Expat Life: Do You Immerse Yourself in the Local Culture?

There’s a lot of debate about just how much an expat should integrate into the local culture. During my years in Cancun, I’ve met many expats who hang out almost exclusively with Mexicans. I’ve met even more expats who have mostly expat friends and hardly speak any Spanish. I also know lots of people who fall somewhere in the middle. Some expats criticize others for living in an expat neighborhood, not learning Spanish, not socializing with Mexicans, etc etc etc.

Here’s my personal experience:

When I first came down to Cancun, I went to a Mexican university, had all Mexican friends and lived with Mexican roommates. For 4 years, I watched only Mexican TV (didn’t have enough money for cable), listened to mostly Mexican music and only talked to Mexican friends online (Facebook wasn’t around yet.) I would often miss home and my family, but at no point did I ever really miss the American culture. Still, with nobody around to understand the culture shock I was going through, I was often in a bad mood and sometimes became a little anti-social. There were great memories and my amazing college friends were unfailingly patient with my endless questions, but I often felt kind of alone. Sundays were always especially hard for me because Mexicans spend Sunday with the family… and I had no family here.

University Me with Damayanti, one of my best amigas in college and today 🙂

Soon before I graduated, Facebook became popular and I was once again able to be in touch with my old friends from back in the States. I also discovered celebrity gossip websites. Even though they’re a horrible habit, for some reason I felt that these gossip sites connected me in some small way to my culture.

Amigos Cesar, Pamela, Jhovana and Graduation Me

After I graduated, I began to work a job with a few other native English-speaking expats. They introduced me to some online expat communities and I began blogging. Finally I got cable TV, which in Mexico means lots of American TV shows (with Spanish subtitles, of course). At this stage, I still hold on to many of my Mexican friends and of course now I have a huge Mexican family through my husband Jorge, but lately I’ve become closer to my expat friends. It’s so great to be able to speak in Spanglish, rave about how great it is to live in Cancun and yes, occasionally gripe about things in Mexico that annoy us.

The current Me, hanging out with Mexican amiga Cyndi and Brazilian amiga Nadia

I’ve seen both sides, immersing myself in the culture 100% for 4 years, which allowed me to learn everything I possibly could from the Mexican culture, open up my mind and even take on a few cultural traits that I used to hate but now love. However, after leaning more toward the expat community in the past 3 years, I’ve found friendships where I can be more open about my frustrations and reclaim a bit of my “American-ness” without leaving behind everything I’ve learned.

The new me loves trashy American reality shows, enjoys Mexican banda music, listens to Top 40, eats tortas, only reads books in English, speaks 100% Spanish at home, speaks 100% Spanish at work, speaks Spanglish with her friends and loves to explore Mexico. I’m able to take the best of what I love from both countries and make my life my own.

That’s just my experience, though.

What do you think? Should expats be closer to the Mexican culture or their home culture?

Culture Shock Strikes Again

Even after 7 years in Cancun, I still go through culture shock from time to time (as evidenced in the infamous sheet shopping incident a few months ago). These downswings used to last weeks and weeks when I first moved down here, but now they typically only last anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 days.

Today I went to lunch at Plaza Las Americas, downtown Cancun’s main mall. I was already frustrated that the ATM at work was broken (which seems to happen pretty much every payday… convenient) and I didn’t have enough money on me to buy lunch. The salad place at the food court informed me that they only accept cash. This wasn’t surprising, but it did begin a stream of curse words and arguments in my head.

  • “Why don’t most places in Mexico accept cards? They have the technology!”
  • “But wait… even the places that do accept cards always have problems with their machines not working.” (Starbucks, I’m looking at you.)
  • “If I were in the US, they’d let me buy a salad with a card. Heck, I bet they’d even have ATMs that don’t break down every 2 weeks!”
  • “Well now I have to walk aaaaaallll the way to the mall ATM just to get $100 pesos. FML.”
  • “Stupid Mexico with their stupid cash only policies.”

And then a miracle happened.

When I finally got back to the salad place with my cash in hand, the cashier gave me this with my meal:

That’s a free card worth 10 movie tickets at just $39 pesos each! (Just over $3 USD)

They may not accept cards at many places, but I’ll be darned if Mexico doesn’t have much better movie prices than the USA.

God bless you, Mexico.

