As I pass the first anniversary of life as an expat, I am tempted to review the good and bad aspects of it. If you read my blog, you already know I find the balance tilted to the positive side. However, I have noted several times that expat life is not for everyone. So what are the reasons that would make expat life–especially expat life in Mexico–disagreeable for the average American?
The top reason on my list would be healthcare. It is at the top not because one cannot find quality doctors and hospitals: in Mexico, you can. Rather, it tops the list because healthcare is so critically important to one’s physical and financial well-being that if you have any doubt about your situation in either case (financial- or health-wise), you must question whether you’re expat material. If you don’t have portable health insurance, won’t qualify for another nation’s healthcare, don’t have money to buy insurance locally or in reserve to cover health emergencies, expat life may not be for you.
Likewise, if you have serious health problems, you want to think twice about expat life. Medical culture, like all culture, varies in every country. Figuring out what your doctor really means, regardless of whatever he or she says (and in what language), is difficult enough when you are familiar with the culture. Levels of care vary, not because one system is more or less caring, but because different systems have different views on what is appropriate. Any friction in healthcare is major friction, because it is literally a matter of life or death. Failing health (coupled with an inability to cover escalating costs) is the leading reason expats return home.
Second on the list is family matters. How close and frequent are your relationships with your immediate or extended family? If you live in the same town as your extended family, and you get together several times a week and are always available to one another, you may find expat life to be too disconnecting. One must be very honest about this issue. If I was still working (which would have been necessary were I not an expat), I would be limited in the time I could spend with my grandchildren. Expat life freed up my time, which enables more and better time with them. However, my family has always been all over the map (literally), and even my closest grandchild was a solid hour away from my last home near DC. Here in Mexico, I am a four hour plane ride away from them, but my calendar is clear, so I can drop by pretty easily (like we did over the MLK holiday this year). In the meantime, we skype on a regular basis. I am blessed that my immediate family has few (almost none, really) health or personal issues. If you need that close daily family interaction, or have family members who need your personal attention, expat life may be a bridge too far.
Next would be your flexibility. There are a few hardy souls who thrive in the absence of any routine; you usually see them on adventure TV shows. Most of us need some level of routine, or certainty, to be comfortable. As an expat, you are inherently out of your comfort zone. Can you adapt to it? It comes in all shapes and sizes: when I go the local Walmart (familiar), they may be no potato chip brands or flavors I recognize. A left turn signal can mean almost anything. Russet potatoes are difficult to find. You should say “buenos dias” to people you pass on the street, and that changes to “buenos tardes” at noon and “buenas noches” after dark. Shrimp cocktail is a form of cold, spicy soup. Asking for directions is asking for trouble. Butter contains no salt, and there is no caramel. Mañana means sometime.
None of these points is important, but collectively they represent a lot of turbulence. As an expat, there are times when you start to think you are building a routine, and then you’re hit with several changes all at once. If you aren’t flexible enough to change with such challenges, you may find expat life unsettling.
How do you feel when you are confronted with abject poverty? Poverty exists side-by-side with wealth in Mexico. Begging is not considered a sign of poor character: some people are just worse off, and they beg to make ends meet. If you go out where there are groups of people (like the market, a shopping center, a soccer match) you will run into people begging, children selling fruit or junk or trinkets, or perhaps a handicapped person offering to wash your car. If you say no, they leave you alone. No one gets angry about their entreaties. If you give them some money, they will be very grateful; around the corner will be more of the same. You have to pick and choose where you drop your coins, and saying no is never fun. If this scene pulls too hard on your heartstrings, maybe you’re not an expat.
Closely related to the poverty issue is, surprisingly, pets (especially in Mexico). I have heard more than one expat lament the way dogs are treated here: some folks become so upset they return home. Dogs are just a useful appliance here; they are not pets in the North American concept (I rarely even see cats here). One sees roof-dogs which live out in the hot tropical sun with the sole purpose of alerting owners if anyone approaches the property. Street dogs are common, lazing alongside the roads, many limping from a close encounter of the vehicular kind. Seeing a dog’s body in the road is not at all unusual. As long as a dog performs a useful task, they are given some minimal shelter and food; if they dont, they are set loose. Local governments wait until they get complaints about dog packs, then they set out poison to eliminate the problem. As a lifelong dog owner, it is heartbreaking, but I also realize many Mexicans do not have the resources to spend on pets as luxury items. If sad dog stories are too much for you, you’ll need to toughen up to be an expat.
These are the top five facets of expat life which make it something not everyone can embrace (in my opinion). As an expat, I can attest to the fact that many confront these situations and negotiate them successfully to become expats. Some expats choose to be snowbirds, spending colder months down here and warmer months back home. This helps address the expat challenges I mentioned, but also adds the cost of maintaining two residences.
As I said at the beginning, I think the positives outweigh the negatives. With more and more baby boomers retiring every day, we are seeing a significant increase in new arrivals lakeside. I hope they are considering the challenges I have discussed above; if not they face more than a little disappointment.