Saturday, July 9, 2011

Living Here: Successful Expatriates Do This

I passed a small milestone pretty much unnoticed this week. In early July I completed six years of living full time in Mexico. I have never been one to make a big deal out of anniversaries, so I didn't even mark the day. However I recently visited Alaska, my birthplace and the lifelong home I departed from to begin a new life in Mérida, and that has prompted me to reflect on the transition.

Mine's been a successful venture, in all categories. I am happy I moved, feel invigorated in late middle age by a new way of life, and do not seriously think about moving permanently back up north.

However I have seen others move to Mexico, full of excitement and hope, only to experience disillusion and disappointment. Some try it for a year or two before deciding to move back to where they came from. Others stay, but adapt by cocooning themselves within a small crowd of other expats, their air conditioning and their cable TV and live isolated from much of the beauty of life here. Some also mix in booze, drugs, and obsessive sexual behavior.

Although living as an expatriate in Mexico proves difficult for some, in many of the others who remain, it brings out their best.

There is something particular, or maybe peculiar, about the foreigners who move here, find community, stay and are truly happy. There are those who find themselves happier than they have ever been, their lives blossoming as they meet the challenge of exploring new relationships, places, ideas and interests.

I've thought a lot about why my move was successful, and taken a look at other happy and successful foreigners living in Mexico. Obviously, for each of these their move goes well for individual reasons. But there are more common threads than differences.

Happy expats who stay on for the long haul usually started out by doing their homework. Although no quantity of research and trial visits can fully prepare one for what it's like to live here all the time, these things certainly can assist with identifying obstacles and help with the decision-making process.

Successful transplants usually are flexible, open minded and have a sense of adventure. They don't expect things to be the same as they were where they came from, and accept, or better yet enjoy, the differences. They adjust to a slower rhythm of life. They appreciate new experiences and thrive on the challenge of figuring out an unfamiliar culture and living in a place where most people don't speak their language. Through it all they generally manage to remain positive. These are not the kind of people you hear talking excessively about how great things are "back home."

Patience is very important. It takes time to adjust to different ways of doing things, different food, weather, and really just about everything else. Most people go through an initial euphoric period, a time when everything is delightful, exciting and exotic. This often is followed by a period of reevaluation, when they find themselves confronting unanticipated difficulties, realize that a new country didn't make old problems go away, and feel homesick. At this point they may wonder if they made the right choice. Some manage to use this time as an opportunity for growth, but it usually takes a couple of years, and patience, to work it all out.

Finally, many successful expats break out of old patterns and reinvent themselves to some extent. I am not talking about people who are running from their past and try to create a fictitious self. The fractures in these fairy tales usually start to show pretty quickly. What I'm talking about are those who find themselves with time to do what they really want to do, things like volunteering to teach, support environmental causes or care for abandoned animals, pursuing new careers in art, writing or other fields, or opening a new business. Foreigners here usually feel a lot more freedom to experiment and try out new roles than they did where they came from. Moving to another country is a chance to forge a new identity by taking risks and accomplishing things they never had time to do before.

I think Babs, in the "about me" section of her blog, sums up perfectly the key attitude of many successful expats with a quote from Helen Keller: "Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all." Expatriates with this attitude have the time of their lives.


  1. Great post and very, very insightful!

    I find those who don't get up every day saying, "Hmm what kind of stuff is going to happen today", with anticipation are the ones who don't stay, sadly.......

    I love that Mexico is not that predictable, sterilized environment that I find in the some places at least.

  2. Babs, although we haven't yet met face-to-face, you're an example of one of those successful expats I wrote about. Besides observing people around me here, in writing this post I considered what I'd learned from reading Mexico blogs.

  3. "Moving to another country is a chance to forge a new identity by taking risks and accomplishing things they never had time to do before." ... When I am in Mexico for any period of time, long enough at least to settle down and not be thinking about the time I'll have to leave, I have a sense of becoming my true self. I'm not sure why that is, but being there somehow makes me feel as if I'm finally free. I am tired of life here, and though life there carries with it many challenges, it feels like a better fit for me and for the way I hope to live the rest of my life. Good stuff, Marc.

  4. Thanks Marc, for the thoughtful post

  5. Well, Lynette, one of these days we will see you here. I am sure of that. I know you are one of the adventurous types, so when you finally settle here, it will be a long-term thing. I look forward to hanging out on the beach with you and Mike.

  6. Hi Roni, Thanks for the comment. I look forward to some day reading your blog... ;-)

  7. Excellent post. I've been thinking about why some stay and enjoy it and others leave, perhaps because some good friends have sold all and left. You did a very good job of pointing out the things that the ones who stay have in common.

