What We Learned as Expats


The message above could be the main takeaway from our five year sojourn as American expats. There were a number of times my wife and I felt like this little feline, holding tight to a rope that sagged further all the time, while clinging to the certain understanding—evident in the kitten’s confident gaze—that, as David Copperfield‘s Mr. Micawber said, ‘something will turn up.’

Something always did, too. We learned that folks are alike all over the world. That’s close enough to cliché that there’s truth in it. But as expats, whenever we needed assistance, either directions, or a helping hand, someone who was bilingual, or something as simple as advice on which market sold what item, it seemed that someone always turned up to help.

I don’t much care for blanket statements & generalities, but it seemed to us that, at least in Latin America where we lived as expats, people are kinder, and more attuned to each others’ needs than in the U.S. Maybe it’s from a long history of shared necessity? Maybe out of some deep seated communal feeling? Or maybe they just sensed our helplessness as the hapless gringos in their midst, but folks in Latin countries didn’t hesitate to reach out to us.

When we left the U.S. to become expats, we had very little hard knowledge of what life might be like without the creature comforts we’d become accustomed to. Such things as a clothes dryer, a disposal, a dishwasher, a tank water heater—those peripheral comforts we could live without. We quickly learned that those were ‘first-world problems.’ It turned out it was the simpler, quality of life items we missed, things like mail service, and viable on-line bill payment, and a lack of consistent customer-oriented service that hung us out to dry.

That last item, a lack of customer service, sounds like a contradiction to what I mentioned above about Latin folks’ rush to help. It’s not. We learned that immediacy, and the (North)-American-style frantic push of clerks and sellers and agents and sales reps to finalize transactions, that urgency isn’t evident in Latin culture. Service there is more about pace than pressure. More a recognition of customers’ agency and autonomy. A good example is the custom prevalent in Latin American restaurants that a waiter will never bring a bill until asked. Presenting a bill right after a meal is considered rude, a signal to surrender the table and leave, por favor. It’s simply not done.

We left the U.S. for a number of reasons: Health and comfort were right up there, along with the dread of another northern winter; we wanted to fill our passports with stamps, instead of filling our apartment with stuff; we wanted a richer, more carefree life, and the cost of living in the U.S. did not (and does not) support that.

We found most of what we sought: Health care costs in Colombia where we lived are a fraction of those in the U.S., while the quality of care is equal and often better. Our comfort level was higher as well, especially considering the climate, the first world offerings, and the ability to thrive on about 30% of the cost of living in the U.S. The irony of that is that in Colombia, considering our upper echelon income, we could afford a lot more stuff! The picture below shows why we left Ohio. It was taken at our condo complex—in April! April!

The biggest lesson learned in five years outside the U.S. is that we could do what we set out to do. That two spoiled rotten U.S. expats could leave for parts unknown, and create a simpler life without the creature comforts and familiar surroundings we’d become accustomed to. Admittedly, I never warmed up, so to speak, to on-demand water heaters, and not having a mailbox took some getting used to, and hanging wet clothes on a line was strange for a while, but we survived it all. So the lesson was clear: We don’t need all that stuff. We’ve been told we do, and we bought into it, literally.

Ave Maria, Pues!*

Beyond that simple, prosaic discovery, we learned a lot about who we are. We learned that another language is beyond useful; it’s critical, not just as a navigational tool in a new country, but for a sense of belonging to the wider world, and for leaving provincialism behind. We saw first hand that American exceptionalism is not only arrogant, it’s harmful. We lived among people who understood the value of being bilingual, trilingual and on and on.

Speaking for myself, I discovered that I’m a pretty adaptable individual. I do tend to be much more impatient than I wish to be, and as much as I’d like to think I’m flexible when problems arise, I can go high and right before it’s necessary, so there’s that. But my wife and I default to trusting people, and to giving the benefit of the doubt, sometimes after it’s advisable to do so. As an expat in a new and exotic locale that comes with its own problems.

How much help?

One of those problems is what we call the helper’s dilemma. In the photo above, my wife is giving food and a few pesos to two Venezuelan refugee kids, while their father looks on. We were happy to help this beleaguered family; it felt good to know that they’d eat for another day. As long as we lived in Colombia we looked for these opportunities. But more than once we had to back away, because individuals to whom we’d given aid began searching for us, looking for ways to get more. They were desperate, hungry people, so we didn’t blame them for their persistence, but it became a problem, more for them than for us, but still.

