The Space for Expatriates
When we were all dewy-eyed teenagers on study abroad programs, we embraced the idea of cultural exchange. We looked forward to our encounters with other kids our age in bars and train stations and the giggly struggle of language exchange that followed.
Those of us with children whom we wanted to be “global citizens” kept the spirit alive by encouraging them to travel and experience other cultures. We don’t expect, nor would we coach them to only hang around with people from back home during their stay.
Yet many expats to Mexico, upon arriving to their own “host country” do just that. Many reject the opinion that not learning something of the language of the country they happen to live in as a bit rude.
What’s worse, not speaking a little of the language cuts them off from friendships that would be just as gratifying now as they would be if they were still that 18 year-old on a Europass.
Learning a language does take effort. Maybe one of the things that discourages people is the idea that to make native friends they will have to be fluent.
Fluency does require concentrated effort. Understandably, it’s harder to bear down on a challenging goal when you may not see an appreciable pay-off for several years. If you can get by in a restaurant or taxi, the effort of learning a second language is easy to wave off.
However, you can shorten the time it takes to make native friends while you’re coming up to speed on Spanish. It worked for me. It could work for you too.
Three years ago, before I moved to Mexico, I started to start attending Spanish practice groups in the U.S. Made up almost entirely of Americans, my practice group created a safe zone when I was trying to learn it again after 35 years of nary a word.
Since most people at these coffee klatches translated their English to Spanish word for word, we understood each other more easily than being thrown in with strictly native speakers. The sessions helped me become less self-conscious, something I had a problem with no matter whom I talked to.
Seeing and failing miserably in front of the same people week after week creates a bond. We became good friends. By sticking with the Denver practice group for about a year, week after week, I arrived to Mexico with a reborn although still fumbling command of the language.
Once I arrived to Mexico, it seemed natural to try to find a practice group there. What I had forgotten is that I would be speaking mainly with real Mexicans. Unlike my American group, my practice group in Mazatlán was a true exchange. Mexicans of all ages came to practice their English, which was, gratefully, as choppy as my Spanish.
The dynamic of trying to practice a language and teach your own in a group situation is difficult at times. To be honest, sometimes I wondered if it was helping me.
Some sweltering nights, I would go to the practice at the restaurant, which managed to draw in none of breeze from the ocean right across the street, only to find only one other person there.
When too many people came, it was worse. Conversations were disjointed. Sometimes well-meaning people correct you so often you can’t keep a train of thought. Sometimes expats would come to meet each other, and speak English the whole time they were there.
But I learned an important lesson from my Denver practice group, which had similar distractions. If you keep going, something good will happen. Friendships are built as much on continuity of interaction than they are by commonality, as we all know from our work days.
In my case, the good thing that happened was Lupita. She was charming, had interesting work and the clear lilting voice of a teenage girl. She only swooped in occasionally though, so I attended many meetings waiting like a love-struck girl for her return.
I courted in every way I could. Exaggerated facial expressions, stupid jokes, awkward compliments and complete undivided attention, I was shameless. Here was a real Mexican woman with whom I might become friends.
With time, she gradually became comfortable enough with me to invite me to her book club meeting, mostly a cover for its members to get out of the house. Every other week they’d just meet to socialize. Lupita invited me to one of those. I wasn’t quite ready to discuss Tolstoy.
While only two book club members spoke English well, and the others barely at all, all had an interest. I think that a certain amount of bookishness and the desire to learn a language naturally go together. The group get-togethers took the pressure off having to maintain long one-on-one conversations in Spanish, which can be mentally exhausting in the beginning.
Two years later, that circle of people makes up a the nucleus of my Mexican social group. Soon I began to receive invitations to cultural events like the opera or concerts, activities that wouldn’t require steady conversing.
I reciprocated as much as could, hosting modest wine parties or buying tickets for similar events to convey my appreciation for their friendship. It’s hard to stay ahead with that though, because they keep reciprocating my reciprocation.
That group has expanded out to include their sisters, their husbands and their children as little by little, they are included in my social gatherings, or I am included in theirs. “Group” is a key word in Mexico because you’ll rarely meet a Mexican woman without one.
Not only do I love them, I also feel that I have a protective barrier that helps keep me safe as a single woman in a country where conversational nuance sometimes makes it difficult to immediately assess someone’s real personality.
When you talk to strangers in your home country, you unconsciously gather hundreds of subtle clues that help you make a quick determination of what next step you want to take with them.
When in your own culture, you take for granted the miracle of communication. Choice of vocabulary, grammar, expressions, body language, all guide you towards determining what you need to know about that person beyond their words.
In a less familiar culture, you lose much of that. Not that you can’t become friends with strangers you meet, but the process takes longer, just like learning the second language does.
Unlike at home where I may date someone for months before introducing them to friends, here any new date might be surprised to find several of my Mexican friends hanging out in my living room when he got to the door.
When I was a fundraiser, I remember one of my fundraising campaign chairmen, Allen Fergueson, saying during our capital campaign, “If you don’t know jewelry, know your jeweler.” It applied to standard campaign practices.
Lupita became my jeweler. If the people I met were friends of hers, they were by extension, vetted. Even friends of friends of hers I considered vetted. I needed little more than an introduction to come out of the gate guns blazing, confident that person had something special to offer.
Having moved to many cities cold, I have employed both methods, buckshot and laser, to make friends. The buckshot method, being everywhere, wears you out and can be expensive.
If I were an efficiency expert and not a just a person seeking to make friends, I’d call this improved method the social equivalent of a bicycle, which some consider the most efficient machine ever built.
Better to spend your time finding the one Mexican who interests you in your new city. Focus, invest and prioritize that person in your life and you will probably gain a reputation as an expat worth knowing.
I'd love to know how you've made native friends!