’Tis the Season – Lena

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. 

Getting married in Puerto Vallarta in 2013

Honeymoon

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. 

Crisis

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.

Our newest wheels

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.

Beach time with Babo

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.

The Art of Starting Over – Brian and Lena

As international educators, we are well-versed in moving to new countries and starting a life from scratch. The idea of packing our bags and flying off into the unknown is nothing new. In truth, we were once addicted to it. However, it takes a huge physical and emotional toll to transition, and we were looking forward to putting down roots until the kids finished elementary school.

Moving to Mexico has been a dream of Lena’s for decades. But this was bittersweet. It wasn’t a move we had planned. We weren’t heading to new jobs. No one was waiting for us. No principal picking us up from the airport or new colleagues checking to see if we needed anything. No welcome picnic or tour of our new city. And certainly no settling in allowance. 

We arrived in Sayulita in an emotional fog with some vague expectations and a lot of questions. Where would we live? Would we be able to enroll the kids in school? How would we get ourselves around town or into the city? When would we start making friends?

The nervousness of not having answers was tempered slightly by the fact that we are familiar with Mexico. Lena spent summers during university conducting anthropological research and backpacking around the country. We even got married down the highway in Puerto Vallarta. Our challenges were softened by her ability to speak (rusty) Spanish and, as she says, Brian’s willingness to “learn with enthusiasm.” With minimal language distance, positive feedback from native speakers, and the immediate need to set up our life – this felt way more surmountable than previous experiences learning to communicate (with varying degrees of effectiveness) in Arabic, Vietnamese or Mandarin. 

Essential needs were narrowed down to the top three: a house, a school, and transportation. Further down on the list were food and friends (true sustenance). Eating was not an issue, as we could buy amazing street food, tortillas hot off the press, and fresh fruits and veggies for unbelievably cheap prices. And we knew friendships would develop once we were more settled. 

First step: House 

During our furious 48 hours of research prior to moving to Mexico, we uncovered a fascinating subculture of nomad families who trek around the world with admirable success. But we were hesitant. First, we were still uncertain about our budget. And second, during previous moves, the kids struggled much more than we anticipated. We had been bouncing around the US for weeks, sleeping on family members’ couches and living out of suitcases. Although we wanted to explore this amazing country, we knew that establishing a “home” was important. 

Most international schools either provide housing or a stipend, and some even assist with the search. Therefore, our first independent challenge was finding a last minute, long term rental in a tourist-centered beach town. We arrived during the “off season” when many businesses were closed and home owners were away. Nor could we locate any actual community bulletin boards. Plenty of short term rentals could be found through websites like AirBnB and SayulitaLife, but renting one of those for a year would have been prohibitively expensive. 

Our two-pronged strategy involved word-of-mouth and Facebook. Every time we met someone new on the street, at a restaurant, or in the park, we mentioned that we were looking for a place. Also, we got some leads by posting a plea on the community Facebook page. Unfortunately, we soon realized that Sayulita was going to be way more expensive than we initially thought. After looking at some very small and dark apartments in our price range, we bumped up our budget and got lucky. A single family house with a verdant garden, mountain views, and most importantly air conditioning in the bedrooms. It is round with a thatched roof, which reminds us of places we stayed in southern Africa. And it even has a name! Although a bit of a fixer upper, we hadn’t seen anything nearly as spacious or bright.

Signing a year lease was slightly scary, but it also released so much stress about immediate plans. Our luck and choice were reaffirmed after meeting several other recently-arrived expat families who couldn’t find long term places and will have to move around throughout the year. The trauma of our recent packing-and-moving spectacles is too raw. If we hadn’t found our house, we probably would have scrapped Sayulita and settled somewhere else.

