One of the major challenges faced by new expats around the world is how to integrate into their new country and minimize the culture shock that often follows the move. In Mexico, a new business started by a young Dutch cultural anthropologist is helping expats fit in and adjust to their new country.
Debbie Vorachen, who is just 30, is an expert in intercultural communication. Her business Ahorita Ya teaches expats how to successfully integrate into Mexico, both culturally and socially.
Born and raised in the south of the Netherlands, Vorachen received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology at one of the oldest universities in the country, Utrecht University. She specialized in cultural anthropology.
“During school I worked for a while as a tour guide at an anthropological museum in Rotterdam,” she said, “where I met my fiancé, Cuauhtemoc. He was a Mexican dancer performing at a folklore festival there.”
Intrigued by both her future husband and Mexico, Vorachen moved to Mexico to do her anthropological investigative work for her master’s degree in 2013, and then returned full-time in 2014 after graduation. She worked briefly in the hotel industry on Isla Holbox and then worked as a language teacher at the Tecnológico de Monterrey before moving to Pachuca, Hidalgo, about an hour northeast of Mexico City, to set up her new business in January of 2015.
“I recognized that there was a need for this service because of some of the difficulties I encountered after I moved to Mexico,” she said. “My specialization in intercultural communication is very useful in helping expats feel at home in their new country.”
She named her business Ahorita Ya because it is a blend of Spanish and Dutch and exemplifies one of the main differences between the two cultures. When someone says “ahorita” in Mexico, it can mean within five minutes, ten minutes or never. When a Dutch person says “ya,” it means now or right away. By putting those two words together, Vorachen said, it shows one of the main differences between the European and Latin cultures: How time is understood and used.
“It’s something a lot of people struggle with,” she said, “because time is integral to functioning well in Mexico. When you go to a meeting, for example, you often don’t know when you should arrive. Europeans are very punctual, but it is very different here. Arriving on time is not that important.”
Vorachen divides her time between families who are moving to Mexico or already in the country and corporations, both Mexican and international, where she provides intercultural training. Much of her work is done online or via videoconferencing, but she also does face-to-face work, particularly with corporate clients.
“Whether you start your own company in Mexico, work for a company or just live here,” she said, “you should know that getting a straight answer can be a cultural communication problem. The people of Mexico are very polite and do not like to disappoint or deliver bad news. So how can you deal with this? It is very difficult and varies from situation to situation, but the most important thing is to always speak to the right person if you need something done and get any agreements in writing. The written word is very important.”
Expats who have successfully integrated both socially and culturally, Vorachen told us, learn at least some Spanish. Spanish language instruction is also part of her service offering.
“If you want to fully integrate into Mexican society,” she said, “you have to speak Spanish. It is crucial. When you can go out and talk to the people around you, you begin to blend in culturally.”
Having experienced a bit of culture shock herself, Vorachen thinks it is not a bad thing.
“It’s actually very important,” she said. “If you don’t experience some kind of culture shock it may mean that you are shutting yourself down from integrating into Mexican society. When you experience culture shock it’s actually a learning moment because it means that you are facing the differences and you are trying and willing to overcome those differences.”
Expats In Mexico’s Monthly Expat Poll in February asked our readers if they had ever experienced culture shock in Mexico. A bit more than one-third said they did.
“In the cultural adaptation process, there is a period called the ‘honeymoon phase,’” she said. It means that when you arrive in Mexico everything is beautiful, nice and new. It’s like you’re on a honeymoon. After that phase passes, reality sets in. That’s when people begin to feel frustrated about Mexican culture, and that’s when culture shock arrives and some begin thinking about moving home. But it’s most important to be aware of your own cultural background and think about how you can socially and culturally integrate into Mexican society to feel at home. That begins the recovery stage.”
One of the coping mechanisms for new expats in Mexico is to move to an expat enclave within a city that has many English-speaking residents. For newcomers, this may be an initial solution until they get their bearings. But, unfortunately, some remain isolated from Mexico and never fully integrate and participate in day-to-day life in Mexico.
“If you want to permanently stay in this country, it is very important to learn the language and culturally blend in,” Vorachen said. “It’s a very rich and important part of being here and living here.”
We asked her to list the three most important things expats can do to ensure their happiness in Mexico.
“Well, as I have said before, learning the language at just the basic level is important if you want to make Mexican friends,” she said. “Once you can communicate, they can make you part of their family life and show you their culture. Once you are open to Mexican culture, the world opens up to you. You also need to be flexible to not only think about who you are and where you come from, but also be flexible to new opportunities to learn. And, don’t take yourself to seriously. There will be a lot of frustrations, so it is very important to be able to laugh at them.”