House Tour: My Bathroom

 

House Tour: Our Room

House Tour: Upstairs

House Tour: Living Room

House Tour: Kitchen and Storage Room

House Tour: Outside

 

After more than a year struggling with less than satisfactory water pressure in the upstairs bathroom, I recently discovered that the downstairs shower has excellent pressure, even with hot water! I quickly decided to take over the downstairs bathroom as my own. It’s not as big as the upstairs bathroom, but I’ve still managed to make it cute.

Yet another sad, tiny sink... oh how loathe them

I have candles, a green wastebasket and a Target bamboo floormat, all brought down from the US

In place of a mirror, I have a piece of art. It's a peacock made entirely of seashells and caliz that was given to us as a wedding gift. It was made on the Yucatan coast, near Jorge's mom's hometown of Chabihau.

Our carpenter friend Leo made these little shelves. There's Bath and Body Works soap and lotion kit, shells from Chabihau (I have a whole bag full of them), and a flower pot that my Aunt Bobbi painted for us as a wedding shower gift.

Reader Photo Request: Falling in Love with Mexico

Continuing with the Reader Photo Requests, Lisa of Seeking So(u)l asked to see a photo that represents the moment I knew I was in love with Mexico. (GREAT request!)

I can still remember the first time I ever saw Mexico. The summer after my high school graduation, I went to Acapulco to work as a missionary intern at a street child center and an orphanage. It was an amazing and extremely challenging summer that has lots of great memories for me, but that’s a story for another time.

I vividly remember the car ride that took me from the Acapulco airport all the way over to the other side of the city when I first landed. I was overwhelmed by the bay views from the highway, and as I rode along the Costera (Acapulco’s main street that goes along the beach), I instantly fell in love with the high rise resorts and the beachy vibe. Ever since that moment, I knew that tourism was going to be my passion.

Now, here I am in Cancun, another Mexico destination filled with beautiful beaches and immense resorts, working in the tourism industry just like I dreamed 8 years ago.

I combed through my Acapulco photos (printed, not digital… that’s how long ago it was) and couldn’t find a picture of the bay I fell in love with, so here’s a photo I stole from Google:

I love that city.

 

 

Just Chill

The past 2 days have been pretty stressful. Not bad at all, just stressful.

I’m sharing with you the image I use to relax. It reminds me of why I’m living in Cancun (beach weekends) and what my professional goals are (7-day beach weekends).

I use this image (taken on Holbox island) as my cell phone screen saver.

What relaxes you?

Should Immigrants Learn the Language?

**Note: When writing this post, I struggled with accuracy between terms like immigrant, expat, American, English-speaking, native English-speaking, Mexican, hispanic, etc etc etc. I did my best with the terminology considering that different definitions exist for many of these, so please bear with me.**

You know how in the USA, many Americans complain when hispanic immigrants don’t bother to learn English?

Turns out… Americans aren’t much better!

Over the past few years in Cancun, I’ve spent more time with local English-speaking (American/Canadian/British/Australian/etc) expats, and the fact that many of them do not bother to learn Spanish is a popular topic in the expat community. In my time in Cancun, I’ve known 5 English-speaking expats who learned fluent Spanish, myself included. A select few speak somewhat advanced Spanish, while most speak light conversational Spanish or just a few key words.

"Hola Jorge. Mucho gusto."

Personally, this isn’t something that bothers me. I feel like many immigrants tend to gravitate toward their own culture when they move to a new country, so whether it’s Mexicans in the US or Americans in Mexico, there’s often no need to learn the host language. In Cancun, almost all of the locals speak excellent English anyway.

It’s also interesting to me that while many Americans are angered by immigrants not learning English, Mexicans (at least the Cancun locals) really don’t seem to care whether immigrants to their country learn Spanish or not. On the contrary, most of my Mexican friends are more than happy to practice their English!

I’m not really trying to make any points here, to be honest. I just find it interesting that the whole “not learning the host language” is not exclusive to one culture.

Culture Shock and Bedsheets

I’ve written about Culture Shock before, and how I’m currently in Phase 3, where I have a more realistic view on living in Mexico: sometimes good, sometimes bad.

As you can probably tell from my blog, I am usually ecstatic to be living in Cancun. It’s such a beautiful place with great people.

The life.

However, there are still rare occasions when I think, “What the heck am I doing here?” This weekend was one of those moments.

From out of the blue, I’d spent the past few days thinking how nice it might be to live in the States again. I had fantasies of sprawling Target stores, malls filled with cute clothes, driving my SUV around town, filling up on Tex-Mex, central air conditioning, watching movies without mentally criticizing the Spanish subtitles, not living in fear of flying cockroaches … glorious. I wasn’t upset about Mexico, just thinking how moving back to the US might be an option someday.