Second step: School

School was a huge factor in our decision-making. We looked at a few other expat-friendly locations (San Miguel de Allende and Merida) but were not impressed by the schools. We also stumbled into the idea of unschooling and world schooling during our research blitz. Very intriguing but perhaps not what our toddlers needed. Definitely a tabled discussion for a future adventure. Despite debates about the institution, we felt strongly that Bug and Noodle needed to be in an actual school. And it needed to be a school that we believed in.

We shelled out tons of money in China for them to attend school and weren’t about to let go of that principle now. Creating protégées is not the motivation. What drives our conviction is the importance of socialization and the power of play. The kids needed to interact with peers, develop social-emotional skills, and engage in a stimulating environment. Plus, they were desperate for a routine. And mommy and daddy were desperate for time to quietly sit in a restaurant, swim without stress, and actually get some work done. Essentially, we all just needed space and time to grow beyond our tight-knit unit.

Another blessing of this year ON not off is that we can explore a completely different type of school than is our norm. As mentioned previously, we were excited about Costa Verde International School. The very small, low-stress, highly active vibe is exactly what we need. Bug and Noodle have 9 students in their joint 3-4 year old class. Their teachers are wonderfully child-centered in their approach. We have no doubt that they truly know our children as individuals and strive to meet their social-emotional, psychological, intellectual and linguistic needs. Moreover, the curriculum and community population is inclusively bilingual and 40% of the students are locals on scholarship. This is a place that is deeply committed to its community in terms of culture, language, and the environment. The sustainability focus is so compelling because this is something we are consciously modeling and always improving on as teachers and parents.

Third step: Transportation

Summers in Sayulita are beyond hot and humid. We walked around town for the first few weeks, but finally hit our limit on shlepping withering children and sweating through three outfits each day. The most popular mode of transportation is golf cart. However, rental prices average around $50USD per day. Crazy expensive. After finding our house, which is located at the top of a steep hill, we decided to blow a huge portion of our annual budget buying a golf cart. We ended up finding an advertisement for Riviera Golf Carts, which builds custom carts meant to handle the hills and cobblestones here. While the price was steep, we ran the numbers and it worked out to less than half the weekly rental amount if we spread the cost over the year. And it’s electric, so we are proud to be environmentally friendly!

We were feeling confident in our decision until we needed to rent a car to get to Puerto Vallarta (golf carts can’t go on the highway). We found a highly rated, superbly honest rental company in nearby Bucerias called Gecko Car Rental. The owner, Adam, mentioned he was selling low mileage 2014 cars for the exact same price we just paid for the golf cart. We’ve come back to that missed opportunity while riding the local bus over potholes for 45 minutes into the city or cramming Costco loot into an expensive taxi. But a car in Sayulita, where spend the vast majority of our time, is not necessary. The town is tiny, parking is limited, and cleaning sand off golf cart vinyl is super easy.

The wrap up

The list was complete. We were officially Sayuleros. Easy peasy. Just don’t arrive in a New York state of mind. We have cut our teeth in countries where there is no urgency to get things done and communication is indirect at best. Inshallah {God Willing} was often heard in the Middle East and basically means that the deadline is loose. Vietnamese has many shades of yes, and yes can actually mean no. Amanhã {tomorrow} in Mozambique and the cognate mañana {tomorrow} in Mexico mean that something might happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. This as a fact we know intellectually. But it was a shock to the system after living in a massively entrepreneurial Chinese megacity that evolved at lightning speed. 

While trying to sort our lives in Sayulita, emails would dangle without response for days…or forever. When searching for a house or trying to get the kids into school, delays and evasive responses caused anxiety. We wanted to know what our life would be like, and we wanted to know now. Hot tip: phone calls, WhatsApp or showing up in person are most effective. It’s not that people don’t care. They do. Actually, many people have been extremely friendly and helpful. It’s just that the sense of time and the order of priorities are different. Families are more important than mobile phones. And people tend to trust that everything will work out in the end. Two lessons that have been very good for us to embrace.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about the golf cart remodel, the joys of our charming house, making friends, and all the delicious food!