Most of my friends in Mexico are, well…Mexican. If you’ve read my past blogs, you know that I am a big fan of the Mexican personality in general, and am completely charmed by the culture, the food, and the language. I’ve done my best to integrate myself into the society and my local community, and believe I’ve done a pretty good job at it so far. That being said, this is an ode to my fellow expats in Mexico.
One thing is for certain…I’ll never not be a foreigner, and the fact that I’m a foreigner will always be obvious here. It’s in my accent, in my mannerisms, even in my gait.
And being a perpetual foreigner (even a privileged one like me) is hard. Having people to connect with from your own culture eases the discomfort, and my desire to do so versus my insistence that I should focus on integrating myself with Mexicans is something that’s always brought up a bit of insecurity and discomfort for me.
As I get older, though, I’ve learned to really appreciate my time with my fellow norteamericanos, seeing it not as cultural insulation, but as a chance to come up for a breath and maybe a different kind of fun once in a while, like whales or dolphins do. Sometimes, you just need to spend time and talk about things with people that share a basic understanding of “what makes sense” to you culturally.
For quite a while in my city, I could count the number of paisanos I knew on one hand. Xalapa is far from any kind of expat hub, though it does have a somewhat sizable “international” population due to its world-class orchestra and just all-around artsy and intellectual awesomeness.
Most English-speaking foreigners I know are people who’ve retired here, though I know a couple too that, like me, have been here long-term and spent a good chunk of their adult life here. Younger people are harder to find, as they tend to come for a year or two, then go back. This garners no complaint from me as I’m fairly settled-in myself, and I’ve come to enjoy and expect spending time with people who are closer to my parents’ generation than my own, especially at this point in my life in which I’m actively seeking the wisdom of those who’ve “made it through” this tricky phase of adulthood.
Just because someone else is from your same country, of course, doesn’t mean you’ll get along with them. I’ve met people whose political views have turned me green, and a few people that are just plain creepy, anywhere. Mormon missionaries I pass on the street tend to refuse eye-contact with me, though I’ve met some nice Jehovah’s Witnesses (I’m a rather cynical agnostic myself, but I’ve rarely met JWs that weren’t really, really likable).
I just returned from a trip to Texas that was a great big gulp of familiar air. My family by now has spread out a bit, but my sister is home base, and where I always land when I visit. We have a great connection, and I have some wonderful friends there that I love hanging out with. But I can’t help feeling foreign now everywhere I go. I often think of the title of the book “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Truly, you can’t. In Texas, at this point, I might as well be a foreigner that just happens to be fluent in the local language. Though I’ll never give up saying “y’all”, people that don’t know me ask where I’m from, and I tend to maintain a wide-eyed, somewhat startled look on my face most of the time as I realize what “adulting” in the States entails, as I’ve never done it there (I’ve been in Mexico since I was 20, and I’m almost 38!).
Still, despite my initial state of disorientation – the first day is always full of awkward and unexpected kisses on the cheek and half-started buen provechos and buenos días and gracias to bewildered-looking recipients – being in Texas is like sleeping in my childhood bedroom. It’s not 100 percent suited to me anymore, but it’s comforting and smells like home.
Now I no longer see seeking out companionship with others from my culture as a guilty pleasure, but rather a needed connection to home, in all senses of the word. In the end we’re all just people who seek to be understood. Someone from your culture who is living in the same foreign culture that you are is a fairly good bet for finding your sometimes-tribe. You don’t need to spend every day with them, but when it’s time to come up for some air, find them and take a deep, cleansing breath.