Not too long ago I sat down for an interview with Bob Nelson, the owner of Expats In Mexico. One of the questions he asked me toward the end of the interview was what I think expats living in Mexico have in common. I had written four nonfiction books on expat life in Mexico, three of them centered on San Miguel de Allende, and one on expats living in smaller communities throughout the country, places where there was little sense of a support group from other expats.
I had to consider this question for a brief moment before I responded, and I have considered it further since. I am not much of a collective thinker, so when I wrote those books, mostly based on interviews, I didn’t seek to generalize much about the people I spoke with. As in the fiction I write, I am always more focused on individuals, and on the specifics and particulars of their stories, which is what usually brings this material to life. The answer I came up with for Bob was that one characteristic they certainly shared: they were risk takers. They were able to settle into the kind of community they weren’t raised in, but still find a comfortable role and a meaningful place for themselves, even as they sought to improve their language skills. Since most expats are not that youthful, this can be challenging for some people.
When we consciously take risks, we are usually moved to do so by the expectation that some reward is available when the risks succeed. Think of the stock market. While the people I spoke with over the course of writing these books gave me a variety of answers as to what they thought the reward of their relocation would be, another one slowly emerged that none of them mentioned. It was one that I could see in the overall pattern of their lives.
An early part of it was that the career they had practiced throughout their business life in the U.S., Canada or other countries was no longer a prominent feature of who they thought they were. There had been a subtle shift in their identity.
By then, I had already noticed that when you meet someone for the first time they usually do not ask what you did in your life prior to moving to Mexico. But they often asked what you were doing now. The emphasis was clearly on the present. While these expats were not necessarily aware of any shift in their identity it may well have happened. For example, one had traded being a radiologist for building clay pots on a wheel. Why did changes of this kind seem so effortless to make in many cases? How could they walk away from the decades-long career that had nurtured their sense of status and prestige? And perhaps even more interesting, how could that bring them to a place no less rewarding? A place they had entered as no more than a simple newcomer.
Over time I realized that it was an issue of context and expectations. They had arrived in a culture that did not precisely share the values of the one they had left, one that indeed did not understand many of those values and conventions. Since they had no status except that of strangers, they found themselves in a context that placed no expectations upon them. They lived in a neighborhood where they had to start from scratch with all their neighbors. They didn’t run into anybody they knew. Was this arrival a narrative of isolation, disengagement, frustration and lack of connection? To look at it that way is to not survive as an expat, to be unable to handle that risk I mentioned above.
The real word that describes this situation is freedom.
In the expat world, as never before in your life, you are what you would like to be. You will run into no one that will express surprise or alarm at what you are now doing. You will run into no one whose first reaction on seeing you is, “You did what?” It’s like suddenly growing up and discovering that the door to realizing your ambitions is standing open before you in a way it never did before. No one will look at you askance as you move directly toward realizing your goals.
Let’s put the risk, then, on one side of the scale, and freedom on the other. Watch what happens.