The Truth About Living Abroad

Reposted with permission from eleeadventure.com

 

“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.

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Need a Coahuila Driver´s License?

I had to renew my driver´s license the other day.  When I got to the Department of Motor Vehicles, it turned out that they had changed addresses, and only listed “Torre Saltillo” as their new address.

I had no idea where Torre Saltillo was.

Fortunately, I had a few ideas, and they turned out to be pretty good ones.  So, to save others hours of aimless wandering, the new address for the License Office is on the north side of the Periferico Luis Echevarría Alvarez, between Torre Saltillo (a very tall building occupied by saltillo-dmvBanorte) and Starbucks–the Starbucks right next to Pour le France.  It´s a much better location than the previous one by the jail.

But, back to the original question–do you need a Coahuila driver´s license?  Permanent residents officially have one year after being issued permanent residency to apply for a Mexican driver´s license.

If one is not a permanent resident, one can´t get a Coahuila driver´s license.  No worries– any valid foreign driver´s license is valid here, too.

A driver´s license costs $599 pesos and is valid for 2 years.

What do you need for a first-time Coahuila license?

  • valid passport
  • document that says is residing legally in Mexico (also known as a visa)
  • proof of address (electric bill, phone bill, water bill, etc.)
  • driving certificate (valid foreign license will do.  Otherwise, the applicant will have to take a driving test.)
  • $599
  • as with all government documentation, it is wise to bring copies of everything

License Renewal Requirements?

  • expired license (my husband warned me that they might not renew the license before it was expired.  So I was uninsured for a week before I remembered to get myself to the License Office.)
  • visa (and copy)

When I went, there was someone standing by the door, eager to direct all applicants to the right window.  I brought my visa, but forgot to bring a copy of it.  Fortunately, there was a house across the street that happily made a copy for a peso.  DSCN0170

After I turned in the copy of my visa and expired license, they gave me the bill for the new license.  I headed across the street to the Banorte, stood in line to pay those $599, and brought the bill with the reciept attached back to the License Office.  (Be sure to pay at Banorte, and don´t waste your time standing in line at the place that looks like they accept payments for the city or state government next door.  They can´t accept payment for driver´s licenses.)

After turning in the proof of payment, I sat in front of the camera, and recorded my digital thumbprint and digital signature.  Five minutes later, the new license was hot off the press, and I was good to go!

license

There is a parking lot in front of the License Office, but it looked like it was a paid lot, and the neighborhood doesn´t seem the least bit shady and doesn´t have heavy traffic, so the lot was empty while everyone parked on the street.

And that´s the skinny on getting a Coahuila driver´s license!

 

Back to School: in Mexico!

All around the world, it´s that time of year.  All of us who have school-aged children are battling the crowds, shopping for notebooks, pencils, and uniforms.  School is school the world over, right?

Yes it is.  However, when I first came to Mexico, there were a few customs that threw me through a loop, and life would gone more smoothly with prior warning.

 

So, without further ado, here´s my Mexican Back to School To Do List:

Forrar librosIMG_4155

Once kids are in elementary school, they have at least 5 notebooks and 5 textbooks (likely more) that all need to be covered.  The notebooks need to be color-coded, according to subject, and then sealed with contact paper.  The textbooks also need to be preserved for all time with the help of contact paper.

Has anyone else noticed how contact paper gets static electricity and takes on a mind of its own?  Yes it does.  It makes this never-ending job all the
more tedious.

On the bright side, I have heard that some papelerías offer book-covering services for $50 or less.  That´s $50 well spent.  They just need to advertise better on my side of town!

 

Stock up on newspapers

Homework  for kids in preschool and early elementary school often consists of bringing in magazine or newspaper cutouts.

  • Bring in cutouts of musical instruments.
  • Bring in 10 cutouts of people waving hello or goodbye.
  • Bring in 10 words that start with the letter C.
  • Bring in 5 cutout triangles.
  • Bring in 10 proper names.

Apparently, there is no end of things kids can be asked to cut out.  Now, if I were to let my 5-year-old use the scissors and look for all 10 of those letter Cs himself, we could easily spend hours and hours on kindergarten homework.  To facilitate things, I have him look for one (and sometimes help point it out) and he cuts out the first one (to work those fine-motor skills, of course).  Then I cut out a number of words, about a third of which start with C.  Out of the words I cut out, I ask him to identify which ones start with C, so then he can pick them out and glue them in his notebook.

And then he cuts words out here and there as he sees fit, as that boy loves scissors.

In the end, the homework gets done in a timely manner, and the kid works both his brain and his fingers a bit.  Win-win.