Then on Sunday, things took an ugly turn. After a nice movie date, Jorge and I went to several department stores around Plaza Las Americas in search of new bedsheets. Much to my dismay, there wasn’t a single set of bedsheets for under $750 pesos. Most were around $1000 pesos (about $80 US). For that price, those sheets better give me a friggin foot massage. And none of them were even attractive. Jorge suggested getting sheets from the grocery store. Grocery store sheets in Mexico are undeniably cheap, but they also feel like sandpaper. (Trust me, I bought many grocery store bedsheets during my university years in Cancun. Never. Again.)

Wanting to get a comfortable night’s sleep without having to sell our firstborn child, Jorge said we could look online to order some from the US, then I could pick them up with I go to the US for Christmas. Well… I don’t want to wait until December. But that’s probably what we’ll end up doing.

I was in a bad mood the rest of the afternoon. When we got home, I started telling Jorge I was going through culture shock this weekend. Then I rambled on and on about giant pretzels, reasonably priced sheets, and Arby’s roast beef sandwiches with root beer.

And that’s when I started to cry.

Which Jorge thought was hilarious.

Until I Googled a picture of an Arby’s roast beef sandwich, and he suddenly became more understanding.

Update: OH MY GOSH Thanks so much to all my friends and readers who have offered to get me sheets! So, so sweet. I love the internet.

Puppy Love

I haven’t done many posts about the dogs lately because it’s hard to get pictures of them (unless they look like this). They’re always on the move! Last night Suki (Dog #1) found a new favorite spot and I was finally able to take a photo.

Seconds later, Konan (Dog #3) fell/rolled off the couch and the moment was ruined. Gosh, I love them.

 

Jorge vs. The Flying Cockroach

So last night I was calmly watching TV when out of the corner of my eye I saw Konan staring at a black critter making its way up the staircase wall. I thought “Oh, the black lizard from the front patio must have ventured indoors!” Then, I noticed it had somehow gotten way up on the bannister right by my head, and it was a GIANT COCKROACH.

I gave a girly scream and rushed out of my recliner, twisting my toe on the way. I took shelter on the chair across the room, half watching TV and half keeping my eye on the roach. After a good 20 minutes of wiggling his antennae, I suddenly realized he wasn’t on the bannister anymore. I ran to the middle of the living room and, letting out a stream of profanities, looked around the room to find him.

He was right behind my chair and walking across the ceiling, in true Spiderman fashion. This is when I took shelter in the hallway.

He then disappeared again, and it took me quite awhile to find him from my post cowering in the hall. Turns out… he had mastered the art of camoflage.

At this point I retreated to the kitchen, only peeking out from time to time to check the cockroach’s position and make sure he wasn’t plotting my demise. I considered using the can of Raid, but any mexpat knows that cockroaches are only angered by bug spray.

I waited a full hour for Jorge to come home. He asked me, “Where’s the roach killer Raid?”

“The cleaning lady used up the last of it last week. All we have is the garden Raid,” I replied.

“Are you kidding? He’s going to laugh in my face when he sees that! Give my your flip flop.”

Armed with the garden spray in his right hand and my flip flop in his left, Jorge approached the curtain and sprayed the roach to get it out of his hiding spot. With one swift motion of his left arm, the flying roach was defeated with a fatal chancletazo.

Something tells me he still lives, somewhere in the depths of our garbage bin.

Who kills the bugs in your house?

Las Cuijas de Mi Casa

Geckos are common household critters in Mexico, but unlike spiders and slugs, they’re actually welcome!

In the Yucatan, these little beige geckos are called cuijas (“kwee-has”). I love having them around the house. They even make a cool clicking/squeaking noise that I find cute and comforting.

Cuijas eat insects and they tend to stay at the top of the walls, near the ceiling. At our current house, we have Living Room Cuija and Kitchen Cuija (along with Big Lizard and Little Lizard on the front patio).

Kitchen Cuija likes to hang out above the counter, but as soon as anyone walks in, he scurries behind the fridge or the oven. So far, I’ve only ever seen him as a blur.

Living Room Cuija is more sociable, climbing around our front window and above the TV. I’d noticed he lost his tail a few weeks ago, but now it has started to grow back! I managed to get a picture, but he was being quite shy and it turned out a bit blurry.

Yesterday I saw a new cuija on my front door when I came home from work. Even when I started to stare at him as I opened the door, he remained motionless and stared right back. I’m hoping this gutsy cuija sticks around.

Do you have any critters in your house?