This post is long… I hope you’ll read all the way to the end
On Friday night Jorge and I went to a party hosted by our long-time friends, Chloe and Jorge.
Almost all the women who attended have lived in Merida, the lion’s share of their lives, and their husbands, except for youthful sojourns of short duration, have lived here forever.
I arrived in 1976, and it was 16 months before I ran into Lynne at Komesa, one of the few grocery stores we had at the time. I rejoiced! She was a Californian; I come from Vancouver. English was our native language. We missed our mothers and hated cockroaches. And THAT was more than enough to engender a life-long friendship. I wanted to hang onto her ankles and never let go.
But I digress… back to the party. What did we talk about last night? We lamented that our mothers and our mothers-in-law are either resting in peace or close to doing so. We brought one another up-to-date on the lives of our children… And yes, we talked about how much we still hate cockroaches.
We also commented on the huge number of people who have come from other countries in the past ten years. They have settled in Merida, and they call themselves “expats.”
The term has never been my favorite; I have always used “international resident”.
My online dictionary stresses that “expat” is an abbreviation. The proper word is: expatriate.
However in Merida, “expat” is commonly used, so for today, we’ll stick with it.
I have observed five basic types:
- Expats who blend in
- Expats who stick out
- Expats who hunker down
- Expats who are mover-shakers
- Expats who are chameleons
Blend In expatriates arrive in Mexico, jump into a taxi or bus, and head to the market for local-style clothing. In restaurants, they order a regional dish, observe and then emulate the way the locals use tortillas to spoon food into their mouths. Within weeks, Blend In expats have learned the names of their neighbors and local shopkeepers. Their door is always open.
Blend In expats know they aren’t nationals and don’t pretend to be something they aren’t. But they are keen to adapt in every possible way. Their homes soon become an eclectic mix of local art and their home culture. A Blend In will set the dining room table with rustic textiles and Grandma’s fine china that she carted here bit by bit. Blend In expats rejoice at local success and weep when the country struggles.
They know blending takes effort. They adjust to different standards of dress, learn as much of the language as they can, and relinquish behaviors that don’t fit in with the new location. They are eager for challenges and treasure the personal growth that comes from succeeding in an unfamiliar setting.
The Stick Outs are not known for their cultural sensitivity. The men can often be seen wearing baggy shorts and stretched-out T shirts, even at the Symphony. The women favor Capri pants and loose colorful blouses. Most of them are very into “happy hour,” and can be heard calling loudly down the supermarket aisles to one another, in English, when everyone else is conversing in Spanish. The Stick Outs say that Spanish is a “hard language”… they claim that after a certain age, the brain cannot absorb a lot of new words.
With the help of local English-speaking architects, lots of them have renovated an old colonial house. These places are full of Talavera tile and Frida Kahlo prints, but thank god, there is a Home Depot in town where they have been able to procure American-made bathroom and kitchen fixtures. They say they love Mexico and the Mexicans but don’t really socialize with them. They enjoy having a variety of “colorful” experiences but don’t attempt to integrate.
Many of the Stick Out expats moved to Mexico when they retired because their savings go much further here, especially with the current exchange rate. They don’t seem to realize that this is a different country. They want to live in Merida but don’t intend to modify their standards and don’t expect to be changed.
Hunker-down expatriates are harder to find because they are “hunkered down” in restored colonial mansions, villas by the sea or expensive new high-rise apartments. They are here because their job or their spouse’s job sent them, and they are counting down the days until the ordeal is over and they can return to a “civilized place”.
Television and internet are lifelines to the Hunker Down expats. They know little about what’s going on in Mexico but they devour the news about what’s going on “at home”. Fear of the unknown, a distrust of the unfamiliar and distaste for a “sandy, sweaty lifestyle” makes leaving the confines of their home an ordeal.
“You shop in the market?” a Hunker Down once asked. “Don’t you worry you’ll get sick? Or hot? Or lost? Or cheated? I buy absolutely everything at Costco or Sams.”
When the Hunker Down expats accepted the move to Mexico, they prepared for a long, lonely existence. Rather than engage in the culture, they use their children, their cats, or their at-home projects as excuses to never leave their “refuge”.
These expats seem to think it is their duty to save the Mexican culture from itself. They see local styles, customs and practices as “stone age” and they are bound and determined to introduce new and better business ethics, products and aesthetics.
The Mover-shaker expats are here to make money. The “untapped market” in Merida is ripe for innovation. Maybe it is, but is it necessary to “throw out the baby with the bath water”?
This is where I find myself.
I run around in capris, and I complain about the heat and humidity (a lot). When returning from a trip “home,” I pack a suitcase full of items I can’t find in Merida. I have acquired more than my fair share of Talavera and Frida memorabilia, and Grandma’s tea set sits proudly in my china cabinet. I waste too much time on-line, and use Skype to talk for hours with my far-away friends and family. I certainly enjoy a cocktail – or two. And believe me, if I could afford to restore a big old colonial mansion, own a villa by the sea or set myself up in an expensive new high-rise apartment, I would do so in a heartbeat. I am totally in favor of embracing comfort.
On the other hand, I speak Spanish. My husband is from Merida and our children grew up here. Over the years I have made many local friends. You may conclude that my situation is “completely different” from most other expats, but it isn’t… not really. I find myself immersed in the Yucatecan culture, but in no way have I shrugged off my own.
I love where I come from and I love the place I moved to. However, I realize that for all the gains I have made because I live in Yucatan, I have lost part of the intimate belonging to my home culture. Not quite fitting in is the price I must pay for having a foot in two cultures.
Local people look at me, and think: She’s not from here. The expat community has decided: She has lived here for so long, she isn’t quite like us. My family and friends in Canada say: She moved away a long time ago…
So I have become a chameleon, and I am not alone. People like me try to adapt to whatever situation presents itself. We are not always successful, but that’s OK too.
It’s all food for thought, I think… Now, what kind of “expat” are you?