by Cat Calhoun
Temp House, Austin, Texas, USA
Subtitle: My longest post ever
If the desire to pick yourself and/or your family up and move to another part of the world appeals to you, you’re not alone. A lot of people feel the draw, but few people can escape the gravity well of their lives to rocket off into new territory. Here is the ‘short’ version of what we have learned so far without even leaving home yet.
Why are you going?
We were originally planning to move to Washington State. Tacoma, to be exact. We went three times on scouting missions and real estate searches. Then prices in Tacoma doubled and Donald Trump won the election. Tacoma began to seem like a lost dream.
We started talking about moving away from the United States, which we saw as a form of self-preservation. We went to Mexico to check it out, then ended up falling in love with the city we visited. We began to get excited about learning Spanish, saving money by living in a less expensive place, seeing the world through different filters, and stepping outside the cultural bubble we were both born into.
If you are pondering a big move like this, think about why you want to leave. Are you running away from something or running toward something? What do you hope to gain by moving away from your current situation or location? If you are taking your personal problem/s with you and expecting things to be different just because you changed locations you will be disappointed. But if you’re looking for adventure, you want to see the world through a different cultural lens, you want to explore the world? Motivations like that will set you up for success.
Where are you going?
We could have picked anywhere in the world. It’s a big beautiful place with a lot of amazing people to encounter. But a move to Mexico seems accessible and a great way to start. I mean, it’s just right there across the border and I can drive to it. It’s really just an hour further than a road trip to Taos from here, a drive I’ve done several times in my life.
Once you pick the place you want to go (and remember, you don’t have to stay – this could be just the beginning!), it’s time to research yourself silly. What does it cost to live there? What are the visa requirements? How long can you stay as a tourist before you have to convert your tourist visa into a residence visa? What is the predominant language spoken there?
If you can connect with people from the country you want to move to, I highly recommend that. Don’t limit yourself to ex-pats. Connect with natives if you can. Learn at least enough of the local language to get around and say, “Hello, my name is _________________.” and “I would love to learn your language” and “Please speak slowly.” Most people are delighted when you are willing to learn their language. . . unless you are in Paris. They are generally unimpressed, possibly even contemptuous.
Learn about cultural taboos and norms. Do your best not to piss people off. And don’t’ expect people to be your personal tutorial guide either. Finding a cultural tutor is rare. Usually you are on your own. You have to watch and observe, then maybe quietly ask a few questions later. I once had a housemate from Korea. She was trying very hard to learn English and fit in, but her barrage of questions was off-putting after a short time: why do those people shake hands, why did that guy unbutton his jacket like that, why do you use forks and not chopsticks, why would you ever put ice in your drink?!, what is ketchup for…… The questions never ended.
Have you ever been questioned about things you take for granted? Do you know why we shake hands with the right hand rather than the left, who invented ketchup, and why most forks have four prongs? No. And it makes you feel really dumb when your discover your only answer is “I don’t really know.” This frustration is cross-cultural. Don’t do it to someone else. We are guests and visitors in their culture.
Do a shit-ton of research. Go to the place you think you want to move if you can. Read about it. Take everything as information – stay off the roller coaster of good and bad. Find truth between the extremes.
Beware the fearmongers!
My wife works as a birth educator. She has learned when women start announcing their pregnancies it triggers a landslide of birth and child horror stories. Everyone seems to know someone’s cousin’s upstairs neighbor’s aunt who had something awful happen during pregnancy and they feel compelled to share it.
The same phenomenon kicks in when you start telling people you are moving outside the United States. Everyone has an awful story about where ever it is you are going. We are continually told we live in the greatest country in the world (which begs the question, if that’s true, why do we need to make America great again) and no other place could possibly be as safe, as beautiful, as prosperous, as well edu-ma-cated, have the quality of health care, etc compared to the US, so we begin to assume that is true and that everywhere else is horribly dangerous.
Our continual news feeds play into this nonsense. We are terribly insular and don’t really talk about anything that happens in other countries unless it is something absolutely awful and unless it happened to Americans or American interests. We are also a very racist country (oh yes we are too), so if the country you are thinking of moving to isn’t predominantly white, you’re going to hear some really fearful things coming from your friends, co-workers, the news, and even from the State Department.