  8. Sondheim's lyrics in "Sorry Grateful" are about marriage. But they reminded me a lot of my feelings about Mexico:

    "You always are
    What you always were
    Which has nothing to do with
    All to do with her."

  9. Excellent, excellent article. We divide those that stay into two groups. Expats and Exiles. Expats are those that embrace Mexico, its people and culture. Exiles are those that continually complain and want to make Mexico look like San Diego. We avoid the latter.

  10. Jonna, Steve and Barry: As I commented to Babs, above, I thought about what I'd learned reading some of my favorite Mexico expat blogs, and all all three of yours are on the list...three more expats who have made a success of it, for some of the reasons I have mentioned, and probably some more.

    I think what it comes down to is making a decision to make it a success, and being persistent, but the attitudes are key.

  11. I think it may have been Socrates who was asked by a few of his conversationalists what was wrong with one of their neighbors. The philosopher's response was something like — 'his problem is that he takes himself everywhere he goes.' You've described the problem well, Marc.

    Thanks for stimulating our thoughts. And many thanks to the many bloggers from Yucatan who continue to do likewise. (Mary and I are studying diligently for our first trial run as snowbirds this November, with an eye on potentially becoming residents.)


  12. Hi Marc, must say I so enjoyed this and your last post regarding expats, those that integrate and those that choose not to. And - it is a choice. Just like those that learn to speak the language of their new country and those that don't. Your sentiments and observations are spot on and it's good to read your articulate posts on the subject.
    Once, sometime in the 60's, I was walking on a beach in San Blas and looked up to see a woman of my current age, gray hair, silver and turquoise jewelery, and a big contented smile on her face, sweeping the sand off her front porch. Our eyes met and we smiled at each other and I knew instantly that she was a vision of my future. Thanks for your posts, good ones!

  13. ~eric: That quote is so appropriate. If people can open up a little bit, and want to, they do well.

    MT: Thanks for commenting. You are yet another of those bloggers I read who helped me write this post. It sounds like you knew for a long time what you wanted to do and where you wanted to be. I think that's another thing that I didnt' mention but is important. The ones who have goals often do much better than those who just move here without any clear idea of what they want.

  14. You're a pretty smart guy, Marc, for someone who's "late middle aged". And you are only going to get smarter.

    Great post. Must reading for anyone with an open, realistic mind. You have very accurately portrayed, unfortunately, many of those who have moved with your litany of problems and complaints.

  15. I always appreciate your comments, Paul. Your blog is a great source of ideas and inspiration to many of us who have chosen to live away from the lands of our birth and home culture.

  16. Marc,you completely nailed it. If you are looking for a copy of your home country only cheaper you will always feel exiled and maybe a bit ripped off. Which is funny because it's a voluntary exile, they can go home. I have known real refugees (from Cuba, Laos and Vietnam)with better attitudes than some ex-pats.
    I read somewhere that 3 years is the cut-off point, most people leave before 3 years if they aren't cut out to be ex-pats.
    I compare living in the country to living outside the country. Many people like they want a rural bucolic life until faced with the reality. The isolation, the problems and lack of services send many people fleeing back to the city or even suburbs.

  17. Theresa, you've made a vary apt comparison between moving "to the country" and moving "to another country." Many of the same challenges exist. And, many of the same survival skills work in both cases.

    Thanks for commenting. It's nice to hear from a few people who've been around awhile that they think I am on target. I was wondering if I'd miss something. Of course there are more aspects to the issue, and one could go into more detail. I just called it as I've seen it around here, where we've all seen a variety of people come and stay, or come and go.

  18. Congratulations on six successful years in Merida. What you have to say makes perfect sense and is really helpful, I think, to those of us starting out on this new journey. Thanks for a beautifully written and relevant post.

  19. Thanks John and Alan for being consistent readers and commenters. When you get down here, vecinos, we'll have to get together.

  20. Congratulations Marc! I read this post a few days ago and decided not to comment because I thought that my situation is somewhat different to the expat one. I married into the country, so to speak... and had no idea of what I was in for. But then I rethought my stance... I did go through the cultural adaption that all expats do and I definitely understand what they are going through. I have seen literally 1,000s come and go. The happy members of (what I prefer to call) the international community, are those who don't have a lot of expectations from the place and lots from themselves. They come here knowing they are going to change BIG time and they ebrace that. Living in Mexico is not for everyone but for those who stay here - it is paradise.

  21. Thanks, Joanna, for adding the perspective of your different experience. I think we are on the same page when it comes to what makes for a successful's 99% about attitude. This IS a wonderful place for those who are prepared to accept all it has to offer.

  22. "Successful transplants usually are flexible, open minded and have a sense of adventure."

    As someone who considers herself flexible, open-minded and adventurous, I find your blog so inspiring. Thank you!


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