How to be a successful expat….

July 19, 2011

-or- How to Move Away From Your Home Country and Not Want to Move Back in Six Months.

People go on vacation every day and comment “Oh, I would so love to live here! Maybe someday!”

That’s fine, but would you really? How would you do if you actually made the move to México? Here are my thoughts on what makes a successful expat.

Know Yourself You know what you love and hate, what will irritate you and what you can let slide. Make honest lists about what you need in a community.  (I talked about our lists recently in a blog post, here.) We know several expat couples that have lived for years at a time in several different places as they work out what is best for them. Moving around can be a great way to see the country and find your perfect place, but it can also be frustrating and expensive.

How flexible are you? Or in other words, how rigid are you? The more flexible you are, the better, in my opinion. You might be faced with a laundry day with no water, or the city digging up the street in front of your house without notice, or a marching band blasting away outside your window… how will you react? Want to make something for dinner and can’t find an ingredient? Are you going to substitute something else with a smile or get worked up about it?

How much research have you done? Do you read expat blogs, books written by expats, and participate in forums? How much traveling have you done around the country?

Have problems you want to get away from? Don’t move away from home thinking your problems will be miraculously cured. They won’t. It might even make things worse!

How much of a self-starter are you? You are going to have to decide how involved in your community you want to be. If your neighbors are sitting outside in the evening catching a breeze, will you stop and visit a while?

How sensitive are you? Do you notice little things? The Mexican people are very sensitive to nuance. They are very polite and you’ll be more successful if you are aware of the “should do’s” as you move through your day. Greeting the whole group on arrival and departure is one of those social rules that I have a hard time getting used to. But “buen provecho”(enjoy your meal), “con permiso” (with your permission), “muy amable” (how nice of you),  “el gusto es mio” (the pleasure is mine), are all social niceties that I thoroughly use and love.

How many different things do you love about your proposed new home? The more the better. The least successful expats seem to be those that move for just one reason – finances or the weather, for example. If one little thing changes, it can ruin the whole environment for you.

Will you be able to continue your hobbies in your new home? If it is very important to continue your hobby in your new home, check it out ahead of time. I wrote a post recently on my knitting hobby and what I had to do to keep it up here in Mazatlán.

How important are the foods from home to you? Friends recently brought us a gift of sharp cheddar cheese and Adams peanut butter. It was a fantastic treat, but just that, a treat. It isn’t something we have to have. Lemons were elusive here until recently – I never really missed them, just substituted lime. And some things taste different – butter, chicken, etc. Are you cool with that? What about your comfort foods? Can you afford to buy the things you really miss if they are more expensive here?

Is your family supportive of your move? If your family isn’t supportive they may criticize and complain and make things hard for you. It would be good if you could get any issues dealt with before you leave… hopefully they will see that you are serious and come around!

Have you thought about holidays? People who are big on celebrating holidays the way they always have may be in for a disappointment. You’ll need to create new traditions for yourselves in your new home.  This is a very Catholic country, too. Is there a synagogue or church for you?  Do you need one?

Will your family and friends visit you? It would be great if they will, but not all families do. Would you be comfortable being the one that always visits them? Would missing their participation in your life make you want to move back?

How tech-savvy are you? You will probably do banking online. You’ll probably use the internet for your calling to the US or Canada – Skype, Vonage, or Magic Jack.Of course email will keep you in touch.

Do you want to learn the language? Your world will expand dramatically the more Spanish you have.

Are you open to new experiences and viewpoints? I think that being open is a mindset that will serve you well in México. &There are so many surprises every day here – and if we had our heads down instead of up and open we’d miss a lot.

Are you committed to success in your new home? I think this might be the most important. Are you saying to yourself that you will succeed or are you saying that you’ll “try” it for a while?

Those are my thoughts. What have I missed? Please share your thoughts with a comment!

Share and Enjoy !

More about Nancy

I'm Nancy, a US expat living in San Antonio Tlayacapan, Jalisco after 11 years in Mazatlán, México.

    1. I think you touched on some things most people don’t consider when thinking about moving to Mexico. The food part is a deal breaker for some people. Merida has a lot of imported stuff but it’s expensive.You can have almost anything you want if you’re willing to pay for it. However, if you are moving due to the low cost of living, that does defeat the purpose. Things that I thought I needed I rarely use and things I rarely used NOB like my blender are in constant use here.
      I always say that being on vacation and living someplace are totally different, people should try out a place before they sell all and move. Attitude is everything.


      1. Theresa, Such good points… but trying out for an extended period is great advice. And of course, attitude IS everything for sure. I sure wish our paths had taken us to the same town, Theresa, you are such a cool lady!

