Though I spent most of my life living in countries that were not my own, I have never considered myself an expat or an immigrant. Although these words are meant to describe the same thing, their connotations have ample significance in shaping how an experience is perceived by others.
An expat – a term widely understood to represent a Westerner – is defined as someone who has chosen to live abroad in a country for an undetermined amount of time, often years and generally for work, and who also enjoys a wide number of institutionalized privileges by doing so. On the other hand, an immigrant – as common understanding would have it – is a person of non-European descent who chooses to make a foreign land “his or her home permanently” in order to seek better opportunities.
While growing up, all I knew about myself and my identity was that I was someone that went from one place to another and who did her best to assimilate into host communities, often under thick camouflage. I was born to a Cameroonian mother and a Beninese-Nigerian father but carry a Senegalese passport. Beyond my mixed African background, I was an adaptive nomad on a clock. Friendships, “homes”, schools, every encounter with a new person or destination instantly triggered an invisible timer until my next move – three years at most. The clock would start ticking as soon as I finished uttering the words, “Hi, I’m Astrid. What’s your name?”. With time I grew used to this pace. But after going through a semi-identity crisis at 18, I decided to do away with the timer. What would it be like to go past that three-year mark? Where would I live?
Though most of my friends chose to pursue their higher education in France, the U.K., the U.S., or Canada, I sought something different. I grew up with a blend of African, French, British and American backgrounds and wanted the thrill of a new culture and language – warm weather and art were a major plus – so I chose Italy.
Permesso di Soggiorno: Giving my Passport Wings
Obtaining a permesso di soggiorno (permit of stay) isn’t just the first step in the long journey to citizenship; to non-Europeans like myself, that single document grants free movement within 26 European countries. I wouldn’t need to apply for a visa for each country I planned on visiting and I would hopefully no longer be gazed at suspiciously by airport immigration staff. That document would give my passport wings.
Getting the permit of stay can take months (sometimes even over a year) and by the time it is issued, it would already be time to apply for a new one again. I was diligent about the application and renewal process–the price to pay for non-compliance was high. This wasn’t the case for some of my American friends, who quickly found a loophole. They were allowed to stay in Italy for less than 6 months without needing a permit of stay and any travel done outside of Italian soil would reset the clock.
An Expat in Italy
When living abroad, committing to learning about the country’s history, culture(s), and language can help ease the process of acceptance. The locals would go out of their way to help me, speak in English whenever I did not understand, and invite me to their family gatherings. I, in turn, embraced their food, sang to Ligabue, made sure I looked fashionable even just to take out the trash, and amplified my words with dramatic hand gestures that say it all. It is fair to say that I was reaping the perks associated with the term “expat.”
In fact, despite the self-created cleavages between Northern and Southern Italy, and that the country is fairly homogeneous with very few minority groups, I rarely experienced full-fledged racism directed towards me. Granted, I was stared at often, and both men and women would come up to me and compliment my skin and height. I’d often hear “Altezza metà bellezza” (your height is half your beauty). While I generated quite a lot of curiosity and it got really awkward at times, the attention never felt dangerous or threatening.
Immigrant Stereotypes in Italy
I came to Italy wanting to commit to a country for the long-term, and after hitting the three-year mark with graduation fast approaching, I sought to change my immigration status. I was aware that this might be a challenge since I saw that there were only very rare examples of successful people of color in Italian society. Certain ethnic groups of “immigrants” seemed to be confined to specific job categories that gender further limited.
The general perception went as follows:
- Women from the Philippines and Latin America were seen as disciplined, hard workers who made ideal caregivers to the elderly and children. Filipino men, on the other hand, were hired to handle logistics: transportation, freight, etc.
- North African males were mainly shop owners or fruit and clothes sellers at markets.
- Indian males sold roses, umbrellas, and gadgets.
- Sub-Saharan African males were either street vendors of cheap, luxury brand knock-offs or the security agents in stores or at clubs. Sub-Saharan African women were either maids or prostitutes.
- Eastern Europeans were seen as thieves or crooks and were widely blamed for petty and more serious crimes.
In addition to battling against negative stereotypes, the actual process of advancing to the higher tiers of society for ethnic minorities is extremely difficult. This begins with the fact that most foreign degrees are not recognized in Italy, thus narrowing the options for high-skilled immigration. Moreover, it is extremely frequent in Italy to work “in nero” (without a contract), which makes it even harder, institutionally speaking, to advance. Years working “in nero” will quickly nullify one’s chances to apply for citizenship, thus limiting “full” integration. The citizenship process alone requires anywhere between 4 to 10 years of legal presence on Italian soil for European and non-Europeans respectively.
From Expat to Immigrant
During my time as a student, I was seen as someone adding value to society since many Italians value higher education, languages, and study-abroad experience. Perhaps my Americanized English and overall intercultural demeanor protected me from falling into the stereotypes associated with both my gender and color in my daily student life, from being perceived as an “immigrant”.
The moment I sought out to change my status from that of a student to a worker, my Italian expat honeymoon was over; institutionalized limitations now showed their exasperating face, reshaping my experience. Though I was as qualified as my American and European friends, the tedious paperwork required for any Italian company to hire my non-EU self was highly dissuasive. Suddenly, I became acutely aware of who I was to the system. Neither my intercultural experience nor my mastering of the language and embracing the Italian way of life mattered. My naïve belief that I was a “global citizen” was ripped apart and my commitment – as with countless immigrants of color – to integrate into society was dismissed.
I loved Italy and I would not trade the years I spent there growing as an adult. But I realize now that there is a difference between assimilating with the locals on a personal level and being considered as an integrated member of society from an institutionalized point of view. I struggled for a very long time to understand if my differences and achievements were seen as an added value to society, as is often the perception of Western expats in Africa. They were not. Despite our myriad degrees and successes from home and in-country, the collective perception of people of color is still very tightly linked to poverty–ignoring the diversity of our experiences and how they can positively contribute to the West.
The forge designed to mold immigrants of color in many Western societies is too small to fit our ambitions for success. Regardless of my expat-privileged time as a student, in the eyes of Italian society, I was just an African immigrant.