The Expat Life

May 20, 2014

When you start planning your move to a new country, you’ll be trying hard to predict what your new life will be like. I’m sure you’ll have plenty of people telling you horror stories about people who moved away and then moved back when they realized life wasn’t like they expected. No one wants that to happen to them!

I had considered that I would need to live in a place with other Americans (or Canadians) only until I became “fluent” in Spanish. That one assumption is what I’d like to elaborate on here.

I now believe that no matter how fluent I am I will always want to have relationships with others who came from the same world that I did. This isn’t just laziness, or a crutch to not learning Spanish, really. It’s because we come from places where we share similar backgrounds and hence can understand each other.

For example, I remember one of my first trips to Colima (about 1992) to visit my son while he was attending college. I had brought mostly beach clothes and jeans. He took me to meet the wonderful and supportive mother of a good friend and while she was very cordial and welcoming (of course!) I was uncomfortable wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Later I thought that she would be shocked that I actually mow my own lawn and change the oil in my car! Our backgrounds and world view were so different! And since both our sons attended an expensive private school, she probably expected me to be much more like her than I was.

Especially when we are new to a country we don’t understand the nuances of social class (in the US anyone with credit can own a BMW), what schools mean what (if I tell you someone graduated from Stanford or MIT you will make certain assumptions) and what it means to have household help. There are land mines everywhere!

That’s not to say we don’t want to understand, become fluent, and assimilate into the fabric and values of our new society. It’s just that it is sometimes much more relaxing to be around people where you don’t have those disconnects. I’ve read that first generation immigrants to the US usually keep more to themselves (i.e. settle in one area of town) and that their children become the first generation to truly blend into their adopted country, attending school and becoming immersed in the culture. Partly this is due to the challenges of learning a new language at an older age but partly also due to the shared history with their also – immigrant friends.

School is a great way to learn – not only the language but social norms and slang. Your fellow students won’t hesitate to correct you if you say something wrong – they’ll laugh at you if you had to wait because you arrived right on time and they won’t hesitate to tell you how rude you were not to kiss everyone at the table goodbye. You will learn fast!

In my previous post I wrote about my push to make much more progress with Spanish, and the reason is that I now feel ready. Ready for real friendships now that I understand my new home much better. I want to attend a lecture and understand it fully. I want to take a class and make friends with others who share my hobbies. I want to be able to work positively for change in my community. For that to happen, I have to improve a lot. And I will!

But even when that day comes I know I will also continue to spend time and enjoy my expat friends. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no right or wrong way to create a life in your new home. You’ll figure it out as you go along, I’m sure. That’s what we all do!

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More about Nancy

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

    1. Picking up a new language definitely happens much slower than you’d think. We’ve been in Puerto Vallarta for years and still have a lot to learn. Same with most of our friends. Private, dedicated lessons have really been what moves us forward. When we’re not in class, it’s pretty much a plateau.

    1. Great article Nancy! Many people think that learning the language is the hard part but it really is just one thing in a list of many things to learn to truly understand the culture of your new home. I ask many questions of my National friends who have lived outside of Mexico for a little on-site on things that confuse me and they are great to help me understand our cultural differences.

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