It Was All Good Just a Week AgoPrint
By Thomas Chatterton Williams
November 16, 2016
1. (noun) a person who lives outside of their native country
2. (verb) to withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country
(noun) a person who comes to a country to live there
(noun) a person who leaves a country or region to live in another one: a person who emigrates
(noun) emigrant; especially: a person who emigrates for political reasons
Although the first three terms all apply to me in some sense, they represent only abstract truths—in much the same way that my mother is technically a WASP, or some people I know are technically aristocrats. In trying to capture individual lived experience, such words don’t feel entirely accurate. For one thing, I have never felt like an expatriate because of that second definition: I never withdrew allegiance to anything, or, at least in my head, ever stopped living in America. For some years now, I have spent a lot of time in France but always with an eye toward returning home. I realize that I have shared in the enormous privilege of being American abroad, but expat feels somehow inescapably white.
Still, not wanting to appear self-indulgent, I have used the word expat more often than immigrant or emigrant. Our living in Paris has always been volitional and revocable. My family and I do not have to be here for economic opportunity—indeed, on that front, I may have taken some losses!—and we have always come and gone as we wanted.
That came to an end last Tuesday. After voting in Brooklyn, I boarded a late-afternoon flight to Paris. On our descent into Roissy-Charles de Gaulle shortly after 5 A.M. (11 P.M. EST), I knew that my world was on the brink of being radically altered. In a sober tone, the captain announced there wasn’t yet enough information on the election; they were still waiting for results from the Midwest. As we taxied, I frantically switched on my phone to see the map of Trump upsets spreading—the nightmarish homepage of The New York Times showing him with a 95 percent chance of winning. Before we deplaned, a woman near me started crying. As I made my way through customs and baggage in a daze and onto the bus back into the city that has become my second home, I felt many things, not least of which was deep gratitude for this refuge from the all-American madness. For the first time, I also felt stranded.
As the day wore on, the thought gradually hit me that the list of identities up top has suddenly winnowed: I am neither an expat nor an immigrant but an émigré, now and for the indefinite future.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.
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