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.