The US State Department recently issued a “do not travel” warning for Baja California Sur, giving it the same danger rating that is issued for war-torn countries like Syria. Why? Because Baja’s homicide rate is 61.6 murders per 100,000 people. Mazatlan, also on the danger list ranked 48.75 murders per 100,000 population. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? It does until you know that in 2016 St. Louis, Missouri had a homicide rate of 59.8 murders per 100,000 people. In the same year, Baltimore scored 51.14 per 100,000. New Orleans clocked in at 45.17 per 100,000. Ever heard of a travel warning issued by the State Department for St. Louis, New Orleans, or Baltimore? Yeah. Me neither. I don’t frequent St. Louis, but I’ve been to Baltimore and New Orleans several times and have never once come back dead.
Am I saying the State Department is full of shit? No. The world isn’t Disneyland. There really is danger and drug related violence out there, but there is danger here too. Read news reports, preferably from a non-American source. Read blogs. Talk to people who live where you want to go. Find an additional perspective through which you can view the place other than what you hear from the State Department and CNN. Balance it all out.
Use your common sense and to balance the fear-mongering. Also tune in to timelines – if you hear tales about your friend’s co-worker’s uncle’s neighbor’s best friend getting assaulted 10 years ago in Bangkok, just smile and nod and find your moment to quickly bow out of the conversation. This information hasn’t been true for a decade. This admonition is also true of people who post on user groups on Facebook and other social media who live in the area you are going to. We all tend to take our own experience and stamp it as gospel for everyone. Someone who has had a bad experience in Okinawa may conclude that Okinawa sucks. For them that was true, but that’s not your story.
So how do you stay safe in a foreign country? Don’t buy drugs, don’t get ripped at the bar (save it for home), don’t wander around bad neighborhoods, don’t flash the cash, don’t walk around with expensive jewelry on, don’t drive a fancy-ass car. Find out where the bad neighborhoods are and don’t go there. Same basic advice I’d give you state-side. You start flashing your money around or you start frequenting bad neighborhoods known for high crime and you might as well wear a neon sign that says, “Easy Prey.”
Plan like a fiend
Planning has been the big daunting task so far. Researching Mexico, going there, talking to people who live there or recently lived there, and taking Spanish classes has all been the fun stuff. But we still had to do the literal planning. What did that look like?
Sold our stuff/house, getting ‘stuff’ down to what fits in the back of the car (more on that in the next section)
We got our passports and visa requirements in order. We had to answer questions like: Do we want to go in on tourist visas or do we want to try for the temporary or permanent visas? How do we do that? Where do we do that? What paperwork is required for us to do that? What kind of documentation do we need for our pets? How much stuff are we/am I taking and do I need documentation for that?
How we import the pets, pet food availability, recommended shots for ourselves, driving route and hotels along the way that are ok with the cats, getting car insurance, figuring out cell phone plans, what dates are we traveling? All of this needs answering. It never seems to end, this mountain of questions. You’ll be able to figure a lot of it out. Check with people on social media too. Connect with people in the area if you can.
That said, I come from a very internet oriented area. Know that in other places digital data will only take you so far. Your cell phone may or may not work where you are going. You might not be able to depend on Google maps. You might not be able to find everything you’re looking for online because people actually (*gasp*!) talk to each other rather than blogging about their whole lives…..like I am doing right now. Time to whip out your Inner Extrovert and start making literal connections. And yes, I know that inner extrovert is a contradiction in terms.
Deal with your stuff issues
I always thought of myself as a purging fool by nature. I’ve always prided myself on being able to jettison sentimental junk that didn’t serve me. I tossed out my high school and college memorabilia eons ago. I easily let go of clothing that is out of style or that I just don’t like. I honestly believed that I could pack everything I needed in the back of my baby pickup, tie my mattress on top and be gone from anywhere in an afternoon.
Then I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I decided to try it out. You start with clothes and Marie Kondo, the author, encourages you to put like things together. I began with t-shirts and polo type shirts. I piled them all onto the floor in my room. The pile hit me at mid thigh. Similar piles formed with shorts, jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and shoes. It was a little overwhelming and this was the small mountain of stuff. You wouldn’t even believe me if I told you how many books, Books, BOOKS I got rid of. CDs full of music, software, and photo backups could have killed me if it had fallen over on me. Turns out I’m an information hoarder.
