"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

Say "Goodnight, Gracie
Our friend Marylou made this quilt. I am showing it to you because I think it is beautiful, and because, even though she can't get away from her work and family obligations, she always treats us as sane, intelligent persons. [Photo by Diana Ricci]

If a prophet is not without honor save in his own country, becoming an expatriate is doubly dishonorable. Being an expatriate is like being a heretic. Your old co-religionists are hard-pressed not to strap you to the stake and light up; and as you may discover to your chagrin, some among them will not be able to resist the temptation indefinitely. Pulling up your roots and transplanting yourself in new climes will probably seem to them to be silly at best, and at worst a betrayal.

It is an oversimplification to say that the folks you leave behind are merely jealous, even though this is true in most cases. Stuck in the snow / sand / rock / floodwater of your native land, and dutifully sweating out a boring job / a mortgage / corporate downsizing / falling land values, your loved ones stop remembering what a wonderful parent / mentor / child / partner / friend you used to be, and begin to resent you, and to think of ways to get even. You can't really blame them: you are off "having all the fun"; they are "home", "taking care of their responsibilities".

Never mind the difficulties of learning a new language, and new customs. Ignore the mind-boggling bureaucracy with all its' contradictory requirements. Forget the constant vigilance against tropical diseases and afflictions like dengue, cholera and dysentery. Everyone knows that life in Paradise is one long round of sidewalk cafes, trips to the beach, and laying in a hammock while servants working for slave wages fan you with palm leaves. So save your sad stories for someone who cares. (It would be easier to accept these opinions if they weren't so very nearly correct.)

They never think about how comforting it is to be able to call each other regularly without having to mortgage the national treasury to do so (the current Oaxaca / U.S. rate, depending on day and hour, hovers around $1 per MINUTE). They can mail a letter today, and get an answer within a week (the very best time on letters sent me from the States: eight days; two weeks is not unusual). They can send an overnight letter for under $10 (the fastest express delivery service to the States from Oaxaca takes a minimum of two days, and costs at least $25). They can dial a local Internet service provider and cruise the information superhighway for $9.95/mo, while it costs me about a dollar an hour. So when I receive a letter complaining that I "never communicate any more", I factor in their ignorance of local realities: communication (and the cost thereof) is the place where the rubber meets the road in the new world; and they are the spoiled children of the old.

In all fairness, I have to say that my complaints are fairly minor, and my friends pretty supportive, all things considered. Through the good offices of close friends, I sold a house (my first and probably my last) "back there", without ever leaving here. Using powers of attorney and with only a little judicious prodding through electronic mail, it was all handled by my pals in a responsible if long-suffering manner. Likewise, other personal affairs have been tended to by others, saving me hundreds of dollars in plane fares and expensive restaurant meals. But I am one of the lucky ones.

For many, expatriate living is a balancing act constantly fraught with financial and emotional pitfalls. Partners back home get sticky fingers or make stupid choices. Services such as property management companies, credit card providers and health insurance companies forget or never knew that they are outside the normal communication loop. Letters three weeks old arrive, stating: "unless we hear from you in 15 days, we will have to...", or "the adverse hearing on your ex-wife's application for a 100% increase in alimony will be heard on (a date two weeks ago). If you fail to appear, judgment will be entered in her favor".

My advice to my fellow transplantees: either be very well off (so you can put all your financial affairs in professional hands), and visit whenever you've a mind to; or be poor enough not to have any lingering connections. If you are unlucky enough (as most of us are) to fall in between these ideal states, be prepared for a normal share of expatriate angst, as those whom you depend upon grow tired of taking care of your business for you. And remember that just because you're a heretic, that doesn't mean that you're wrong. It just means you shouldn't forget to wear your asbestos boots.
(May, 1995)

 

[Read a selection of "Letters From Oaxaca, Mexico"]

[Read a sample "Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter"]