“It is the corrosive daily frustration, the inability to communicate or to establish meaningful relationships that is so soul-shrinking.” – Edward T. Hall in Beyond Culture
Living abroad. The romantic idea of it-men with accents, learning a second language, lower cost of living, expanding your horizons-is often nothing compared to the messy reality. What’s living abroad really like? Here’s the truth, according to me and my three years of living in Saltillo, Mexico:
1. It’s exhausting. My Spanish is good and I don’t have to “translate in my head” anymore or formulate mental responses before I speak. However, speaking Spanish will never be second nature, like speaking English is. It will always cause some level of discomfort or nervousness or second-guessing, and that is precisely why living in Mexico is exhausting. At the end of a long day where I had little or no interaction in English, I can look back and tell you the conversations that caused me a considerable amount of stress.
One might be with someone new. I haven’t had enough interactions with them to determine if they’re a fast/slow or clear/unclear speaker, if they use a lot of slang, what sort of accent they have, etc., so I’m kept on the edge of my seat and don’t let myself mentally relax at all. A second example of a conversation that causes me stress are those in more formal situations, like at the bank, at immigration, or the time when I had to file a police report over a stolen credit card. I often find myself begging Carlos to accompany to places like this when I know there might be lots of specialized vocabulary used in the transaction that I’m not very familiar with.
If I’ve had one or two of those conversations in the same day and also gone to work that day (100% Spanish), it leads to one tired Emily, which leads me to my next point…
2. It’s isolating. If I’ve had a mentally exhausting day, or worse, a mentally exhausting week, I try to avoid any unnecessary Spanish interactions (i.e. get-togethers with friends, parties, etc.) until I feel mentally prepared again. Sometimes it only takes me a few minutes to recharge, but sometimes it can take days. While I’m recharging, I like to exercise, go to Starbucks and HEB by myself, read, and hang out with Carlos. I know this feeling of needing to recharge stops me from hanging out with friends sometimes or taking as much initiative in my relationships as I otherwise might, and that makes me sad. Am I protecting myself and trying to prevent cross-cultural burnout? Yes. Is there a better way to do it that wouldn’t leave me feeling so alone? Probably, but I haven’t been able to find that balance yet.
3. Your “sense of belonging” is seriously skewed. It’s one thing to out of place in Mexico, but at the end of the day, I’m not Mexican and never will be. I feel out of place when I use my turn signals while driving, when I wear shorts to the gym, and when I defend Republican politicians. I feel out of place when I don’t wear make-up (so, 5-6 days a week), or heels to a wedding, and when I still have to recite the Lord’s prayer in English every week at church. Yes, it’s one thing to feel out of place in Mexico; perhaps it’s even expected. But what I wasn’t prepared for was feeling that I don’t belong anymore in Texas. I’m thankful that my immediate family and close friends “get it.” Some of them have seen where I live and where I work and they know how Mexico has changed me and why I love it. But it never fails that at least once when I’m in Texas for a visit, I have a conversation with someone who asks about my job and I tell them that I work with underprivileged kids at a community center, where we show them the love of God and try to give them the tools to stay in school. And then their response is something like, “Wow, cool. So did you know we’re getting a new Starbucks in Round Rock?”
I really don’t fault anyone who hasn’t experienced life in a developing country. It isn’t for everyone, and just because I’m doing it doesn’t make me a saint or martyr or cooler than you. My point is that sometimes, when trying to share from the heart about why living in Mexico has changed my life, I’m met with blank stares and responses like the above one. And that makes me wonder if I’ll ever completely belong anywhere again.
4. You miss out on a lot. I’m very fortunate that Saltillo is within driving distance of Austin. However, I’ve had a full-time job the whole time I’ve lived here, and pretty much the only holidays and long weekends that line up the same in both countries are Christmas and New Years. That means I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving with my family in 4 years, and Austin is just a couple of hours too far to drive home for a normal weekend or to celebrate a birthday.
I just gave you four reasons why living abroad is hard. So why do I do it?
Well, I live here by choice. No one made me come, and no one is forcing me to stay. I am married to a Mexican, own a house here, and have a job, yes, but I know that if I told Carlos, “I absolutely can’t do this anymore,” we would find a way to move to the U.S. ASAP. I stay because living in Mexico has made me better for four main reasons.
First, it has made my mind sharper by having to switch back and forth between Spanish and English on a daily basis. Secondly, it’s made me more confident socially; I tell myself that if people think I’m weird, overeager, or ask a lot of questions, they’ll probably just chalk it up to the fact that I’m American. Third, it has made me more observant: I have studied and subsequently learned Mexico’s social rules and customs enough to fit in. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it has broadened my worldview. The world and its wonders, problems, and triumphs is so much bigger than the U.S., and I see that now firsthand.
If you live abroad, you’re going to struggle, whether it be with the things I’ve found difficult or with others. It’s inevitable. It won’t be all foreign accents and cheap street food and “oh my gosh Spanish/Italian/French is so beautiful and romantic-sounding.” But if you can find a way to appreciate the foreign accents and, in my case, tacos, and the way you can express yourself better in said language than English on certain occasions, then you might just make it living abroad. And you might do more than make it-you might craft a life more beautiful and stretching and full than you could have ever imagined.