5 Pointers for an Enjoyable Expat Lifestyle


Author's Note: This article was initially featured on Live and Invest Overseas.

In the 17 years my husband and I have spent as part-time expats in Guanajuato, Mexico, we've witnessed many foreigners making the move here. While the majority decide to stay, a significant number end up leaving after a few months or years.

Some depart for practical reasons, such as health concerns or a desire to be closer to family. However, there are instances when the transition to a new culture proves to be more challenging than expected.

As it turns out, the expat life isn't a perfect fit for everyone, even those who anticipate loving it and have diligently prepared for the change.

Through our experiences, I've come to realize that specific qualities and attitudes contribute to a joyful and fulfilling life in another country. Developing these traits is crucial; otherwise, our expat lives may become riddled with difficulties and frustrations.

Here, I share five essential tips for navigating expat life successfully...

Approach with a Humble Mindset

About a decade ago, I was flipping through a magazine rack at the San Diego airport, on my way from our home in Guanajuato to our other residence in California.

While chatting with a woman beside me, I mentioned that my husband and I spend part of the year living in Mexico.

"Can you assist the people there?" she inquired.

"Help?" I responded, slightly defensive. "Well, I enjoy meeting and connecting with people. I don't know about 'helping' them."

I was irked by her assumption that Mexicans needed help. I hadn't chosen to live in Mexico to be a missionary; instead, my goal was to embrace a different way of life, immerse myself in another culture, language, and worldview.

Don't get me wrong, helping is admirable, and it's essential to contribute to the society where we live. However, the notion that a particular group of people needs our help and that we're in a superior position to offer it is condescending and disrespectful.

After all, we all need help!

The opposite of a missionary mentality is adopting a curious, learning mindset.

I'll always remember a story about the late U.S. activist Fran Peavey. During her visit to Osaka, Japan, in the 1980s, she sat on a park bench with a sign that read, "American willing to listen." Scores of people lined up for hours just to talk to her.

The key word here is "listen."

Especially as newcomers, it's crucial to learn from the locals. I've discovered that language teachers and individuals with dual citizenship who are bilingual and bicultural make trustworthy guides. I can ask them questions without feeling foolish, and they help decode the culture.

2. Practice Patience

In the United States, we're accustomed to getting things done quickly—living by a "hurry disease" philosophy. However, in many other countries, things don't move at the same speedy pace, and waiting in long lines is not uncommon.

Tasks that might take 10 to 15 minutes at a bank in the States could easily stretch to an hour or more elsewhere. When my husband and I first started living part-time in Guanajuato, I didn't fully grasp this concept, being someone who isn't naturally patient.

Being impatient doesn't fare well in a place with a high level of bureaucracy, like Mexico!

For instance, during the renovation of our home, we relied on painters, carpenters, metal workers, and electricians—each with a reputation in Mexico for not showing up on time.

Whenever I called our contractor, he'd assure me he'd arrive "ahorita" ("right away"), which could mean 20 minutes or several hours. It was frustrating until I realized I had to pin him down, and even then, he wasn't as prompt as we might expect in the U.S. or Canada.

"Así es," as we say in Spanish. That's just the way it is.

3. Build Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity

Cultural competence involves the ability to understand and respect the varying values, attitudes, and beliefs that exist across different cultures.

A few years back, I shared a meal with another expat at a restaurant in the nearby town of San Miguel de Allende. When her plate arrived, she erupted at the waiter because it wasn't what she had in mind (despite her order being in less-than-perfect Spanish). It's never polite to get upset with a waiter, and this is especially true in Mexico, where people rarely express complaints directly.

Feeling quite embarrassed, I returned to the restaurant the next day to apologize to the waiter on her behalf. To my relief, he couldn't have been more gracious and understanding about the situation.

4. Embrace Language Engagement

Learning a new language, especially in our 60s and 70s, isn't always a walk in the park. However, I believe it's essential to put in some effort and at least grasp the basics.

It can be frustrating to encounter fellow expats who don't even bother with simple expressions like "por favor" or "gracias." I recently attended a party with a no-host bar, and when I ordered a glass of wine in Spanish, the person next to me remarked, "Wow, you speak a lot of Spanish."

Really? Saying "vino blanco" is not that challenging. Admittedly, it might be tougher in certain cultures with different alphabets, like many Asian languages, or in countries where citizens learn English from kindergarten (such as the Netherlands). Nevertheless, knowing basic everyday phrases is a straightforward way to show respect.

5. Embrace Tech in Your Expat Journey

To keep in touch with our children, grandchildren, and friends from our previous home, we need to get the hang of some technology.

Managing all the different communication methods these days, from email to text, Facebook Messenger to WhatsApp, not to mention Zoom, Facetime, Google Hangouts, and Skype, isn't exactly my favorite thing to do. And there are always new ones popping up. However, if I don't keep up with all these, I won't be able to connect with my loved ones.

Post a Comment


Post a Comment (0)