If you are a typical American, you probably have stuff issues too. We have so much disposable income compared to most of the world that most of us have transferred waaaaay too much of the contents of our local Target, Pottery Barn, and Barnes and Nobles stores into our lives and our closets. Most of us fill up whatever living space we dwell in. Count on this taking up a lot of time. Count on it being an emotional rollercoaster.
What if I just store it?
Think you’ll just store it all? Think again. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a parent who has the space and will store your stuff while you’re gone. But if you don’t have that luxury, the cost of storage is truly appalling. Even if you find an inexpensive 10×10 and spend only $100/month, you are spending $1200 a year to store stuff you will probably never look at or use again. That’s 3-4 months of rent or 7 months worth of food in Mexico. And what if you stay for 5 years? That’s $6k. You could probably easily replace all the stuff you’re storing less expensively than you could store it.
You don’t need it
I got rid of stuff I swore I would absolutely need. Turns out I was wrong. I packed boxes of “must haves” last June that I haven’t opened since then. Clearly, I don’t need that stuff. I promise you won’t either.
OK, maybe you do need it….buy it again later
People told me that I needed to bring my own linens, cooking utensils, and electronics when I moved to Mexico because there was no way I’d find them there. Turns out CostCo is in Mexico and their inventory is largely the same as it is in the states. They sell good linens, cooking utensils, electronics, office supplies, and myriads of other junk I don’t even want to own or need again. Chances are very good you’ll find something similar where you want to land. No matter where you go humans need to cook, eat, sleep, and live just like you do.
Expect it to take longer than you think
Getting rid of stuff, getting all of your papers together, acquiring a visa, getting funding set, etc. all takes a lot of time. I’d recommend you give yourself a year of consistent effort to get it all accomplished. Treat it like a project you are managing. There are a lot of good project management softwares out there like Project Management for G Suite and Airtable (which has a free monthly plan that might work for you) if you want to go that direction. If not, no big. Go with pen and paper.
When you get overwhelmed
Just focus on the one task in front of you. Yes. What you are doing is very overwhelming. It’s huge. If you look at all of it at once, your brain circuits will fry, your head will tilt to one side, and smoke will come out of your upward-facing ear. So don’t do that.
Did you ever hear the old adage about how you eat an elephant? The answer is one bite at a time. I don’t like to eat animals, so I’m definitely not noshing on elephants, but the concept is a good one for big daunting tasks. Sit down and lay out the whole set of tasks on a timeline. Get overwhelmed. Get stoned. Sleep it off. Ignore it for a little while. After your eyes have unfuzzed and you feel a little less like your brain is going to explode, focus on one task or sub-task at a time until all the boxes are checked and all the tasks are completed. You’ll look down and find that your ticket, passport, and visa are in your hand and you’re on your way to your new home.
It’s best to know this is going to happen to you after you move. I did missionary work in my youth and remember the simultaneous thrill and suck of living in a culture I wasn’t born into. Sometimes, even amidst the beauty of the place and the amazing and lovely people, you just want a damn chocolate shake from Whataburger (even if you never imbibed at home and indeed, even if you’ve never had one in your life), you just want to take a hot bath, and you want your mommy. And this can make you really cranky.
Seems like it generally takes me about 2 months to get pissy. For the 1st 60 days or so I am totally in love with the new place and culture. After that there is a cranky period of missing home and hating everything about the new place and culture. I recommend you simply lessen contact with others – keep it pleasant as long as you can, then go home and grit your teeth and hate life for a while.
Be nice to yourself during this time. Give yourself treats and spoil yourself as much as possible. This shall pass. You will come to a place of integration and it won’t take that long. Your brain is just tired or adjusting right now. Find others from your country of origin if you can or at least others who speak your language fluently. The familiarity of connecting with other native English speakers is a rest you need. You’ll find balance again soon. This resource and others like it might help.
What you are doing is a really big deal
If you’re doing this, know that it is a really big deal. And I don’t just mean in terms of checking off all the boxes above. Most of the people I’ve met in this world want to acquire their things, their spouse and family, and then they want to relax into that comfort. Selling all you have and moving internationally is not something a lot of people attempt or are even drawn to.
What you are doing is herculean. You are exiting the comfort zone and beginning your adventure. You are officially one in a million! Know that we are over here cheering you on and are happy to answer any questions about your great escape that we can. And if we don’t know the answer, we can probably help you find someone who does.
Good luck! You can do it!