Living in a foreign culture is like holding a mirror up to your own culture. Each discovery in the new place also teaches you about yourself, about your old place. Each word you learn teaches you something about that word in your native language. Each event that happens to you is either better or worse than your old culture, and in the end everything adds up to create an experience that is either better or worse than the place you came from. It’s like the goldfish that doesn’t know it is in water because it has never been anywhere else; it must leap into the air to realize it has returned to water.
Today when I watch an American TV show — it can be nearly any show, really — I am struck by the incredible number of unquestioned assumptions and waste each scene depicts. Waste of money and time and energy earning and maintaining and paying interest several times over on huge houses, with huge rooms to furnish and fill that you will rarely if ever use. Huge offices that need to generate huge money to stay in business, huge cars to transport yourself from the huge house to the huge office. And the assumptions that this over-production and waste is absolutely normal.
This over-consumption and over-production means that an average person “needs” a couple million dollars to retire to maintain this massive lifestyle. How many people are going to become millionaires in their lifetimes? Very few–not even many of those who strive for this carrot on a stick. But what happens if you strip away most of the over-consumption and over-production, down to what is meaningful and actually necessary in your life? Why, then you can retire and lead a blissful life, perhaps even retire early. Especially in Mexico.
I, too, am guilty of over-consumption and over-production, guilty as charged. But my mirror into another culture is the reason I am aware of it. You can read, for example, studies that “heat map” homes that show only a small fraction of a house is actually used. But unless you have been elsewhere, lived where the assumptions are not “bigger is always better” you have no way to apply this learning and quickly forget about it. How many people can live happily in a house? One? Two? A dozen? Eighteen happy people once lived in the Mexican home I now call my own. Do I have eighteen times more happiness than they did? Hell, no.
The cultural mirror into another culture also teaches you to question the values you were brought up with. Is efficiency always an important value? Is standardization really important? Does business always come before pleasure, work before family? You learn that there are good points and also bad points to everything, depending on what values you hold dear. When Mexicans say family first, they are not parroting words, they actually mean it. They will drop a ladder to bring something their child needs to their school. Family IS first.
It’s been a very long process of acculturation for me, of accepting Mexican culture as my own preferred culture. I went back and forth for the last thirteen years, spending anywhere from half a year to two years here, before retiring “a little bit young” in Mexico (I am younger than most retirees). Before that I spent most vacations and holidays exploring Mexico and dreaming of living here one day.
Want to read more? My story is in the new anthology, “Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats“