Recently, Bob, the founder of Expat Island, did a post about the considerations that potential expats should think about before making a permanent move to a foreign country. I have done many blog posts on my site dealing with the pluses and minuses of moving to Cuenca, Ecuador. However, I think there is an underlying feature that needs to be discussed and is often ignored. After one factors all the reasons for why you may want to move to Ecuador, Costa Rico, Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, or wherever; you need to consider one of the most important factors that will contribute to whether or not you succeed in a foreign culture, and that is how well can you psychologically deal with people of different races and cultures?
Rarely anybody will concede that they are negatively prejudiced toward another group, particularly if they are Americans who have been taught the politically correct things to say and not say, and to do and not do. Hardly anyone will return from a failed attempt to live in a foreign culture and admit they could not adjust to being a minority, or looking around them every day and hardly anyone looks like them.
I would encourage any reader thinking of relocation to another culture to reflect very openly with yourself, and whoever may be making the possible move with you, to ascertain how well you will feel comfortable in a different culture, with people who may look different than you, and with people who do not think and behave in many respects as you do. What are your experiences in your home culture of mixing with people who are not like you? If all you can answer, is “Oh, I’ve gone to school with folks different than me. I’ve worked with people different than me in job situations, but I was a part of the majority. I supervised work forces that were different than me. I’ve traveled on business or vacation in foreign cultures at various times during my life.” Such responses may not be sufficient for success in a foreign culture.
More importantly, dig more deeply into your psychic reactions and social responses. Ask yourself how you felt and functioned when you were in mixed racial, social, and cultural situations. Did you feel superior to those who were different from you? Did you feel socially uncomfortable around those who were different? If you were in a work situation, did you perceive that their work efforts or their values did not meet your standards? Was your judgment of someone from a different group based upon group stereo-types? Did you have personal friends from groups who were different from you, or did you and your co-workers simply co-exist? If you were the minority, did you generally play the victim card and see everything through the prism of discrimination or prejudice? Are you the type of person who accentuates the differences, rather than what you may have in common with those who are racially, ethnically, or culturally different from you?
Give thought to what it may really feel like for you to be the minority. How will you genuinely feel when the vast majority of people around you do not speak English, and every day the sound you hear on the streets will be a cacophony of a tongue that will be foreign to you? How will you feel when you are walking down the street, and all you see around you are a sea of faces of colors different from yours, and you are but a dot of whatever self-identified color? I hear expats exclaim, “Why are they always staring at me?” Is that really so hard to understand? You are “the other”. How will you feel when many of the people you pass and with whom you deal daily are of a different class and educational level than you? Will you be like so many expats who intentionally barricade themselves mentally, psychologically, and physically in their own little ghettos with no desire to grow and to understand the majority culture and its matrix of nuances that truly make living life a rich tapestry of experiences? Will you learn only enough of the language to conduct basic greetings and negotiate simple business transactions?
When I first arrived in Cuenca, I had a friend who moved here after living twelve years in Mexico. She said, “Jim, we are coming to Ecuador at a time when there is an influx of expats. Believe me, you will soon see the expats forming their own community and bringing their institutional and cultural baggage with them.” She was right. Today expats have their own churches in English, poker nights, American Legion, Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous groups in English, etc., etc., etc. At the same time, some expats have formed bi-cultural groups that include Ecuadorians and expats alike, particularly in areas like arts and the theater.
When my friend first announced that these groups would come about, I wasn’t too thrilled. However, with time, I came to realize that every ethnic group that has settled in the United States or anywhere else in the world when their numbers became large enough often brought their cultural traditions and institutions with them. Some of these people would die with little acquaintance to their new culture. Some would continue to practice their traditions as they remembered those traditions when they left their home country, often with the failure to realize that as the years passed such traditions had changed with time in their country of origin. Others would embrace the culture of their new country with cautious, if not at times, open arms. What some members of one generation failed to embrace would certainly be embraced by their children’s generation. To some degree people need a security blanket, a sense of familiarity, and a respite from the very hard work of functioning in a different culture.
For retired expats, that security blanket may require an electrical thermostat, as they have accumulated more years of aging, and more personal and cultural baggage. Although retired expats may find in general that it is more difficult to change, that doesn’t mean “an old dog cannot learn new tricks”. It just may take a little longer, if at least one makes the effort. However, I believe that security blanket becomes an albatross around one’s neck, when it becomes an island of insularity and with its insularity anger and resentment. These are the people who will return home (and I am in no way saying that there are not a host of legitimate reasons for why people return to from whence they came), or who will remain in their host country primarily for economic reasons and are ensconced in an “unhappy until death do us part” state of mind.
Once again, before making a leap into a change you may come to regret; begin first by dealing with the heartfelt questions of, “Do I really have what it takes in the way of experience to make it in a foreign culture? Is my notion of being open to change based upon a realistic view of the tough work primarily of psychological adjustment that will be required of me, or do I have an idealized and romanticized view of what I think this change will be? Have I done my homework and in-depth research to understand that visiting a country is not the same as living full-time in that country? How adaptable and flexible am I, or am I someone who generally is fixed in my ways?” If your answers to these questions mainly are no and maybe, then either think wisely about making a move that will make great challenges upon your psychological comfort zone; or if you must move to a foreign culture for which you are not very adaptable, choose to go to a country where expats are known to live in their physical and mental enclaves of insularity, and oftentimes, arrogance.
Next week, in part II, I will discuss my thoughts on this topic further, and how it relates particularly to Cuenca.