In the Same Cable Car

We learned that expats must be on the same page, or in the same cable car as the case may be. To be successful expats, couples must agree on a lot. Everyday situations can become tedious, and even frightening pretty quickly, so unless both partners agree on the big parts of the adventure, the small parts, the unpredicted issues and crises and how to solve them can slowly pry you apart. So we learned that life in familiar surroundings, in our case back in the good old USA was much easier, and that promise of ease taunted us to return more than once.

Hey, fellas, I think I hear banjos!

I mentioned filling our passports, and wracking up experiences rather than buying stuff. Here are a few of those experiences, things we’d never have done unless we left the comfort zone of the U.S.

Pictured above, I’m rafting down a bumpy and challenging river on the Panamanian border with Costa Rica. (Mariah stayed home for this one.)

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

We’d never have gone through the Panama Canal, the world’s best shortcut.

Wake up, Flash!

We never would have met Flash, or had a bit of snug time with sloths.

Morning on San Andrés Island

Amigos, in Medellin

We never would have met these two delightful people, good friends Nora & Ramiro. We miss them…a lot!

Alumbrada: The holiday lights of Medellin.

We never would have seen the world famous holiday light show, Medellin’s annual Alumbrada.

Pullmantur Monarch docked at Curacâo

We would not have cruised the ABC Islands, Aruba, Bonaire, & Curacâo.

The Rock of Peñol, Guátape

We never would have climbed the rock in Guátape. This is one of the more famous must-do items when visiting nearby Medellin. The top is 740 steps up, and the view from the summit is worth every grueling one.

Here’s our favorite little feline again, the ex-cat? The biggest lesson we learned as expats was the message above. As difficult and challenging as climbing the rock of Peñol at Guátape was, it’s even tougher for us often control obsessed, easily disrupted, comfortably ensconced NorteAmericanos to let go and enjoy life as it comes at us. Living our comfy lives in predictable, safe, familiar neighborhoods, with all the amenities, all the facilities, all the accoutrements of modern life—including tank water heaters and clothes dryers—we’ve gotten pretty soft and rigid at the same time.

Without dipping into the raging current of today’s polarized politics, I’ll just say that we U.S. Americans’ image is suffering a bit at present. Maybe it’s time for more people to try the expat life, even for a short time, to learn some of the lessons we did. That the U.S. is not the greatest nation on earth, regardless of the stridency of certain jingoistic groups to the contrary. That we’d do well to demand a second language, and more emphasis on the scientific method from our schools. That our consumer culture and our fathomless need for more has a serious downside. Our three car garages can’t hold our cars for all the stuff in them. This is not the definition of happy. Time to realize that our hyper indebted culture is unsustainable, and is making us miserable. That the Standard American Diet, laced with its animal protein, too much dairy, eggs, fats, sugars, oils, and processing, that diet is making us sicker, while driving up health care costs and lowering life expectancy.

Maybe the current viral pandemic can be viewed as a kind of expat experience: Similarly, it’s removed us from our familiar and comfy lives, and tossed us into an unknown, unpredictable, and uncomfortable environment. It’s demanded a level of adaptability that we may never have known we had. It’s drawn us closer as couples, circling the wagons as it were, until the crisis subsides. It’s defined certain priorities that we may have long suspected were being overlooked, but only now understand the importance of. In some ways, sadly, it’s gathered us closer to our tribes, at a time when we need a much more expansive, accepting, communal feeling. But it also shows that those guardrails can be breeched if we recognize their existence, so maybe a good thing.

Maybe we can take advantage of the current disruptions and discomforts that we have no choice but to endure, learn a thing or two about who we really are, what we need and don’t need, stick together better, and develop a new, communal, sustainable, safer, gentler, and more satisfying world. We might find out we like it. And we wouldn’t have to leave home to do it. Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

*Ave Maria, pues = An expression of amused exasperation in Medellin.

The American Dream

“Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— / Let it be that great strong land of love / Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme / That any man be crushed by one above.”*
Langston Hughes

I needed a plan to fail.

The dream the dreamers dreamed. We need America to go in that direction, toward that dream, instead of away from it as we appear to be doing now. This return won’t take politics, or religion, or social activism. Those things, while very good choices, are too easy, and they tend to engender division, as we’ve seen. To recreate the America the dreamers dreamed, we need a new imagining, a new vision, and a new kind of courage. We need to become dreamers, too, or again, or perhaps for the first time.
Here’s a personal story, an anecdote from my own recent experience. It’s a small thing, really, just a quick, almost imagined moment, but it provided one of those visions that linger for their depth and heft, so I’ll share it with you.