 

Cleaning supplies imagen1 1035.JPG

In the list of school supplies that the teachers give out every year, there is always that odd addition:  4 rolls of toilet paper.

The following week, we are then hit up to donate some bleach and mop soap.  Maybe this is just a public school thing (but I doubt it).  See, for public schools in Mexico, the government builds the building and pays the teachers.  The parents are responsible for the rest–primarily, maintaining the school building.  That donation that they ask for every year for the Parents´ Association?  That money is very necessary, paying for the school´s telephone bill, ink for the printer, repairs that need to be made throughout the year, etc.

So every couple of months, kids go to school, armed with a package of toilet paper.  Hands-down, it´s one of the more essential school supplies.

 

Fingernail Checks

This doesn´t happen at my kids´ public schools, but I´ve heard that some private schools will write notes home, chastizing the parent if a child has very long fingernails.  If they´re long enough to gather dirt, they´re at risk for the Fingernail Note!

Once upon a time, I worked at a children´s home, taking care of elementary aged kids. Those kids were sent back home if their fingernails were too long!  Watch out!

 

Other Quirks

Last Friday of the Month

A few years ago, it was mandated by the Secretary of Public Education that the last Friday of every month be set aside for teacher inservice days.  So, all public school students (and I believe most private school students) have the last Friday of every month free.

End of School?

The last day of school in Mexico has always been a bit of an enigma.  Even when I was a
teacher, I had no set date when the last day of school would be, because it´s possible for private schools to be finished a week or two before the official last day of school set by the government.  However, each school needs an official visit from the SEP by the end of the year, for them to determine if the students reached their academic goals (and could therefore be done for the year).

Things get even trickier this year, because it appears that the SEP is giving schools the option of having a longer school day, and having a 185-day school year.  Or schools can stick to their regular hours and use the 200-day calendar.  So the last day of school is either June 27th OR July 18th–depending on your school.

Since my son´s school day has been extended, but my daughter´s hasn´t, it seems one kid will start summer vacation in June and the other in mid-July.  Awesome.

 

But we´ve got 190 more days of school to get through first, so let´s enjoy them!

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Sidenote:  I haven´t had any experience with Mexican junior high and high schools yet–is there anything else at those levels I should prepare myself for?  (Besides the whole, “I have a teenager” thing, of course.)

Is there anything else with the Back-to-School season that throws you for a loop?  Let me know in the comments section!

 

Moving To Saltillo

Hi! Let me introduce myself, my name is Lisa, and I will be guest blogging here once in a while about my experience moving to Mexico.

I have lived in Saltillo now for about a year and a half. I knew for most of a year before the actual move happened that I would be coming; so I had plenty of time to research, and thankfully I did. At the time, this wonderful site did not exist, however, I found Jill after weeks of searching. Thankfully she is a wonderfully  kind and patient person who answered all of my crazy questions!

My first question to Jill was basically “Where should I live?” At this time, I had never even been to Mexico. NEVER, not for spring break, not for vacation, never.  I had no actual intention of  coming to Mexico in my life, but when my husband called one day from work and mentioned he had been offered a position at the plant here in Mexico, that all changed.  This was also our first ex-pat assignment. We had moved from our home state of Michigan to North Carolina, not even two years before. Moving any time makes you think, where is the best place to live in that new area. Asking people’s opinions on where to live is always a great place to start.

 

My situation moving with a company could be different than yours, people move here for many different reasons, work, retirement, marriage, to name a few. When moving with a company usually they have some restrictions on where you can live, or what kind of allowance you have for housing. Also the location of your work could affect where you would want to live. Many expats live in the north of Saltillo, mostly because of proximity to work. There are a few that live in Centro (downtown), and a few that live in the south,but the greatest number of us live inthe north.068

That being said, my experience is based on living in the north end of town and renting a house. There are options here to live in a gated community or a house not in a gated community. Many houses on the street will have gated garages and entrances, so that someone can not just come and knock on your front door, they would need to ring a door bell, then you would have to let them in the gate and then into your house. In a gated community there are usually guards at the gate that will monitor who comes and goes, but once someone is in the community they can knock on your front door.

Another option are apartments.  There are few furnished apartments for rent. My husband lived in one of the furnished apartments while we were in the transition to full time in Mexico. The one he stayed in came with amaid service, as well as refilling of paper products, and clean sheets every few days.

Some companies have real estate agents they have a partnership with, other companies do not. One thing you need to remember is, the real estate agents will not show you every available house.  Usually, they will show you only the houses they have listed, or their connections have listed.

