The Foreign National


There is an increasing amount of conversation surrounding the movement of people. Should the term be immigrants? Migrant workers? Expats? The diaspora? Foreigner? Non-national? Foreign national? Each term comes with certain unspoken connotations. Sometimes these self-definitions are taken for granted. Social conditioning led me to think of myself as an ex-pat from an early age. However, I had never truly come to question the label that had been given to me in my day-to-day experiences.

Recent events and the current socio-political climate have tainted the term “immigrant” with the dripping hate of zealous nationalism and xenophobic attitudes. This has encouraged me to increasingly question the most politically correct, neutral way of referring to a person – in a way that reflects the journey of a non-national. Furthermore, I wanted to be conscious about the way in which I refer to my research respondents. The concept of a national identity alludes to a sort of hegemony. However, many of us find ourselves on the outside of a (supposedly) integrated society. Therefore, I did not want to be exclusionary by assigning a label to participants that was not fitting with their feelings. Even terms such as diaspora are not always fitting – especially in the instance of third-culture kids that do not choose to carry the identity or culture of their parent’s homeland.

I have spent lots of time trying to find a term that felt comfortable. One of my respondents referred to themselves as a foreign national, and since then this term has become favourable in my eyes. Collins dictionary 2021 defines a foreign national as “a person residing in a country without the right to permanent residence in that country”. I feel as though this term accurately reflects the legal and social barriers that non-nationals face. Much of my research was spent understanding the lengthy processes, expense and corruption involved in becoming a documented and legal citizen in a new country. Furthermore, the concept of “permanent resident” carries certain nuances of being a part of an involved community. Barriers, such as language, can prevent individuals from fulfilling the ‘categories’ put in place by local residents for full assimilation. In some cases, there can be resentment towards non-nationals that frequently return to their homelands – as they are seen to be infrequent lodgers with a lack of commitment to “permanent” neighbourhoods. For example, while I was in South Africa conducting my research, the trending Twitter hashtag for the 26th of February 2021 was #foreignemustleaveSA. Further research revealed trending hashtags such as #PutSouthAfricansFirst and #WeWantOurCountryBack. This is just one example of the othering and lack of integration that I encountered upon my visit home. Therefore, I feel as though the term foreign national accurately reflects the difficult road to acceptance that most face when moving away from the homestead. For me, these barriers fundamentally inform what my research aims to examine.

Artwork by: Teboho Makoatsa