Here in my new home I have African American neighbors. Wonderful people. They have two beautiful babies, a fine home, two costly cars in their garage, and, like me, many cardboard boxes from their own recent move into that house. Shortly after we moved in, this neighbor, I’ll call him James, was busy watering his newly laid sod, making sure the grass was carefully tended. Focused on brown spots, he aimed his sprinkler at every section of his lawn that the device would reach. When he noticed me relaxing on my deck, he looked up.

I greeted him. He waved back. We exchanged names, idle chatter, basic family, and life, and work history. Then James returned to his lawn, and I returned to whatever it was I’d been doing.
I watched my neighbor for a while. As I did, the above Langston Hughes poem shimmered in my mind, and I had the oddest thought. I almost interrupted James from his lawn chores to tell him what I was thinking. But I didn’t. He was intent on watering his thirsty sod, and I’d only just met the man, so I wasn’t sure if he’d appreciate the interruption, or my comment, or the source of it. Here’s what I thought: This is the America I want to live in, an America where a successful black man with his own home, and two kids, and two costly cars in his suburban garage can putter around in his yard, his biggest concern being that his grass needs watering. This is the America I’d always envisioned.

From that thought I expanded the dream to the many disenfranchised, marginalized, ignored, and dismissed Americans who may see someone simply watering his lawn, and wonder where her or his own dream evaporated like the sun-kissed mist?

Growing up a child of privilege, American societies quintessential white, male, heterosexual, (recovering) christian, entitled kid, I had to have an active, detailed plan to fail. Despite my tendency to be the classic underachiever, American society was not going to allow me to fall by the wayside, or come up short of whatever dream I might have cooked up. I was told I could be whatever I wanted to be, and I believed it—because, for me, and kids like me, it was true.

There was a cutesy phrase when I was a kid, ‘the world is his oyster.’ I have no earthly idea the provenance of that homely saying, but I sure as hell know why I was its subject. It was entitlement, pure and simple. I may have thought back then, living in my oblivious bubble, that America really was the land of equality, and freedom, and justice for all. But I was living proof that it wasn’t. I could have shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and… Well, you get the idea. The big difference today is that these glaring differences are being called out. They’re not new, or reactionary. They’re just being recorded.

Acknowledging the entitled part of my personal story doesn’t change much, of course. Any of my black, or gay, or trans, or female, or Islamic, or Latinx friends will read of my feckless, carefree youth, and my facility at success and they’ll say, ‘ya think?’ I never once saw a neighbor lock their car door when I passed by. Never once had a security guard follow me around a store. Never once feared for my life when I was pulled over driving, flashers reflecting in my rearview. Instead, I was always greeted with courtesy, respect, and deference any time I got sideways with a cop, and it happened, believe me. Driving 55 in a 30 zone? Are you serious? Then given a warning? Really?

Did I despair at that moment? Police car flashers blinding me, did I expect my life to fall apart? Did I find myself under arrest, enmeshed in the harsh system, caught up in the gears of process, and procedure, and punishment policy? No. Quite the contrary, and here’s the point: I was always—always—given the benefit of the doubt. Always.

So how do we recognize this chasm in relations, the difference between entitlement and its opposite, an insistence on process at all costs, regardless of how little harm is done? How do we arrive at a point where all Americans are treated fairly, where no one—and everyone—is given a chance to succeed? Where no one is guilty of something the minute they’re born?
Here’s where we start, I believe. We start with a common understanding of what ‘America’ means. What exactly is the definition of ‘America?’


Here’s mine: ‘America’ is not a country. Sure, there’s a bit of real estate involved, and most folks can locate ‘America’ on a map, though having lived in South ‘America,’ I better understand that we need more precision when using the term. Colombianos, Peruvians, Brazilians, Ecuadorians—they’re all Americans as well.

But America—The United States of—is not a country; it’s an idea. A grand idea. It’s the most radical, the most astonishing, the most heart and mind bending idea ever conceived. Truly. When the United States came into being, the concept of freedom, and liberty, and justice for all people was the single most radical and dangerous idea in world history. Yes, these ideas are attached to a plot of land. Yes, the founders conveniently overlooked a lot of folks, including half the populace on the distaff side, all those who owned no property, and all those with skin a shade or two darker than themselves. Yes, many of those otherwise enlightened men—they were all men—owned property that we refer to today as other human beings.

