Sunday, June 26, 2011

5 Common Expat Headaches

 So, you finally took that leap and moved your life from one side of the world to the other. Maybe it was the ancient and mysterious sands of the Middle East, the majestic fjords of Scandinavia, or the mellow tropics that called to you with a loud enough voice to get you away from the TV and into the world. But however you got there, congratulations, you took a brave step forward in making your life a more intriguing story. But now that you are here, it's time to take a realistic look at your new life situation and realize that as with everything in life, there is good and there is bad. And how we deal with the bad is determined by how much we love the good.

Costa Rica: Better Than Iran
In my five years here in Costa Rica, I can say that the good has outweighed the bed by a factor of about 10. But that's not to say it's all been effortless and without stress that usually comes out of left field. If you're following my back story, I have not yet even come to the part where real white knuckle stress became an actual and huge factor in my life. But today's post will give you a preview of some of the things I had to deal with, and I've narrowed down all of the possible headaches to five big ones that tend to give people the most hardship. Oh sure, there are a lot more than five. For example, I'm sure being an ex-pat American in Iran carries different issues than hanging out in a Costa Rican rainforest like me. I can say the president here has a mother who's a hamster and a father who smells of elderberries and not be legitimately worried about being shot. That said, here are the five most common headaches I found to be the most pervasive amongst the ex-pat community down here.

1.) Not Knowing the Language

  Okay, now this one is pretty much your own fault and the one of the five that you have the most control over. I came down here with somewhat of a working knowledge of Spanish, but as I quickly found out, it wasn't near enough to be useful in an emergency situation. I worked on it immediately though, and in about six months I got to the point where I was fluent enough that my brain wasn't translating everything into English anymore, it was like carrying on a conversation in my own language. Immersion training at its best. However, I do know either ex-pats down here who after 10 or more years still have not picked up any Spanish. This is as ridiculous as it is disrespectful to the people of your host country. In the case of Americans, doubly so because of all the flak we tend to give Latin American immigrants in our country who refuse to learn a working knowledge of English. This was painfully illustrated to me one time as I took a complaint call in the Geek Squad from a woman who claimed that her husband had fought in Vietnam and shouldn't have had to hear someone say "para espanol,. marque numero dos" when he called our support line. Yes, this actually happened, but don't analyze it too much as it will eventually hurt the back of your head.

2.) Unreliable Infrastructure

This is one that I am dealing with a lot lately, and it can be absolutely infuriating. I work online, I am not a farmer or shoemaker. My livelihood, reputation, and professional effectiveness are all dependent on my Internet connection. Here in Costa Rica, the Internet is provided to the entire country via one small undersea cable that stretches from Panama City to San Jose. If a pod of particularly flatulent dolphins were to swim by at just a certain angle, the entire country could potentially lose Internet for weeks. But as it is, it cuts out randomly and for hours on end throughout the course of the day. In a 24-hour day, I am out for at least an average of one of them. Some days it's more, some days it's less. And now that the rainy season is here, the electricity now enjoys the same amount of reliability.

My Saturday Night
In the United States, if there is a blackout, there had better be a natural disaster involved, or people are gonna start shooting at the power company. Down here, the power goes out completely at random for hours on end and no one is in the slightest way angry. Except for me. Last night, while feeding one of my daughters the power went out for two hours, and I had no way to reheat her bottles. As the average MTV raised American, my usual reaction is to throw my head back and let out a mighty "FFFFFFUUUUUUUUUU....." while everyone else around me just kind of chuckles and shrugs. But I had a one-month-old gorilla bugg in my arms and couldn't. So I sat there in the dark, with her bottles under each armpit, feeling so happy that I decided to live in a place where nobody gives a damn if they have a stable power grid or not.

 3.) Prejudice

 This is going to happen no matter what you try to do to stop it. And let's not confuse prejudice with bigotry, which is one of the most loathsome of human traits that many have not yet been able to grow out of. Prejudice is judging a person or a situation before one completely knows anything about them. If you have moved to a country that can be classified as Third World, then it will be presumed by most of your neighbors, acquaintances, and business contacts that you are somewhat well-off. Many people in these countries grew up hearing stories of how rich Americans and Europeans are, and how they throw their shoes away when they get holes in them instead of taking them to be repaired.