I really enjoyed looking at houses here in Saltillo, since they are so different than houses I had the chance to see before. I hope you enjoy them too! And best of luck finding the right fit for you.

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If you´re not currently in Saltillo, but want an idea of what houses for rent are like, click here.  Even if your Spanish is nonexistent, scroll through the pictures and enjoy the range of options available!

Mexican Visas–the Nitty Gritty

I field a number of questions about visas–which to get, how to get them, how long they´re good for, etc.  I used to be good at answering these questions, but then Mexican immigration changed a lot of the parameters since I applied for my visa.

So now I´m basically clueless.  My apologies for my lack of solid information.

However, our friends over at Expats in Monterrey made a handy chart–in English!  So go over and check them out here.

Plus, they also give some great ideas for a weekend in Monterrey!

How to Rock Culture Shock

If you were sent to Mexico with business, you were probably coached on the five stages to culture shock at some point during the moving process.  (If HR didn´t help you with this aspect, let me know who they are and I´ll smack them upside the head with a wet noodle.)

If you came on your own, you may or may not have been forced to study these stages.  But if you´ve spent any amount of time abroad, rumor has it that you have experienced these infamous five stages of culture shock.

For the uninitiated, what are the five stages of culture shock?

1)  The Honeymoon Phase–the destination country is so wonderful.  The people 019here are so friendly!  And the weather–can you believe that it´s warm and sunny in the middle of February?  Let´s never leave!

Oh, watch out, because Phase #2 rears it´s ugly head with  . . .

2)  The Rejection Phase–Get me out of here NOW!  Why is it so friggin´ difficult to get anything done around here?  And I think I´ll be ramming my car into the next dingbat who tries to turn left from the right lane. [OK–that´s not the rejection phase.  That´s just a normal reaction.]  But is it really necessary for there to be a line of 40 people at every ATM every payday?

Relax.  Breathe.  Focus on the positive.  And just remind yourself that yes, it IS necessary to do everything the most difficult way possible–it´s just part and parcel of being a good Mexican.  I promise, I´m not being completely snarky with that comment.  Once I explained this theory to my Mexican husband when he was irritated with endless red tape.  He sat back, thought about it, and said, “yep, that´s true.”

Upon realizing this, the situation was much easier to bear.

So just embrace the fact that the unofficial national motto is “Yes, we do everything the most difficult way possible.”  And then when something does get accomplished in a somewhat efficient manner, rejoice in your good fortune.

Because that means that you´re well on your way to . . .

3)  The Adjustment Phase–here we learn the little ways that make an exchange easier.  Remember those mannerisms that drove us crazy earlier?  Now, sometimes we find ourselves copying them.  Or at least understanding better why the toilet paper goes in the trash cans in most public restrooms.

(Because–trust me–if you come to my house in the older section of town and flush the toilet paper in the toilet, it is very possible that toilet paper will still be floating around the bowl two days later.  Out north, where the houses and plumbing is newer, it´s not such an issue.  My apologies for the TMI.)

4)  The Acceptance Phase–those who reach this benchmark have assimilated.  Mexican culture is no longer mystifying.  The things people do make sense (except for those who turn left from the right lane).  But, at this point, you´re aware that this happens.  You watch out for the fools who continue to do that.  Or, when ordering out, sometimes you even think, “Well, no–I don´t want ice in my drink.  I´ve got a cold.  In fact, can I have that Coke at room temperature?”  You throw lime on everything, not just because it tastes good, but because it kills some germs at the same time.

Congratulations!  Welcome home.

But wait a minute!  There is another phase.  Because often, some of us do go back to that place we once called home.

5)  Reverse Culture Shock–Why, when we go “home”, everything feels so weird?  Isn´t it rude that the waitresses are throwing the bill on table as soon as they deliver the food? Why don´t my friends and family care about my adventures abroad?

Adjusting to Mexico was one of the harder things I´ve done in my life.  It has changed me in ways I couldn´t have imagined.  I´m a different person then when I left home.  Therefore, going back home requires an adjustment, too.

But don´t worry–it´s usually a much shorter adjustment than the initial 4-step process of adjusting abroad.

 

Keep in mind, it´s possible to cycle back and forth through those stages.  Even after 10 years here, I find myself living through a honeymoon phase at some point every year, followed a few months later by a rejection phase.  Sooner or later, it all circles back, and I am happy with Mexico again.  There are some things I prefer here.  There are some things I prefer from the US.

But while I´m here, I am determined to make the most of this experience.

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Do you remember any specific moments when you noticed that you were assimilating culturally?

Feel free to leave a comment!