    1. Excellent post. I really hope lots of people read it.
      I get lots of emails from people who say, “I want to live in a non expat environment, I want to live in Guaymas not San Carlos.” I usually tell them that once they get here they are going to change their minds and 99.99% of the time they do.
      The majority of people when it comes right down to it, want to basically transfer their lives from up north down here, for this you need an expat environment, with known groups, language and foods,etc..
      Most expats that I know think that we are weird/odd/peculiar for living where we do and assume that it is because we cannot afford to live in an expat environment. They do not understand that we are living where we are because we want to, it is the way we consciously decided we wanted to live. It is beyond their comprehension that we would choose to live where we do. We love it for now, down the road who knows. Things change all the time.
      We all have our comfort zones and you need to access your own very honestly before ever thinking of moving.

    1. Again, you amaze me in hitting the nail on the head. I get emails and questions all the time, I will link the article to my response page if I may, you provide a great service to all, thanks Nancy!

    1. A very interesting list, Nancy. You have such a talent for hitting the nail on the head. I have been grappling with the challenge of pursuing my interests here in Mexico, and I’m having success, but it has taken patience, effort and a creative mind set. Yes, attitude is everything. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf” is a good motto for those switching cultures.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Wow! great job – this should be very helpful to people trying to decide.

      I would add something and it is of course a touchy subject. One needs to have a tolerance for a certain level of corruption that is simply accepted by many locals – this can be the mordida paid by many for a traffic violation, paying someone to do their job in a bureaucratic environment, hearing about or learning about the corrupt politicians of one’s chosen city, or learning that your favorite neighbor next door gets free cable by tapping into his neighbor’s feed and his neighbor gets free electricity by tapping into the non-resident homeowner next door. All these things and more will become the new normal for someone moving to Mexico. You do get used to it and it is a personal decision if you want to get involved with any of it.


    1. Great post!

      I think much of this could also apply to moving anywhere. About 15 years ago I moved from San Francisco to Boston, and it took me quite a while to acclimate. I moved for work, and all else equal, would have preferred to stay in San Fran, but had I read your list before moving, I think I would have made the transition better.


      Kim G
      Boston, MA
      Where we are contemplating a move to Mexico some day.

    1. Loving your list; it is right on.

      I always tell folks who ask me about moving here this.
      Are you the kind of person who will go around making comparisons and saying things should be done the way you are used to or are you the kind of person who will wake up in the morning and say “I can’t wait to figure out how that is done here!”
      Being truly curious and interested in a culture different from your own makes all the difference.

    1. Well done Nancy, these are things I tell others when they put that question to me, I love that I now have this easy link for them.
      Another of my favorites is “Can I live on $xxx.xx dollars per month?”

    1. And a biggie, rent before you buy! Every one of your points is very salient and all the posts have something to offer as well. Greg, I agree about the corruption but the way I look at it is, at least it is out in the open whereas in our country, it tends to be underhanded and under the table. Halliburton didn’t get all those contracts because they had cool uniforms. Trying not to have things be the same as NOB is also a biggie. Cherish the differences in what is available and learn to do things a new way. Eat new foods, kiss everyone you meet on the cheek, (isn’t it funny when we go back for visits,we rarely do this) speak to most everyone you meet in passing.

      1. Brenda, I think a lot of people really DON’T know themselves – and so when they see that you DO they get defensive. What’s wonderful is that you and Roy figured out what was best for yourselves and followed your own path, that is what it’s all about!

        Tancho, Thanks! Of course you can link to anything, glad to be of service!

        Judith, Patience, effort, and a creative mind set. I think that you said it! That’s what you need to succeed as an expat! I am excited to see what you come up with.

        Greg, I agree, it is something to think about beforehand, but since so many of these situations are unique it is a bit hard to do. I do think that someone should think about whether they would pay a bribe to a traffic cop or not. I think living in a condo gives you a slice of life that we don’t see…

        Kim G, I think you are right… my sister made a cross country move at retirement and she and I talked through a lot of these points beforehand. Some of it really helped her. When are you coming to Maz next? We’d love to meet you!

        Barbara, One of the reasons I think we have found so many wonderful friends here is because by living here they have already answered your question as curious and interested people. But there are plenty here (especially if you read the forums) that think everything should be done their way or else. They don’t seem very happy to me.

        Debi, Thanks! Oh, the money question! So subjective and impossible to answer. Another reason to follow Theresa’s point and come for an extended try out.

        Zoe, Everyone always says rent before you buy, I kind of wish we had… but renting isn’t for everyone. Such good points, thank you amiga!

    1. I frequent an Isa Mujeres forum. It is amazing how many people say they want to move to Isla or are moving there when they have only been there once or twice on vacation. Some even are asking about purchasing a home after one visit. It just makes me cringe. My recommendation is that they rent first and try it out year round before making a big move.

      Now I have your blog post to refer them to.

    1. Great post!! I wish I’d read this 6 years ago. Greeting and saying goodbye to everyone at social events was one of the hardest things for me as well.

    1. Great post. Simple. Right on the button. It all applies, plus, plus plus!! Observation of the local customs is so important. It took me 2 weeks to figure out the greetings to everyone on the panga each time a local got on. Finally one morning I took a deep breathe and greeted the entire group and received huge smiles and greetings in return. Instant new friends, they of course knew we were staying in the Isla and where…soon we were made privy to special local events, new organic tomatoes being sold, etc. We had become part of the community.

