Monday, August 14, 2006

Reverse culture shock

We allowed ourselves the weekend to get re-adjusted to the U.S. That didn't take long, as we were only in Mexico for a month. In the past, we (as a family) would have to adjust to living in Mexico, and then re-adjust to living in the U.S. when we returned. We're well past those adjustments on both ends now, although I suspect when my work takes us to Mexico for an extended period, re-adapting to U.S. live will be a challenge when we return.

This morning I've been thinking a good bit about why people decided to uproot themselves and move to San Miguel (SMA). As I've noted elsewhere in the blog, about 95% of all of the expatriates I met last month decided to move to SMA on a whim--they were there for a brief visit, and before they left they had purchased a house. Almost of those who had purchased their houses had never been to Mexico before, did not speak Spanish, and had never before lived in a foreign country.

Of all of the aspects of the SMA story, I found this commonality the most difficult to comprehend. What would compel an American (or Canadian) who had otherwise lived a fairly "safe" provincial life in the U.S. do something that, on the surface, is a rash decision?

When I posed this question to retired expats, their responses were also pretty similar: they liked what they saw in the expat community in SMA, they felt "at home" or extremely comfortable with the place and the people they met there. They also were drawn in by the slower pace of life (although I will say SMA is much more fast-paced that similar communities in western Mexico). They also felt that they had little to lose. As one couple told me, "We just assumed that, if we got here and didn't like it, we could always go back."

The overwhelming fact is, though, that they were all pretty sure they were going to like it. There have been exceptions, certainly. There are stories of people who came and went, but these folks are rare. What draws expats into SMA and what keeps them there is a strong sense of community, something that they all say is severely lacking in the U.S. Of course, it’s pretty common for people who find themselves in a completely foreign environment to cling to others who share a similar background. In fact, the common factor of being “foreigners” together seems to create a bond that allows these retirees to form a community that I believe would be impossible in their homeland.

I say this based on my early experiences of being a fieldworker in Mexico. I remember feeling very alone during my first weeks in the field, and that the relationships that I was able to form (with Mexicans in this case) were much more intense and long lasting than they might have been had I not been alone and feeling vulnerable. My friend, Felipe Ortega, was a relatively new acquaintance when I lived in Textitlán, for example. When Ken went back to the state and I was alone with the kids, he traveled down from Jalisco to help me take the children (who were then three year-olds) to the zoo in Morelia. It was a small kindness, but that weekend cemented our friendship; Felipe is my casi hermano (nearly my brother)

The kindness of strangers in a foreign land counts much more than the kindness of a stranger at home. When I first got to SMA, I thought often about the state of “community” in the U.S., and had to agree, it’s abysmal here. Americans are too busy working and commuting to have time for the “luxury” of having relationships outside of their immediate families. Even within immediate families, it’s rare to have strong long-lasting relationships (think about those empty-nesters who rarely see their adult children). The point is, once a person stops working, it’s easy to get into a situation where you’re completely isolated. Bob, a single and quite young retiree from Dallas told me that after he retired early, he hung around Dallas for a while thinking he would eventually go back to work. Then as his peers started to retire, many of them moved back “home” to their natal communities. Eventually, he was in Dallas alone and faced a choice. “I couldn’t go back to my hometown (in Louisiana) because I didn’t know anyone there,” he recalled. “I was by myself in Dallas and I figured, well, I’ll give this a try.”

In this case, moving to SMA makes perfect sense, especially because there are so many people there in a similar position. One woman told me that she really believe that anyone who was particularly close to their adult children or extended families would not be able to make it in SMA. She said, “the people who have come here [over the last 20 years] by and large are pretty independent. Many have children, but they are also self-sufficient and don’t really need their parents to be there day to day. Another couple I interviewed told me that their adult daughters “went ballistic” when they told them that during their one-week vacation to SMA they had bought a house and would be moving permanently within four months. Their response to their daughters’ protests? “I told them,” the gentleman recalled, “did you consult your mother and me when you decided to move to Hawaii? I had to remind them that they had been living their lives independent of us for a long time, and we weren’t going to be that far away anyway” (his daughters live in Texas).

The combination of older adult isolation, retirement (unemployment, lack of meaningful work) and individualism work together to make post-retirement options in the U.S. less than appealing for those expats who end up living in SMA, and SMA offers all of the things that life in the U.S. cannot, given our current social structure. In this regard, there is little "culture shock" moving to SMA. It's a relatively smooth transition, simply because the town provides the one thing retiring expatriates are looking for: a sense of community.

And none of this relates back to the BIG reason so many people look to Mexico and other countries in Latin America to retire: limited retirement income. I’ll discuss that topic tomorrow.

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