But they got much of the idea down pretty well. That people had a right to certain things, and that those things ought to be available without fear or favor to everyone. That there are laws. That these laws should apply equally to everyone. So, America is not a country; it’s an idea. If we can agree on that, we’ve made a great deal of progress already.

Next: patriotism. Boy howdy, do we get wrapped around the axle on this one! Here’s what patriotism means to me: It’s the ability—no, the responsibility—to root out flaws in American society, and to call attention to them in order to fix them. Protest is the highest form of patriotism. See inequality? Oppression? Injustice? Take a knee, call it out in whatever fashion you choose within legal constraints, and let’s get the problem fixed for pity sakes! Those who wish to sweep things under the rug, or draw attention to some irrelevant diversion, or hide behind the flag simply don’t get this part.

Next: Who ‘belongs’ here, and who doesn’t? The U.S. is the exceptional nation. For the first time in human history, people from across the globe arrived on a small speck of real estate, from every country, culture, religion, with every skin tone, and social perspective, all agreeing to put tribal, and ethnic, and religious, and cultural, and language differences aside to form one nation.

Think of it: People from across the planet have come to the U.S., changing their identity, regardless of how much effort that takes, and despite the real peril that those changes often entailed for them. The fact that most people assimilate to this grand American idea is astonishing. It should be cause for great optimism. When I see people shouting ‘go back where you came from,’ and similarly childish epithets, I think, ‘those people aren’t real Americans.’ With their jingoistic, angry discourtesies, they’re defiling the core concept of what America means, indeed assaulting the very idea of who and what we are.

Those angry, anti-immigrant people are also conveniently overlooking the fact that, at some point in their own past, unless they’re Native American Indians—a specious title indicating that old Chris Columbus was a lousy navigator—their own people arrived on these shores as immigrants, too.

So how do we gather all these ideas into one place, and assemble these concepts into a new vision and understanding of Making America what it should be? We simply return to basic concepts. We explore the documents, and the pronouncements, and the promises we made 244 years ago, and then we actuate those documents in the context of our own time.

The question is: Do we have the courage to make those ideas real, and true, and appropriate for this time, this era in our history? Can we find the courage to live the essence of what those declarations say, and what they truly mean? Does the statement ‘liberty and justice for all’ mean ALL? Or does it not? Do we focus on that simple word all, or do we make exceptions, alter our sacred documents, and live with the consequences? Affirming liberty and justice for all is not a radical idea; refusing to grant those things is the radical idea.

If we have the courage, and if we have the social, and the political, and the collective will to truly observe and practice those founding words, I believe we’ll have a better, more just, and more livable society. Growing up entitled, as I did, might have given me a warm, fuzzy feeling, but I now realize that there was a cost to it, a price to be paid, and I was not the one paying it.
Perhaps it’s time we all look long and hard at just how well we understand the American dream, the idea of America, the contract we live under, and make its simple promise available to ALL, not just white, male, straight, christian kids, so everyone can enjoy the dream that America offers.
If we do these things, we’ll live in the America I wore the uniform defending for 30 years, and we’ll give up the hypocrisy that fuels much of the discontent we sense these days.

My neighbor’s lawn is doing just fine. His concern about the brown spots and weeds is fading as his lawn greens up nicely. If we have the courage to demand that America be allowed to be the dream the dreamers dreamed, I believe we might find ourselves surrounded by people who can tend their own piece of sod, nourish their slice of the dream, make it greener, and pass it along to their kids in due time. This is the America I dream of.

*The Dream the Dreamers Dreamed. From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes.

Ex-Expat: On Returning to the U.S.

Recently, my wife and I returned to the United States after living abroad for four years. I’d call myself an ex-expat, except that word doesn’t apply. It’s been clear to me since I returned that I am still an expat, because the country I left 4 years ago no longer exists. Indeed, the United States of America that I grew up in, the country in which I pursued my own life, liberty, and happiness, that nation is no more.

Coming back, I’m not at all certain that the America I thought I knew and loved ever existed. The ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ vision I once held, the rah-rah, yankee-doodle image propagated at every opportunity, that image it turns out, was a vaseline-lens, aspirational, too-good-to-be-true America. Sad to say, it was mostly, it appears, a sham.

