Our expat life is often perceived as a longterm holiday because we tend to live where people vacation. The reality is that, while we love living in these places for many reasons, we definitely face the same challenges as “back home”…bills, jobs, childcare, errands, dirty dishes, relationships. Consciously creating a simplified life probably mitigates some of the typical stresses, but here’s a realistic glimpse into what’s actually going on.
Pardon the self-indulgence. But isn’t that what blogs are, really? For me, holiday blues and job search stress collided. Hard. For the second year in a row. And were compounded by culture shock. And very well managed ADD. I have survived and am quite familiar with all of these intense experiences. They have several overlapping features: deep reflection, fluctuating emotions, anxiety about decision-making, constantly streaming internal monologue, careful management of scenarios and expectations, fatigue, and the conflicting desires to simultaneously withdraw and connect.
Let’s start with holiday blues. The weeks leading up to Christmas seem to dredge up social and performance insecurities that I manage much better at other times of year. I am vulnerable because I know I’ll be away from family, and friendships are only slowly developing. I know the first year is always the hardest. But knowing doesn’t make it easier.
Wherever I am at this time of year – I love the music (which we only start playing after Brian’s birthday in early December). I love the food and drinks. I love the family time. When abroad, I usually love the accomplishment of expat ingenuity in the face of culinary challenges and the camaraderie among friends far from home. My blues center around high expectations based on stereotypes and the resulting sense of failure when they are unmet, which would probably be the case whether home or abroad.
Decision-making paralysis is exacerbated as an expat. Which food and drinks? Where will I find the ingredients? Who will we share them with? How am I going to concoct Pinterest-worthy decorations? What kind of tree in the tropics? Do I kill a real tree, contribute to plastic overuse, or figure something else out? We have way too much stuff, why should I spend money on more of it? What will I do with it when we leave? Should I even bother decorating if we are only going to use the stuff once? Should we be spending money frivolously before we have secured jobs for next year? Oh wait, no offer is ever secure, so we better not travel anywhere this year (there goes a tangent in another direction…) Let’s throw parent guilt into the mix. How do I feel about the creepy Santa narrative? I don’t even need to ponder the elf situation, that’s a no for me. What are my kids missing out on if I don’t make a big deal about this holiday? How will my kids be messed up if I do make a big deal about it? Am I focusing enough on charity? Where do I even find opportunities to do that?
Culture shock can correlate to holiday blues, but really it happens at any time of year and at any point in the expat experience. Essentially, people who immerse themselves into a new culture experience several stages of anxiety and emotions as they adjust to the environment. In 1960, Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg identified four stages of culture shock that are still popularly referenced, which include honeymoon, crisis, recovery, adjustment. The stages are not necessarily linear and change without warning. I studied and experienced culture shock while doing anthropological fieldwork in university. Now as a permanent expat, these stages are the seasons of my life. With every move, I know the highs and lows are coming. Recognizing them is certainly important, but they are intense nonetheless.
When we lost our jobs unexpectedly, Brian and I quickly replaced that gut punch with a huge adrenaline rush of impulsively by moving to another country (the ultimate fight-or-flight response). Mexico is my psychologically “safe” country that I often imagine fleeing to when life feels tenuous. This is where I first stepped out of my ethnocentric bubble in university. I got married and literally honeymooned here. So the timing was not ideal, but in some ways, it was a dream come true when we ended up in Sayulita. The anxiety of an imminent job search constantly simmered below the surface, but we tempered it with tacos, margaritas, and warm ocean waves. Now that the job search is full on, whatever figurative honeymoon we were on is fully over.
The crisis is multifaceted. Our charming jungle cottage has tons of challenges (and tiny visitors that live in our roof and poop a lot). Financial stress has been exacerbated by needing to purchase a car because Brian began working maternity cover at the American School of Puerto Vallarta. It was an opportunity we had to take, but it means he leaves at dawn and returns at sunset. While he struggles with a long commute through the jungle and teaches two grade levels each day, I get our kids to school, keep house, apply for jobs, cook, etc. We also took a marathon business trip to Bangkok last month to attend a job fair. And will do another one to London in January. With Christmas approaching, we were still jobless. And tired.
I am not doing yoga, having lunch with friends, or spending time at the beach. What I am doing is drinking a lot of coffee and feeling lonely. That is hard to admit because I carefully curate a life in photos that looks amazing. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of positive moments where I’m very happy. However, the social anxiety of being new in a very small expat community has put this introvert way out of my comfort zone. Sayulita expats seem to split into long termers who don’t need to invest in relationships with short termers, and short termers who are far more extroverted than me and my clan. We are low key. We are definitely social and love a good time with friends, but we often hold back until we have the lay of the land. Family playdates are reliable social endeavors, but incompatible age ranges and busy schedules make those infrequent. Since we only have one year here and did not benefit from a ready made cohort of colleagues, more effort is required and the timeline is rapidly shortening.
Recovery & Adjustment
After a few weeks of feeling underwater, I finally called home. And contacted friends from afar. And thanked my husband for recognizing and facilitating my need to just curl up in bed and give up occasionally. My parents graciously dipped into airline miles, and within a week my dad was here. And my sister’s brood was coming for New Years. Recovery was rapid because my dad’s arrival also brought luck. We landed multiple interviews while he was here, and he guided us through the pros and cons of various scenarios. Before he flew back to San Francisco, we were able to toast to a new future.
I ended up loving our intimate and very sweet nuclear family Christmas. I searched on Pinterest for “Boho Christmas” and realized that decorations were not problem. Sayulita is a mecca for boho chic clutter; I bought garlands of pom poms, felt trinkets, and mini cactus motifs to my heart’s content. I even managed to transport a toddler-sized cactus in the golf cart, carry it up a flight of stairs, and only sustain minor puncture wounds. It’s not plastic and it doesn’t shed. And it’s year round decor so I don’t even have to take it down. (Update: Chad the Cactus did suffer a minor setback but appears to be recovering with sunlight and rockier soil.)
Brian and I traded shopping days, so we simply hit the local market for all the tourist stuff that we otherwise overlook because we live here and don’t need that stuff. (And then regret not buying when we leave.) Santa delivered art supplies and beautiful felt animals. Owen was worried he wouldn’t come because we don’t have a chimney, but he did. My dad left them a zillion matchbox cars wrapped up next to the Christmas cactus, so they were plenty excited. And he handed me a gift certificate for a massage before leaving. Because dads just know.
I focused on small victories. Neither of our families do a full-on traditional holiday meal, so Christmas Eve was homemade Chinese and Christmas Day was take away tacos. I didn’t even have to change out of my pajamas. I found Betty Crocker Gingerbread Cookie Mix (which in my heart is totally cheating, but I had zero capacity to locate molasses). We managed to bake the day after Christmas. Unfortunately, we failed to hand them out to friends and ended up eating them all ourselves. I’m not going to beat myself up too much over that minor fail, though it would have been a good friendship initiative. My major success as a parent this particular season is that I finally purchased an advent calendar (I ordered one on Taobao – aka Chinese Amazon – last year, but it never arrived), and the kids ate a piece of chocolate every day as they practiced counting to 24.
After a few lazy days, my beautiful sister whisked in with her kids and kicked the energy up a few thousand notches. Four toddlers. So much life. And love. Although her visit was short, it punctuated a very long year with exactly what I needed. Brian and I rang in the new year cuddling on our front porch equally amazed and at peace with this life we’ve chosen to lead and all the directions it’s taken us.
Oberg, K. 1960. ‘Culture shock: adjustment to new cultural environments.’ Practical Anthropology 7, 177-182.