It's been an amazing trip so far, and I've met a ton of new people, including both Ticos (Costa Ricans) and expats. Which got me thinking: what is the difference between an immigrant and an expat?
According to The Guardian, an expat is a white immigrant. It blames racism for the fact that "white people are expats, and the rest of us are immigrants."
It sounds pretty terrible. And given the number of black and brown immigrants I know, as well as the number of white expats I know, it sounds accurate. But is it?
As it turns out, no. Sure, there are unintentional biases in many governments and institutions. But the label of expat vs. immigrant isn't one of them. It has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with passports.
See, expats are people who are still citizens of (and pay taxes to) their patria (homeland), but live abroad. Case in point: every single American I've met who is living in Costa Rica must leave the country for 72 hours every 90 days to get their visa renewed. They are not citizens here - even if they've been living here for sixteen or more years.
Meanwhile, immigrants are people who are seeking citizenship and permanent residency in the country they have moved to. There is a different process, different paperwork, and you pay your taxes differently.
You can actually be both an expat and an immigrant. For example, journalist Yael Ossowski is a Canadian immigrant to the US, as well as an expat in Austria. He lives mostly in Austria, but travels enough that he is not a resident and pays taxes to the US and Canada.
Knowing that, I'm much less concerned with the expat vs. immigrant problem.
What I do find somewhat "problematic," though, is the fact that, stereotypically, immigrants move to another country to "take the jobs no one else wants." Meanwhile, expats move to another country to do the jobs everyone wants.
They run coffee shops and yoga studios. They own the pool cleaning company (but aren't the ones who go and clean the pools). They're the captains and the skippers and the dive masters. Costa Rica seems a little better than some of the places I've been to, insofar as about half of the surf instructors I've seen on the beaches have been Ticos, and all the guides I saw at Manuel Antonio were locals.
Nevertheless... I remember hearing from an expat in St. Thomas that many of the locals she knows have never snorkeled before -- and that there was a litter problem on the island. "People just roll their windows and throw their trash out. It's really sad," she told me.
I couldn't help but wonder if people would be more concerned about conservation if they spent more time in nature -- and even saw it as something that was directly contributing to their livelihood.
I don't have a suggestion for this -- I'm still kind of musing. First of all, it's based entirely on anecdotal evidence, so I don't even know if it's a real problem or a confirmation bias. Second... while it doesn't seem "fair," the free market exists for a reason, right? If white people are providing a service that others are not, or if they're doing it better, shouldn't the be encouraged to do that? More and better businesses = more and better tourism = more money being brought into the area, right?
I mean, obviously I think it would be awesome to raise a ton of money to scuba certify residents of St. Thomas (should we kickstarter it?). It would be awesome for them to incorporate outdoor activities like sailing, scuba diving, and SUP into their physical education curriculum, thereby giving students the qualifications, confidence and experience necessary to get involved in the outdoors.
That, at the very least, would help them compete with white people who move down there to be a dive instructor or run a kayak tour company.
But again, I haven't come to any solid conclusions about this. It's dumb to offer solutions before you understand the problem. So I would definitely be interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences.