Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Live and Invest Overseas.
During the 17 years that my husband and I have been part-time expats in Guanajuato, Mexico, we’ve watched a lot of foreigners move here.
While most stay, a substantial minority leave after a few months or years.
Some leave for practical reasons, like health issues or desire to be near family, but other times it’s because moving to a different culture is more of a challenge than they anticipated.
Turns out, the expat life isn’t for everyone — even people who think they’ll love it and have carefully prepared.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that certain qualities and attitudes enable a happy and satisfying life in another country, and I believe it’s important to develop them, or our expat lives may become difficult and frustrating.
Here are five tips for expat life that I consider important…
1. Come With an Attitude of Humility
About 10 years ago, I was browsing through a magazine rack at the San Diego airport, en route from our home in Guanajuato to our other home in California.
Chatting with a woman standing next to me, I explained that my husband and I live in Mexico for part of the year.
“Are you able to help the folks down there?” she asked.
“Help?” I said, bristling. “Well, I like to meet people and connect with them. I don’t know about ‘helping’ them.”
I was annoyed by her comment, the idea that Mexicans need help. I did not decide to live in Mexico to be a missionary but rather to experience a different way of life and another culture, language, and worldview.
There’s nothing wrong with helping, of course. In fact, I think it’s important wherever we are to contribute to the society where we live.
But the attitude that a group of people needs our help and we are in a superior position to offer it, is condescending and disrespectful.
We all need help!
The opposite of the missionary mentality is a curious, learning mindset.
I’ll never forget listening to a presentation by the late U.S. activist Fran Peavey, who, while visiting Osaka, Japan, in the 1980s, sat on a park bench with a placard that said, “American willing to listen.”
Scores of people stood in line for hours, waiting to talk to her.
The key word is “listen.”
Especially as newcomers, we need to learn from the locals. I’ve found language teachers and people with dual citizenship and who are bilingual and bicultural to be trusted guides, to whom I can ask questions without feeling dumb.
They help decode the culture.
2. Be Patient
In the States, we’re used to things getting done right away and as quickly as possible — an approach to life sometimes called “the hurry disease.” This is just not the case in many other countries. You may need to wait in long lines.
What might take 10 to 15 minutes at, say, a bank in the States, can take an hour or more in another country. I did not understand this when we began living in Guanajuato for part of the year. I’m not a very patient person.
Good luck being impatient in a highly bureaucratic country like Mexico!
For example, while we were remodeling our home, Barry and I relied on painters, carpenters, metal workers, and electricians, all of whom have a reputation in Mexico for never showing up on time.
When I called our contractor, he’d say he’d arrive ahorita (“right away”), which could be 20 minutes — or hours. I was very frustrated until I finally understood that I had to pin him down. Even then, he was not as prompt as we’d expect in the U.S. or Canada.
Así es, as we say in Spanish. So it is.
3. Develop Cultural Competence and Sensitivity
Cultural competence is the ability to understand and show respect for the values, attitudes, beliefs, and more that differ across cultures.
A few years ago I ate dinner in a restaurant with another expat in the nearby town of San Miguel de Allende. When her plate arrived, she blew up at the waiter because it wasn’t what she wanted (even though she had ordered in terrible Spanish). It’s never polite to get angry at a waiter, but especially not in Mexico, where people seldom even complain directly.
I was so embarrassed, I went back the next day and apologized to the waiter for her. He could not have been more gracious and kind about it.
4. Be Willing To Engage in the Language
Not everyone finds languages easy to learn, especially not those of us in our 60s and 70s. But I believe we need to work away at it, to at least get the basics down.
I get annoyed at other foreigners who can’t even be bothered to say the equivalent of por favor or gracias. Recently I was at a party with a no-host bar. When I ordered a glass of wine in Spanish, the person next to me said, “Wow, you speak a lot of Spanish.”
Really? Saying vino blanco is not that difficult. It’s harder in some cultures, of course, where the alphabet may be different, like many Asian languages, or in countries where the citizens grew up learning English in kindergarten (like the Netherlands). Still, knowing basic everyday phrases is a simple way of showing respect.
5. Embrace Technology During Your Expat Life
If we want to stay in touch with our children, grandchildren, and friends where we used to live, we have to master some technology.
It’s not my favorite thing to do, managing all the different communication modes these days, from email to text, Facebook Messenger to WhatsApp, not to mention Zoom, Facetime, Google Hangouts, and Skype. And more are coming, of course. But if I don’t stay on top of all these, I won’t be able to connect with my loved ones.