The Space for Expatriates
AN AMERICAN VOICE IN MEXICO
WHAT LIVING IN MEXICO HAS TAUGHT ME
Over the past fifteen months I’ve been traveling in México from Zacatecas in the north to Oaxaca in the south. Despite the rants of the U.S. press and the warnings of the State Department, this country is a quite reasonable place to travel in a relaxed fashion if you exercise reasonable caution, just as you would in the U.S. or anywhere. In the past I have published some rather militant blogs condemning American press coverage of México, but more recently I decided to simply relate my day-to-day experiences here and allow readers to judge for themselves what this country is really like free of bias or politics.
The purpose of these journeys was to talk with expats who live in areas where the support of other expats is nearly non-existent or irrelevant. My idea was that this would be a different kind of person, one looking for an experience of México uninfluenced by large numbers of Americans and Canadians like we have here in San Miguel, around Lake Chapala, or in some of the beach communities. I was doing these conversations for a book that I called, Into the Heart of México: Expatriates Find Themselves Off the Beaten Path. It’s now available.
One question I asked everyone I talked with was what they had learned from living in México. It was no surprise that most spoke of patience in one form or another.
“I have a lot more patience than when I came here. Also, one thing that’s hard to get your head around is that seeing the world from a different viewpoint is neither good nor bad; it’s only a different point of view.” This came from a man I talked to in San Luis de la Paz.
In Pátzcuaro I heard this: “While I still like my possessions and comforts, they’re not all-important. I have certainly calmed down in what I think I need. I’ve learned patience.”
In Puebla: “It’s been a huge exercise in patience, which has ended up serving me well as a mom too. It also taught me how to shut up and listen. There was a time when my Spanish wasn’t good enough and I had to be quiet. That doesn’t come naturally to me.”
Patience, certainly. As expats we never will penetrate this culture to the highest degree. There will always be barriers almost invisible to the naked eye, but present nonetheless. Patience will be the measure of our tolerance for this incomplete engagement.
If I were answering this question, patience would certainly come up too. But even more I think I might have said something similar to the man in Pátzcuaro. My sense of what I need to live a full life has changed in six years and continues to evolve.
While San Miguel is relatively expensive for México, with a cost of living similar to one of the beach communities, it is still possible to live well here for about half of what it costs in the States. For example, my combined cost for telephone, heat (hot water, gas dryer, cooking, and occasional heating units in the fireplaces), Internet, cable TV, city water, and electricity averages about $120 a month for a 4,000-square-foot house. My property taxes for this year cost $320.
But for me, living here isn’t about getting by on the cheap. Nor is it even about getting along with less. It’s about genuinely needing less and missing nothing.
I was always offended in the U.S. at being called, usually by government agencies or the planning departments of large corporations, a consumer. As if our highest goal in life were to get at least our fair share of the available goods, to eat our fill before someone else got to the table, to burn more gasoline and natural gas than any other nation. In general, to have the biggest footprint. In the neighborhood where I once lived in an inner suburb of Minneapolis, a clear status symbol was how big your riding mower was. Another neighbor used to say that only the best was good enough for him. I always thought that as a result, not only did he never get the best, but he always paid too much for what he did get.
Here in México we are no longer consumers. It has become easier to share what we have with neighbors who have far less and who have never in their entire lives thought that only the best was good enough for them. I’m sure they thought that having enough to eat on a regular basis was good enough, however, when it was possible.
Here we are surrounded by a greater range of economic classes. The poor are more visible and are therefore part of our lives. We share their struggles and their occasional triumphs. Their lifestyle has a more textured reality than that of Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. Like us, they could never be called consumers.
So, once again, what has living in México taught me? It is that I do not need what I once thought I needed, and I can no longer recall why I thought I needed it. Was it only that I was surrounded by people who also thought they needed it? To whom possessions were a way of defining themselves in the absence of more sustaining values? Is the bottom line only that you do not need a riding mower when you have no lawn? Or does it go deeper?
I believe it is something like cultural seepage, that in the absence of one set of norms and in the presence of another, each coherent and dominant within its context, we drift into the prevailing system of values. Not that we have became card-carrying Catholics and worship the Virgin of Guadalupe, setting off fireworks all through the night, but we have moved steadily away from the emblems of American culture. Iconic objects have lost their aura. Cars, for example, are for driving reliably from one place to another. No sane person would drive a Porsche here because México is so hard on cars. As a result, cars are only about transportation, far less about status.
Another example would be fashion. Most Méxicans dress neatly and practically, but don’t try to be cutting edge.
These are only two examples, but they illustrate how life is less symbolic here. We are defined less by what we have. Yet, in my seventh year of living in México, it has still not lost its charm. As one of the women I talked with in Puebla said at the end of our conversation, “It’s important to say that after a certain point, living here stops being merely an experience and it becomes your life.”
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