Want to Expat? Well…maybe. (part 5) Simple advice.

This is part 5 of our expat series, with yet another disclaimer: This is our experience. Everyone’s needs, wants, and expectations are different, so it’s tough to give advice. After nearly three years as expats we’re still mucking a few things up, fewer now than earlier, but… Also, advice can be in error. We’ve gotten a bit of faulty info, so we hesitate to give out much advice ourselves.

But here’s some advice you can take to the night deposit:

Don’t ‘should’ on yourself. This applies to all manner of things: I should learn the system, should learn the language, should pick the right people to hang with, and should understand the culture. Give yourself a break; it all comes in good time.

Because you’ve considered being an expat, you’re likely not the shy, retreating type. You’re the ‘kid’ described in ‘The Kid,’ the Peter, Paul, & Mary song about the kid who ‘always looked out the window, failing tests in geography.’*

If you’re fantasizing about being an expat that revelation tells a lot about who you are. It says that, unless you’re in the witness protection program, you don’t much care about your ‘identity’ as a solid, stay put kind of person; you’re willing to jump off the cliff and build wings on the way down. You’re reasonably fearless. You prefer the unknown, the new, and the mysterious to the same, the simple, and the predictable. So don’t change your outlook, and don’t should on yourself.

Life can be sweet in the Comfort Zone. As we all know, there are many people who simply love their CZ, the good life back in the NewNited States, or wherever. Before they’d give up their tank water heater for an on-demand unit, the clothes dryer for a nearby balcony rail, walk or taxi than own a personal car, or mix with their tribe instead of diving into a new culture, these folks would rather eat road kill. Nothing wrong with that, depending on what road kill species we’re discussing. But that’s not you. So…

So, good on you, as a Brit friend likes to say. Just don’t assume the creature comforts will go bye-bye easily, because they won’t. For a minor example, let’s use the so called on demand water heaters that are prevalent here. I say so called, because these &$#!* diabolical devices are more appropriately named ‘screw your silly demand’ water heaters, or phraseology much more colorful and less family friendly. They’re designed to use less fuel than a tank heater, and for that they work reasonably well. But be prepared for nice, frigid water just as you get all lathered up, because your on demand system will often demand that you suck it up, gringo, and rinse with cold water. You can almost hear the damned thing yelling, ‘first world problem, amigo!’ (in Spanish, of course).

This general outline refers to all other appliances, systems, and realities in your (potential) new home as well. Being an expat takes some adjustment. There was a time in my young and lusty life that a cold shower was necessary; this ain’t that time. Maybe a hot shower?

The ‘snowbird’ option. So you live in Akron, or Amherst, or Albuquerque, and you want to expat to Boquete Panama? Have you thought about living in both places? A question of financial capacity comes into view here, but many folks separate the year this way, departing the chilly north for temperate climes at the end of October etc. We know folks who’ve chosen the snowbird route, and there’s much to be said for it, if you can afford it.

For one thing, a dual habitation plan provides a U.S. (or Canadian, or European) street address. The address question factors into the expat experience quite a lot, and admittedly, a lot of expats use marginally legal tactics to circumvent it. The bottom line is that many of us are required to have an address in a home country to which official documents can be mailed. True, many of these documents are transferred on line these days. But there are certain papers that by law require a hard copy document. Without a postal system, a simple reality in much of Latin America, this poses a dilemma. Maintaining the address in Akron, Amherst, or Albuquerque solves it.

Cosas que te pertenecen. Roughly translated, ‘stuff owns you.’ I had a chat with my Spanish teacher recently, a discussion of cultural differences pertaining to stuff. We’ve moved enough times that we fully understand the anchoring effect of material things. For that reason alone we hesitate to purchase more ‘stuff.’ It really does own us in the end. Daniel, mi maestro, said that Colombianos, and a lot of other people, retain stuff because first of all they have so little to begin with, and secondly, because seeing it go away is wrenching, and somehow defeating to them.

Most NorteAmericanos, on the other hand, seem to acquire stuff simply in proportion to the size of their house or garage. Our acquisitiveness seems to be replacing baseball as the national pastime. (For more on this, and a hilarious monologue, catch George Carlin’s riff on ‘stuff.’ You’ll laugh all the way to the garage.)