Again this is not bigotry on their part as they do not believe themselves to be superior to you. But they will see you as a possible source of revenue in some very imaginative ways. No less than four times have I gone househunting down here and had some kind of variation of this conversation....

Me: "Wow this is a really nice house, and I think it's really perfect for the price! Gimmie a lease now you crazy house renting sum'bitch!!"

Slimy Tico Realtor: "Jes, it eez very nice Senior Gipson, how much did the ad say eet whaz per month again?"

Me: "$500 US a month, why?"

Slimy Tico Realtor: "Ah! Jes, that ad was a mistake, eetz actually $2500 a month. We had a new girl that week, eend she was a confuz-ed....and....where joo go-eeng?"

My Tactical Nuke in the War on Tico Price Gouging
No kidding, four times. Four different realtor companies had a new girl in the office that week who typed up the rental prices wrong. This was obviously an institutionalized scam and probably taught at Costa Rican Realty college in the first freshman semester. When the fourth potential realtor started the story, I finished it for him and just walked out. So from now on when I go house hunting, I just have Dr. Girlfriend go in my place and report back. Her looks usually give her a discount anyway... But that is just one example of the prejudice you could run into. You just have to learn to accept it, and work around it by becoming engaged to one of the more attractive natives in your host country.

4.) Status of Residency

 Depending on your host countries relationship with your native one, this could be more or less stressful than it should be, but it always will be. Costa Rica is a neutral country like Sweden and Switzerland, so their immigration laws tend to be a little bit more stringent. And their Parliament recently passed a law that states anyone who overstays their tourist visa can be find up to US$100 per day that they stay over, as well is be deported to either Panama or Nicaragua and not be allowed back in for a minimum of five years. Luckily I was grandfathered out of that due to my relationship and my Costa Rican children. But at the time that that law had passed, I had overstayed my tourist visa by two years...

The point is, don't overstay your tourist visa and don't do anything that would risk you getting any illegal status. In some countries that comes with jail time, unreasonable fines, forcible deportation, or in real paradises like North Korea, shot in the face. You should just figure on taking a miniature vacation every 90 days or however long the visa lasts. There are only a few countries that won't renew a tourist visa, be sure to check with your Embassy before you decide your entire life there and you should be fine. Most of the ex-pat community here in Costa Rica just factor in their three-day trip to Panama City every three months as a part of the schedule of their lives.

If you are seeking permanent residency or citizenship, be sure to jump through every single hoop they put in front of you, when they put it there. It will no doubt be a long, clunky bureaucratic process that will eat a little bit of your sanity along the way as I demonstrated in a post from four years ago. But just think of the pleasure you will know when it's all said and done and you write that letter to your IRS (or equivalent) that simply says "Bite Me" like I did.

5.) Culture Shock and Difficulty Assimilating 

 This is going to be more or less impact if a person depending on their ability to adapt and their mental fortitude. There was something that Bruce Lee once said to his good friend and student Dan Inosanto when Inosanto first came to train with him. Bruce Lee's unique methods of fighting and unarmed tactics that eventually became known as Jeet Kune Do was hard to swallow for Inosanto at first because of the traditional methods he learned from childhood. The quote was "empty your cup so that you may drink my tea". This meant that he had to let go of all the preconceived notions that he built up based on his experiences and traditional methods training. This same thought holds true for anyone who wishes to assimilate into a society that is not their own. A simpler, more familiar quote that applies just as well is, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do".

When I first moved here, I would be awoken with furious anger at a noisy parade that would be winding itself through the labyrinth of my neighborhood. Another Saint's birthday. I would throw open my window and shriek curses that would make a Brooklyn Teamster blush at the passersby, and those curses would usually be drowned out by the 30 piece horn ensemble that was walking along with the parade. I eventually learned to just chalk it up to Ticos being Ticos, and then look forward to the raucous house parties that would be all over the barrio when the parade itself finally ended.

