ARE WE THERE YET?
Whether I’m writing a nonfiction account of the expat experience, or the next volume of the San Miguel mystery series, place is always an important character in these narratives. In this book in particular, it anchors our exploration of the expat lifestyle. Yet, no matter how flawless our Spanish, how thorough our grasp of Mexican manners and customs, how enthusiastic our participation in the local fiestas and cultural events, we will always remain in some respects an outsider. Perhaps we are a bit like the Lithuanian great uncle we recall from childhood, a man whose tea and tobacco-stained mustache was always too big and droopy, whose footing was never quite certain, whose ways were often opaque, and whose eagerness to please never fully made up for the disconnect between his distant history and our more recent one. Even as we welcomed him to our gatherings, his well-meaning presence always made us slightly uncomfortable and we could only fully relax once he left. Integration and acclimatization take time, and usually one generation at a minimum. I can recall relatives on my mother’s side who sprinkled sugar on their lettuce, and on my father’s side who poured vinegar on their cabbage. And they were born in the United States, although their grandparents were not.
I was about halfway through my travels across México, working on my book about expats living in out-of-the-way places, when I experienced an unexpected shift in perspective. Suddenly I saw myself, not as an American simply living in México, a person who had chosen one location over another without giving it any great significance as a change in status, but as an immigrant, although much different in some ways than that Lithuanian great uncle. Let me define immigrant here as a person who has obtained permanent legal status in his new country and is not going back, except for family visits and shopping. Those differences from the uncle’s position, however, mask a certain similarity in our dilemma. If we have made the effort to get to know and mix with our neighbors, we will be invited to Mexican family or perhaps business celebrations, but we will probably feel like a wallflower, smiling too much and wondering whether some of their delicious macaroni salad is still stuck between our teeth. We will be careful not to drink too much in an attempt to loosen up, although Mexican manners will require that no one comment on it if we do. We will laugh a bit too hard at our host’s jokes, even when we don’t fully understand them. Overall, the sense of disconnect of background and manners will be the same to us as to our Mexican friends. Perhaps once we are gone they will feel they have done their duty and can let their hair down, and perhaps so will we. This position is neither no man’s land nor comfort zone, but somewhere between, where maps are outdated and landmarks rare. This may be why most expats prefer to live in a community with an established expat component. We may occasionally pick up an unfriendly look on the street and realize we are minorities here, and if we are white, that’s usually an unaccustomed place to be. What may not be clear for some time is that it also has another dimension. It is that while we are far from being a perfect fit here, neither can we go home again.
Of course I have watched with regret the cars of friends and neighbors, loaded with their dogs and luggage, disappear over the horizon headed north, never to return. These are people who, often for reasons of health, have come to believe they will do better in the U.S. or Canada. And that may be true. But I cannot help imagining the coming trials of reentry as well. Like a diver coming up from the bottom in stages to decompress and avoid the bends, I worry that they will have the same kind of risk as they try to work México out of their blood. Even if they locate the exact hole they once occupied in that peg board culture across the border, and slide back into it with a sigh of relief, they will find it has subtly changed in their absence. The edges are somehow rougher now and their skin chafes as they shift about trying to locate the kind of fit they once enjoyed. Things may look reassuringly the same, but they have lost the comfort of their former place. This is because of a condition that has come over them gradually during their residence here. The northern culture does not look the same from outside as from within. If you have lived south of the border for a while, your point of view has literally changed by degree. Part of this is being immersed in a culture of people who have always known things about their neighbor to the north that we don’t, because that neighbor is us. Looking in the mirror may give us a sense of some of the detail, but the overall picture we have is not what our Mexican neighbor sees.
The bottom line is this: we cannot go home again to the place we recall so well, because now we know too much. That former homeland can only be inhabited by people more innocent and trusting than we are now. Like a tightrope walker working without a net, we find ourselves performing a balancing act that offers no resolution on either end. We are caught between what we once were and what we would like to be, and both are slightly beyond our present grasp. This is the irony of the expatriate experience. Simply put, it is a condition neither here nor there, a phrase often used to describe something that is irrelevant, a situation that doesn’t matter, but this status is fundamental to our new life. Into the Heart of México is that story for expats today.
http://www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com/intotheheartofmexico.html So, are we there yet? No, and we will never be there in the sense of reaching a destination. But it turns out that the expat status is one of the most rewarding conditions to be in––that of the perpetual pilgrim, one who never reaches the end of the road, one whose days are filled with new experiences, challenges, opportunities for growth and development. It is a journey without signposts, and like life itself, it is not often a condition of equilibrium or of peace. Even more than that, it is not journey’s end.
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