The expat preparation and de-acquisition process will be wrenching because of the need to detach from all the kitsch, and schlock, and accumulated stuff. We’ve seen folks hire a container to ship entire households to their new home country. It’s not hard to do, but it is a bit spendy. But why not discard all those old dishes, and kitchen items, and clothes, and wall hangings, and technical toys, and start over?

Molting for winter? Maybe the expat experience is a chance to get rid of items we haven’t used, or possibly even seen, in many years? Things that friends, relatives, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, the kids and grandkids can use and would be grateful to have? Plus, some donations have tax ramifications, there is that.

Being woke, or why we put our bread on the table. One of the most important pieces of advice we can offer is to simply be aware of cultural differences. This is important because those different mannerisms and methods are often very subtle. Here’s an example: When we first arrived in Medellin, with very little useful or intelligible Spanish, we used the expression, ‘no necesito, gracias.’ I don’t need (it), thanks.’ Well… We were advised that folks would take that expression the wrong way, that what they’d hear was ‘Are you kidding? Geez, I don’t need that!’ A bit over the top, perhaps, but you get the point. We were told that it’s better to say ‘no, se lo agradezco.’ ‘No, but I appreciate it, thanks.’

Here are a few other things to consider: In Spain for example, don’t put bread on your plate, it goes on the table. Also, keep hands in sight, never under the table, don’t offer to help wash dishes, don’t provide alcohol to guests before about 8 p.m., and don’t right away ask about someone’s career as we often do in the U.S., it comes across as pushy and rude.

Another cultural difference in Latin countries concerns speech, and other oral communication. Spanish speakers tend to be loud. They become animated. Their orations can wind around, take sudden turns, veer off into detours, and meander their way along till you think, ‘there must be a point here somewhere.’ Don’t interrupt, or do the common NorteAmericano practice of jumping in and asking for the punch line, it’s very rude.

As a side note, this applies to writing in Spanish as well. Literature reflects speech, and this is true of Spanish writers. Garcia Marquez is famous for a lot of things, but one of his trademarks is his long-winded sentence structure. It’s how people spoke in Aracataca where he grew up.

Breathing room, please. If you’ve heard that folks in Latin America feel differently about personal space, you heard correctly. Especially aboard public transportation, folks scrunch in together pretty tightly, so be prepared for it. You may have heard as well that certain folks take advantage of that proximity to perfect their pickpocketing skills. I offer no personal commentary on this, because we’ve never experienced any unsavory activity in three years, so that may be the answer. As expats we hear a lot of things. (See advice in introduction).

Something that can easily be taken the wrong way is a discussion of personal hygiene. I have no intention of casting aspersions on my Colombian neighbors, so I’ll simply frame it as a subtle, but critical distinction in style: Folks often wash in cold water here. Dishes are washed and rinsed in cold water. Is this a problem? Possibly.

Another factor: The bugs are different here. Not the insect types, the pathogenic critters, the germs, and viruses, and the teeny, illness causing creepy crawlies here are not what we’re used to. Exposure to them has, for us, caused more frequent colds, fevers, feelings of discomfort and dis-ease. Added in is the fact that we were more stressed, more tired, and simply of a certain age, and at first we got sick a lot. We’ve adapted somewhat, but there was a time initially when we were ill more often. This isn’t a negative comment on the culture, or folks’ style, or the cleanliness here, just reality.

One thing that contributes to the difference in microscopic wildlife is a lack of cold weather. Say what you want about Minnesota, where dipstick heaters are mandatory — until mid-May — but the arctic cold up north murders a lot of germs, so humans stay healthy longer. Ever see a germ wearing a parka? Neither have I. Here in the tropics germs aren’t slain; they’re fed, and nourished, kind of like sea monkeys.

Vale la pena. This is one of our favorite expressions: ‘It’s worth it.’ Or a variation, ‘no vale la pena,’ it’s not worth it. After three years as expats, and after many speed bumps, disappointments, joys, and lots of truly astonishing experiences, we conclude that becoming expats was the toughest thing we’ve ever loved.

We still have many challenges. Recently the bank locked our account when we tried to pay a bill on line! The language issue is still day-to-day. We have a nagging concern about cultural differences, and how to act at times. But all in all we’ve assimilated and have a wonderful life. But for those who think it’s easy, it’s not.

*The Kid, ©1995 Buddy Mondlock