In third grade, as I faced the stars and stripes, hand over heart, chanting the pledge of allegiance by rote, I thought I was announcing my loyalty to a country that truly did offer ‘liberty and justice for all,’ that anyone wishing to vote with their feet to bring their wretched refuse of other lands’ teeming shores to this America, to my bold and glorious America, those people would be welcomed, cherished, and included.

Looking around on my return today I still see American flags posted in prominent spots. But in the tiki-torch demonstrations by ignorant white supremacists, the fiery oppositional marches by low-life bigots, the blatant hypocrisy by so called christian groups, the hatred, and the rejection of ‘others’, I now understand that the final word of that pledge, the simple word ‘all’ has a lot of wiggle room, a lot of exceptions. Instead of living up to its shining creed of inclusion, and acceptance, and love of diversity, I see America denouncing its glowing aspirations, and disdaining the vaulted meaning of that pledge. It makes me sad. It makes me angry, too, partly that I allowed myself to be deluded for so long, and partly because it doesn’t have to be this way, and should not be this way.

Looking at America from afar, in my case from Medellin Colombia, gave me a perspective and insight not many Americans ever see. My view from far away allowed me to view the U.S. for what it really is. That is, a country that’s admired, feared, hated, and loved, that is confusing, disgusting, disappointing, and astonishing, often all at the same time. But one way I never imagined looking at my home country was with sorrow. And I never expected people in other countries to look at the U.S. and feel pity, but that’s a common feeling today. That perspective, the reality that other nations pity the U.S. simply never occurred to me. That, too, makes me angry. It does not have to be this way. It should not be this way.

My recent return to the U.S. is similar in many ways to another repatriation many years ago, when I came home from Vietnam. Just as in 1971, I came back to the U.S. from a poor, tropical country with a recent experience of civil chaos. Likewise, Vietnam and Colombia are both countries that had been exploited by the U.S. under the guise of liberation. Then as now I entered an America polarized and torn by turmoil, with demonstrations in public streets, an erosion of trust in civil institutions, facing an uncertain future, and with feckless, tone-deaf leadership that ignores our basic, or at least our stated values.

There was a kind of virus in 1971 as well. The tension and strife back then was a poison in our lives, a pall on daily activity much like the virus that now seeps its venom into all of our lives—and for some people just as deadly. We had a daily body count then as well. At that time in America’s history the unrest was centered on the war in South Asia. The Vietnam War forced us to take sides, to identify as one or the other, either pro war, or against, and with similarly bracketed slogans: On one side, ‘America, love it or leave it!’; ‘Make love, not war,’ on the other. There were symbols then, either masks or hardhats, and both became weaponized.

Independence day will soon be here. The 4th of July will be celebrated as always in the U.S., albeit under strange and restrictive measures. There is talk of cancellations, and virtual fireworks displays, and reruns of previous years’ celebrations as substitutes for the here and now amid the coronavirus pandemic. There will be the usual rah-rah, bang the drum, stars & stripes jingoism that always accompanies the 4th. The forced expressions of loyalty, patriotism, and pride in country, despite numerous timely and important challenges to the national narrative. There will be all of the superficial and shallow expressions of solidarity, the Lee Greenwood version of pride in country that gets trotted out at the drop of a red, white, and blue boater in early July all across America.

But here’s the thing: Despite our inability to gather in large groups this 4th of July, this year’s Independence Day celebrations will carry another kind of virus, the germ of a long delayed but better vision, a truer purpose of our pursuit of national ideals we’ve expressed collectively for 244 years. This year, with a different kind of demonstration in the streets, with stronger and more persistent calls for a return to our basic, stated values seem to be ascendent. The demand for inclusion and regard from our Black Lives Matter brethren; demands for new leadership against our current void of it; angry voices calling for that proffered equality check to be cashed, this time with sufficient funds.

Those calls may actually be heeded this time, and maybe, just maybe, the America I thought I saluted all those years ago in third grade, maybe that America can truly rise to its stated purpose, its documented vision.

This my recent repatriation to the United States really could be different. It’s possible I could see the values we’ve always claimed to honor put into practice: Those values are not complicated; they’re not wrapped in obtuse, legalistic language; they’re not difficult to understand, hell a third grader spoke and understood them, and that youngster was so proud.

Liberty and justice for all. Maybe this time. Maybe this expat, this time, after only 244 years will finally see those words mean something. And maybe, this time, this America could be a place worth returning to.

Thanks for reading, and happy Independence Day.