Your first months of eating tacos and substances you’ve never tasted before, spicy food, arriving (too) early at appointments or dates, struggling with pronunciation and Spanish words and sentences, not understanding Mexican slang or idioms, getting stared at by your new neighbours, driving around in crazy traffic and confusing streets, enjoying the sun and good weather… I could continue for a while. The first months in a new country… or should I say the first days, weeks, or years? The amount of time you need to survive cultural differences and other difficulties may take as long as you need in order to feel comfortable and at home. For that, you can use the following tips at your own pace.
As a cultural anthropologist who has done fieldwork in Indonesia and Mexico, I know that those first months can be tough. Anthropologists use a beautifully designed cycle that everyone abroad will go through. The cycle consists of four phases: The honeymoon phase – The critical period – The initial recovery – and Adjustment. The ultimate goal of passing through this cycle (in the world of anthropology) is ‘to go native‘, in other words: To adapt to the way of life of the country that you are (temporarily) living in. Since it’s a cycle, there is no clear beginning or end and the cycle may start all over again or repeat some of its phases. For those interested, let me tell you some more about this cycle and the context of my experiences in Mexico.
The Honeymoon Phase
It all starts with the honeymoon phase. How beautiful is this country! For me, it was even more honeymoon-like (even though I’m not married -yet). You might remember that I came to Mexico because of love and adventure. So being back in the arms of my beloved Mexican after a long time spending apart was like being in heaven. This definitely contributed to the way in which I saw Mexico when I first got here. Everything seemed to be pretty, exciting and nice. I hardly noticed the bumpy roads, garbage along the road and poverty. It’s very easy to see the pretty things of Mexico when you first arrive, since a relatively large part of the population is able to drive new vehicles and live in pretty houses. You can visit beautiful parks, city centers, main squares, musea etc. Perhaps you are moving around in touristic areas where everything seems to be fairytale perfect. Everyone in the city we lived in seemed to be happy, and was kind to that strange foreigner. In anthropological terms you are an ‘exotic outsider’ in this phase, and indeed it feels like that (as in so far you can speak in terms of ‘exotic’ and ‘outsider’. I don’t claim that these terms exist, but feelings can exist in each of us).
The Critical Period
Reality starts to hit you. You are actually living in a foreign country! The bumpy roads are starting to annoy you, you start to acknowledge the existence of poverty. Corruption isn’t amusing any longer, and injustice is frustrating you. You are heading toward a culture shock. The culture that you are so used to seems to be completely different from the one that you find yourself in at the moment. And that’s hard. At this moment, you would love to get on a train, plane, boat, bus or anything that takes you HOME. How is that possible after such a good beginning, when you thought you felt (almost) at home in your new country? Don’t worry, it’s a normal reaction. You now feel like a ‘tolerated stranger’. People that were so kind to you at the first place, may be more distant to you now because they are following their daily pace of life.
The Initial Recovery
After you’ve bought yourself a load of chocolate, cookies, coffee, booze or anything that makes you feel comfortable or reminds you a little bit of ‘home’ (as in: the country where you’ve grown up or lived before), you will notice that feelings of homesickness, nostalgia, or frustration start to fade away. It also helps to talk to the people that you trust in your direct surroundings. Some people advice to NOT talk to ‘homestayers’, but I find it really helpful to get some mental support from my parents, family members or friends who stayed in the Netherlands. It also helps to find yourself a friend of another nationality in the new country to whom you can talk about cultural differences and weird things that happen in your new daily life (and they will happen, trust me!). In this phase, step by step you will start to notice more positive things about your new country and start to appreciate it more and more.
Hurray! You are adjusting to the new pace of life! In this case: Mexican daily life. Which basically means eating at any time you want, not looking at your watch all the time, slowing down a little, hardly living up to agendas, and spending time with new friends (or in my case: my man, his family and new friends). It took you some time to get there, but you are finally feeling that this is becoming your new home. Don’t get scared if you bump into huge cultural differences later on though, this is all perfectly normal. And that’s why these phases are part of a cycle. Remember: No beginning, no end.
How long each phase takes, depends on your feelings and experiences. I still go through these phases and I’m already in Mexico for about three years now! I can find myself in absolute excitement and feeling completely at home, while the following week I can feel frustrated by cultural differences I encounter that can lead to misunderstanding or simply a difference in norms and values. The best thing is to know that these phases exist and actually take place. When you acknowledge your weaknesses and strengths, you are able to work with them.
So, besides knowing your ‘anthropological cycle of cultural adjustment’, what else can you do?
- Speak the language, not Spanglish
Yes, you heard that! Of course people will understand your Spanglish, but what’s a better way of adjusting to Mexico than speaking fluent Spanish? I don’t know any, since speaking Spanish is the only way in which you can communicate with all Mexican people, completely enjoy Mexican parties and get better insight in Mexican culture. When time passes by, you’ll learn more and more and start to recognise (and even use!) Mexican idioms, social talk and slang. ¡A huevo!
- Off to the streets
Take a walk in your neighbourhood and get to know people. Buy some street food (but remember: go where most people go) and enjoy it. Bottom line: go and explore Mexico’s streets and become familiar with the daily life of many Mexicans.
- Discover what the country has to offer
I’ve said it before: Mexico has SO MUCH to offer. It’s a huge country with a great variety in landscapes, cultures, food, and history. Go visit a historic site, explore one of the Pueblos Mágicos, or make a road trip. The travel opportunities are endless and the best thing: You can try to do them all since Mexico is your new home!
- Find a job
Perhaps the most important thing of getting used to the Mexican way of life is to get a job. It also helps you to have a rhythm in daily life (which may help to solve feelings of being homesick) and to get to know people. Be aware that Mexican migration law obliges you to obtain a work permit while being in your home country. Since 2012, you can’t change your Visitor Visa into a Temporary Work Visa – for this you’ll have to leave Mexico and fill out a lot of paperwork with the organisation you want to work for. But – it’s worth it!
Get to know people! Make friends and hang out with them. Talk to that kind lady who prepares your torta. Dance with family members at a party, even though you don’t know any cumbia steps. Relax and enjoy the pretty things that come along with living in Mexico.
- Things that remind you of ‘home’
When you are packing your suitcase the day before heading toward Mexico, make sure that you take some things with you that remind you of ‘home’ (or your family/friends), or that give you a comfortable feeling just by looking at it. Whenever you feel frustrated or sad about your decision to move abroad, this my help you to ‘ease your pain’. Since I’ve been here for nearly three years now, I gathered a lot of personal items of that I love to be surrounded with and I now take a lot of Dutch candy with me when I vitis the Netherlands. This all helps to feel more comfortable in difficult moments in the life of an expat!
Perhaps there are more things to think about. Even if I have helped just one single person with these tips, I’m happy.
Do you have an idea or tip? Please let me know!
© 2016 by Debbie Vorachen – AHORITA YA. All Rights Reserved.
Photos © 2016 by Debbie Vorachen – AHORITA YA. All Rights Reserved.