    1. Great service Nancy. Good points. We have a Yahoo Civil List which is usually commented on by mostly newcomers. I can pretty much tell when they snivel about not being able to find a phone number, the service at Mega, why don’t stores carry a certain weird vitamin – all this from one poster – that they won’t be here long.

      Of the people who came ten years ago when I came, I believe 85% have gone on to wherever. Mexico is not for everyone.

      I must comment to Greg, in my 40 years in Mexico, I’ve never been asked for a mordida or had anything but a positive interaction with police and government officials all over Mexico. And, one can always, I guess, politely say no if asked for one. I’m sorry you feel that way……..

      Again, thanks Nancy.

    1. I think some of you have misinterpreted my earlier comment regarding corruption. My comment is about the acceptance of corruption–not any poster’s participation in corruption. Just read the paper. Missing money, missing equipment, nepotism, it is endless and it is simply accepted–this may be very hard to some who come here with a value around fairness and justice. That is the point I thought I was making.

      I won’t comment further at this point as this sub-topic was not the purpose of Nancy’s excellent post.

    1. Excellent post Nancy…even though I am of Mexican ancestry, being born and raised in the U.S. I often find the culture here challenging and often remind myself I must adapt to it as it will not adapt to me. BTW I will be gone for three months, going to spend some time in California, will be back in November. Un fuerte abrazo to you and Paul

      1. John, Don’t know how I missed your comment, sorry! I hope you have a wonderful time up in California, we’ll miss your smiling face! And I agree, we must adapt, that is the key. See you in Nov, amigo.

    1. Magnificent post. I have one small coda for people who think they want to settle in a beach town with few expatriates and little infrastructure. I ask them: “Do you like camping?” If the answer is “no,” I suggest they might be happier living in a place with more expatriates — or, at least, a larger city. I ran into a woman last winter in Melaque who wanted to know where the cineplex was. I have no idea where she thought she was.

    1. My husband I did it all wrong. We didn’t rent first. In fact, we had never even heard of Progreso before we came to buy our condo. But we did know that we wanted to be near the water and not in a city. Neither of us grew up in, or near, the town where we live here in Canada so we’re already familiar with “blooming where we’re planted”. We’re not retired yet so can only get down for a couple months during the winter but we already consider Mexico home.

    1. Hi Nancy. Great post. I particularly like the “know yourself” point. We must be able to (gracefully) accept the things we cannot change and that pretty much takes care of anything about Mexico or any other country one chooses to move to. We need to make sure we can handle that…
      May I use your list for reference? It is perfect.
      Thank you

      1. Jackie, Thanks! I see you linked to this post on the Isla forum, thanks very much!

        Laura, The saying hello and goodbye thing also takes a lot of time!

        Contessa, You’re so right, the greetings make all the difference. Plus the smiles!

        Babs, You’re so right, you can tell right away sometimes if someone will make it as an expat! And I think Greg meant not that you should pay a bribe but that you should think about how you will deal with corruption when you read or hear about it. Will steam come out your ears, or can you accept that you can’t change the system?

        Greg, I got what you were saying, but this is a good clarification. Something to think about for sure.

        Steve, Well yes, that was the Know Yourself point – if you need a big city for amenities, don’t move to a small town for sure! Thanks!

        Barb, Congratulations, not everyone can do things wrong and have them end up right! Way to go!

        Carol, Thank you! And of course you can use my list for reference! Saludos!

    1. Great job, Nancy, and all so true. I really enjoy learning and using the nuances of Mexican courtesies like muy amable and provecho. I love to say buen provecho and hear igualmente in return. It makes my day.

    1. Nice list, señora. However, looking at it, I see I flunk on many points. Yet I’ve been here over 11 years, and I like it. Go figger.

      1. Felipe, You always march to a different drummer, don’t you?

        Ann, I love that word, too! And I finally got around to changing the title of your link on my blog roll 🙂

    1. Nancy, this is really such a fantastic post. I’m guilty of dreaming about moving somewhere, but not really asking myself the necessary questions that delve into my psyche. It’s easy to be swayed by the beauty and excitement of a new country-and you’ve reminded me to think deeper into moving – thanks.

    1. Nancy, that is a great and helpful blog. I have lived 3 years in Brazil and now we are moving to Mexico City and I am looking for some advise.

      It is very important that I could work in Mexico too, but how I can get a work permit and/or a special visa. I studied information science and mathematics and my area is IT infrastructure and project manager.

      Thanx for comments

      1. Sunsail, Thanks so much for your nice comment!

        If it is important for you to work when you’re in Mexico City I would suggest you try to get a job before you go. If you’re lucky the employer will sponsor you and help you get the visa. It is difficult, though, since a work permit usually won’t be given unless they determine that there aren’t Mexican nationals available to fill the job. That’s why so many expats end up teaching English or working in resorts at timeshares. I would suggest you visit RollyBrook’s site – you can find it on my @Mex page. He has a wealth of information and links that may be helpful.

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