but they may have rarely, if ever, lived in their passport country. One sign you’re talking to a TCK is if you ask, “Where is home?” and they reply with a long and complicated answer.
  • TCA – Third-Culture-Adult. Actually, I made up this term, but I think it’s useful. There is no good term for those of us who, while not TCKs, have spent many years living outside the country where we grew up. Unlike TCKs, we do have roots in our passport countries, but we often feel like we don’t quite belong there. How do you know you’re talking with a TCA? If they don’t seem to remember how to do basic things such as using the self check-out at the grocery store, if they have gaps in their knowledge of current pop culture, and if they frequently use the terms in this glossary.
  • Passport Country – The country where you are a citizen. Especially for TCKs, they may have only been to their passport country for visits. They “belong” there, but it’s not home.
  • And last, but not least. . . Football – Because, of course, “football” actually means what Americans call soccer! You need to add the qualifier to describe the sport called football in the U.S., as in American football.

Put your newfound knowledge of Expat to use, and enjoy talking with the growing number of people who are living and working globally. And, if you want to learn Expat yourself, check out the opportunities to leverage your professional skills through IDEAS.

Are you an expat? Or have you been one?  Any words you would add to this glossary?


About the Author: Libby is an IDEAS Associate and professional librarian. She currently resides in the Middle East and works with school libraries in Africa and Asia. Enjoy other blogs by Libby, such as How to Survive Culture Stress.