I adapted, but many people don't. You hear stories all the time about Americans or Canadians who moved down here and never leave their house. They are imprisoned in Paradise, and the more time they spend indoors, the crazier and more paranoid they get. But I will admit to it being funny sometimes when I turn on the news and see a story of yet another gringo loco on the roof of his house with a shotgun screaming about how his banana trees are trying to rob him. This actually happened.

So in my experience, those are the biggest five headaches I've had to deal with since living down here. No doubt your mileage will vary, in some places will be easier to assimilate to than others. I'm sure Americans who go to live in Canada are at lesser risk of numbers one and five on this list, for example. But wherever you are, you will always have this blog to come to for quick advice, and a chilled rum drink served in a hollowed out coconut tipped in salutation....


Jay said...

That is one beautiful tactical nuke, your realtors, I mean you are lucky to have her do the house hunting. ;)

The Angry Lurker said...

Great post, enjoyed the headaches, does moving from Ireland to the UK make me an expat?

Byakuya said...

I rather enjoy trying to interact with someone who's dialect is not your own.

Involves a lot of waving of the arms and such.

amBored said...

I hate headache .. hope this might help me.

Melanie said...

I think for the most part I would rather have your headaches than mine...

Zombie said...

I am sticking to my hometown! lol.

Anonymous said...

Very, very helpful realizations and information. While this seems so far away from what I'm facing, in all reality, this is what I WILL be one week!

-i so agree with you regarding language. it disgusts me that people just "assume" people should talk English even though you're in THEIR country. and those people that refuse to learn the language are the same ones a year later wondering why they have no friends or support in these countries.

-also, i agree with #5... while assimilation may be easier for some people more than others, trying is just the most important thing!!!

im going to share this on twitter!

Autumnforest said...

Well, in that guy's favor, the banana trees are rather shifty. You have to watch what they're doing all the time. Enough to break anyone eventually. :-) Brilliant post, as always!

Leila said...

With the exception of the language barrier (I learned english as well as tagalog since I could first talk in the Philippines), those cons or "headaches" were what I suffered through for almost 3 years when I first moved here in the United States. I couldn't stand how different and lonely everything was. If you're not a social person (like I am), then it'd be even harder because you're not making as many friends as your fellow extraverts. I do have to say that the swindling by non-Americans of Americans is something which also gave me heartaches. My family in the Philippines constantly swindles my mom for money. "Oh Uncle this needed surgery... for his... clavicus." "Oh Bob needs to go to college" but when we visited them last Spring, they had none of those happen. They knew they were in a 3rd world country and we weren't, so they stole from us. I wish they were honest and open about things like that. But I guess this is where I digress?

Great post!

Banacek said...

Throw shoes out? I've glued mine back together three times already. They still work.

ed said...

i would probably be horrible at assimilating and such. useful guide though

Astronomy Pirate said...

I'm with Banacek, I've had the same pair of Adidas Sambas since high school, I keep gluing the heel back on. I got another pair for Christmas last year, so now those are my 'fancy' shoes. Haha. I can understand the stereotypes and everything though. It cannot be an easy process, but if you really think it's worth it, then all the more power to you. I might go one day, I haven't lost hope in this country yet, someones gotta put up the good fight.

Elliot MacLeod-Michael said...

I have to say, you are not making me want to become and ex-pat very much here. But it was still an interesting read. I'm already a gringo loco and haven't left the U.S. yet.

Gloria said...

Interesting post Aaron and of course you have reason! But reading this I think each country is different Do you know Chile??I think is a little different than Costa Rica.
And maybe any country you go have to adapt and learn new things,I know is not easy.
But all these years bloggins I learned the human beings are not so different! Is amazing all we can learn.

Maybe in your road allways had written you will live in Costa Rica (LOL) of course waht think your Mom about Costa Rica?
be well and patience with the littles, xgloria