by Steve Crofter
There are many reasons norteamericanos move to Mexico. A few of the reasons, such as a favorable climate or a lower cost of living, have little to do with the love of Mexican culture. But I believe that most Canadians and USers who choose to live in Mexico, do so because they want to be at least somewhat involved with Mexicans and their culture. For many of us there is a definite appeal in experiencing Mexico relatively unadulterated by our own culture’s influence. The trick is to figure out the right balance between clinging to one’s native culture or abandoning it.
I was recently browsing through the PG’s main website, always an interesting and rewarding activity. In one of Carl’s postings on living and retiring in Mexico, he addresses a reader’s question about expatriates immersing themselves in an “authentic Mexican cultural experience.” In Carl’s response he states that he’s “met relatively few gringos who could adapt comfortably, at least for any length of time, to a full-on “immersion” situation.”
A little more than two and a half years ago, my partner Laurel Green and I moved to a small village where we are the only non-Mexicans. We generally feel successful in this situation we have chosen, so Carl’s comments caused me to give some thought to this issue. I began to wonder what it is about our particular circumstances that allowed Laurel and me to become comfortable living so far apart from other norteamericanos?
One factor is simply that we give each other mutual support. Had either of us as individuals tried to live so far from other friends and loved ones, it probably would have been too lonely. Keeping in good contact with friends and family that we left behind has also been crucial for us. Because there was no reliable phone in our village, we installed a satellite internet system in order to use e-mail and voice-over-internet-protocol phone calls to maintain our connection with loved ones.
Another consideration is our familiarity with the culture here. Prior to finding a place to live in Mexico, we had taken a number of trips to various parts of the country, always pushing ourselves to interact with Mexicans as much as we felt we could. In the process (which continues), we slowly graduated from undergoing culture shock to experiencing what we call cultural abrasions, those differences that are no longer shocking or even surprising, but nonetheless are still annoying or unsettling. As we have become more and more familiar with Mexican ways, we have come to feel at home in this setting.
Similar to culture, language is another element in becoming accustomed to life in Mexico. We studied some Spanish before moving here, but our proficiency level has grown most through our daily interactions with our neighbors who don’t speak English. It was hard at first, but as our abilities have improved, it has become easier to communicate. The better we understand our neighbors and the more we can tell them about ourselves, the more comfortable we feel living here.
And speaking of language, we teach English to anybody who wants to learn. Sometimes it has been as simple as teaching a child to count to ten or translating the message on someone’s tee shirt. We have also volunteered to teach a weekly English class in our local school. It has been another way of interacting with people, another kind of connection.
In choosing a place to settle in Mexico, we made the decision to live away from tourist areas. This has meant less contact with other norteamericanos, but I believe it has increased the quality of our contact with Mexicans. This is because people who serve tourists for their livelihood are more likely to view each new foreigner as another potential customer. If you can get yourself off the beaten track, you significantly increase your chances of forming friendships with Mexicans.
Making friends can be a challenge in any culture, but as a generalization, Mexicans tend to be friendly, which helps. Nonetheless, there are definitely things one can do to encourage new friendships. We made it a rule to shake hands with everyone we met and to try to learn and remember people’s names. Because gender roles and gender separation are still relatively rigid, especially in the countryside, it’s best when there’s a choice to approach strangers of your own gender. We found that once we knew people fairly well, we could usually mix up the genders without it being an issue, and even break some of the rules (such as “Men Don’t Wash Dishes”) without serious consequences.
We’ve been careful not to thoughtlessly push our cultural idiosyncrasies onto our new friends. On the other hand, it almost always makes sense to be true to one’s self and to one’s own principles, even at the risk of not “fitting in.” For us, some examples include eating a vegetarian diet and not drinking alcohol, even when offered meat or beer. When we explain our principles and maintain our attitude of tolerance toward others, people are almost always accepting of our differences and even go out of their way to accommodate us.
In fact, it’s critical for forming friendships that both parties get to really show themselves. It has to be a two way street. Back in November, when it was Election Day in the United States, we let our neighbors know how excited we were going to be to listen to the presidential election coverage online. One neighbor came to be with us and helped us color in the red and blue states on our blank map of the US. Others asked us the next morning who had won, and were enthusiastic on our behalf as we celebrated Obama’s victory. Likewise, when Thanksgiving came around, we told our closest friends that this would be an important day for us. Even though it is not a holiday in Mexico, a number of friends took the time to join us for a special dinner celebration, simply because it mattered to us.
It seems that every would-be immigrant contemplating a move to Mexico must face the question of how “immersed” they want to be in Mexican culture. It’s clear there is no answer that is right for everyone. On the continuum of levels of immersion, from living in an enclave of fellow expatriates to choosing a situation similar to ours, each individual must find their own right place.
Also by Steve Crofter: Our Truck Runs on Veggie Oil