Friday, June 01, 2007

It's your life; It's your choice

Over the last few days I've been talking with many expats about their lives here. Many (both young and older) of those whom I talked to were deeply dissatisfied with their lives in the U.S. Life in the U.S. is problematic, they told me, because there is too much pressure to do too much. Much of what they told mere were what I consider to be cliches of American life: we work too hard, we play too little, we don't spend enough time on relationships, we're engrossed in consumer culture. In short, we exist to do more, earn more, and buy more, but in the end we forget to do one simple thing: live and enjoy life, and perhaps the fruits of our labor.

I have to admit, I come away from some of these interviews skeptical of what I've been told. After all, if one does not like their life in the U.S., can they not change? Is capitalism so all-powerful that once you enter the U.S. your personality is sucked away by the desire to look like the magazine model, buy the right clothes, and earn more than your neighbor? I know that my own life is not like this. I am an academic, and as a group college professors are not known for selecting their profession so they can be wealthy. Many of us are happy just to pay the rent and drive a functioning car. At the same time, I know that I am vain. I care about what clothes I wear, I always do my hair and wear make-up. I even shave my legs.

But I do not shop. I can't even remember the last time I went into a mall. I guess it must have been at Christmas, but I can't remember which one, or even if I bought something when I went there.

This is a strange combination (vanity and not shopping), I know. The fact is this: my mother loves to shop; it's her only hobby. She buys most of my clothes, and over the years she has gotten pretty good at picking things that are both stylish and fit well. What she doesn't find, my sister (who also loves to shop) usually buys. My husband used to work in an office over a Lord and Taylor in Philadelphia, and he also used to buy many of my clothes, although he doesn't shop much himself any more.

Now that we have that on the table, I'd like to go back to my original point: the fact that one can be successful and fulfilled without being sucked up into American consumer culture. I'll admit it's not easy. You have to believe that there are more important things in life than your stuff. You also have to be able to set aside your pride and be content to know that many others, and in D.C. this is just about anyone you meet, is going to have a better yard, a more up-to-date kitchen, hipper clothes, (and in my case) a much better, and cleaner, car.

Nevertheless, the expats here have tapped into something real about U.S. life and experience, which is highlighted in today's Washington Post. Introducing the "Certified Family Manager Coach," that wonderful person whom you can pay some $200 to help you better manage your life. Time is precious, and these folks can get you back on track with family organisation so you can get organized and really do it all. Really. What is the point of having a family manager?
The point here is that the job of family manager is a valuable executive-level position, and we need to get over any preconceived Stepford-wife notion about what it means to oversee the goings-on of a home and family," Peel said. "The makeover service helps people figure out what needs to be done first" in seven areas: home and property, food and meals, family and friends, money and finances, time and scheduling, self-management, and special events.

Yes, these certified professionals make mommyhood an executive level position. Good buy to Donna Reed, hello CEO Mom.

That sounds like a major improvementt. It's almost enough to send me packing my bags and moving to the developing world. Don't get me wrong, I've lived enough of my life in Mexico, and not only cushy spots like San Miguel, but real Mexico, that I do see the virtues of the simple life. Having a smaller house, for instance, and less junk to clutter it, are both aspects of life that I've grown to appreciate in Textitlán. I also love smaller scale living, walking to school and work, and talking to your neighbors. Again, all things that are much more common here than in the U.S.

It's safe to assume that, based on this article at least, folks in the U.S. do not need life coaching so much as they need a kick in the pants. For instance, the article informs us that a suburban Virginia homemaker "sought help because her life was "spinning out of control." With two young children, two dogs, a 4,500-square-foot house and a working husband, she said, 'I was just struggling to get a nutritious meal on the table, make sure the house was not a pigsty, spend more time with the kids, wash my face, take a shower.'"

It seems obvious here that U.S. families should reconsider a houses that are much too big to take care of, and ridiculously huge for a family of four. You could also streamline the other things in the house (maybe one dog is enough for most young families, or none at all). A good rule of thumb is don't take on more responsibilities than you can manage yourself, and if you think you need to hire a family management coach, it's time to cut back (and I just saved you $200).

What about the simple life here in Mexico? Personally, I've never felt overly romantic about life here. I love Mexicans and how they find everyday ways to remember and celebrate that life is indeed a gift. Yet when I lived with my host families in Textitlán, life was far from simple. It was based in the home around the family, but these people worked from the time the woke up until they went to bed at night. Yes, there were down times during each day, but Don Benjamin, the patriarch of the family that I spent most of my time with, often told me, "Debra, here if you want to eat every day, you work every day." Life is simpler in that most Mexicans have fewer choices. Buying something extravagant, like a new television, is a rare occurrence. Money is spent wisely and cautiously. When the family needs something expensive, such as to buy or repair their house, there is always el Norte. Trust me, there is nothing simple about immigrating to the U.S. without documentation and leaving your family and friends behind to take on a dangerous and precarious future.

Some expats, on the other hand, do live very simple lives here. It is possible to live on social security, although I think one would need to have a modest savings to live in current-day San Miguel. I have seen some lovely expat apartments and casitas that embrace a life well lived, but on a much smaller scale. More typical, however, are the larger homes owned by U.S. and other foreign expats. I've seen some absolutely amazing residences here, and most are on par with U.S. house sizes. Some people have (apparently) few possessions, others have many. In most instances, expat living is not so much scaling back as it is expanding. Life is simpler here because instead of family management coaches, most everyone can afford a full or part-time maid and gardener, and sometimes a cook and a nanny. Honestly, most everyone I know would have to agree that U.S. life would be much simpler and laid back if we could count on hired help to do these everyday chores.

Or maybe not. It's probably just as likely that folks in the U.S. would work harder, try to do more and fail to relax and enjoy life even if they didn't have to do it all.

Life in the U.S., for some people at least, is completely nuts, and I do not think that family management coaches, or any time management specialist for that matter, can really squeeze more time out of an overburdened schedule. Who wants to be that efficient at home, for heavens sake? But expat life here in Mexico is not necessarily inherently less complex. It is better supported, certainly, and I assure you, that does make a world of difference.


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Amanda said...

Great post.