July 2014


Living in Mexico AMA: stress levels and daily life

How’s the day-to-day? Is the pace of life less, is there less stress, less pressure? What’s the one biggest difference?

What makes those questions difficult to answer is the fact that several major things changed about my life at the same time, and ‘moving to Mexico’ was only one of them. So although I can compare my stress levels today with those of a year ago (short answer: much lower!), it’s much trickier to assess what percentage of those changes have to do with the culture and/or economics of Mexico per se, and what percentage results from other concurrent transformations — most notably the end of the Stepmother / Living With Children Era and the abandonment of the Corporate Graphic Design Career.

I think it’s safe to say that people are more relaxed here, and generally in less of a hurry, and adopting that kind of attitude is pretty much a survival trait. With American-style expectations, you’d be frustrated on a regular basis (and I occasionally catch glimpses of gringos who are, though most do adapt). I feel like I’m doing pretty well — not perfectly, but well — at ‘going with the flow’ and retaining my equanimity when things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes this means having backup plans in place, and sometimes it means adjusting on the fly. But I knew about this aspect of the culture well in advance, and was prepared for it; if I’d been surprised and confused it would have been a much rougher transition.

On the other hand, from the moment we set foot (or tires) in the country, I started to become aware of the vast number of things that I know about How America Works, that I’d never really thought about before. Almost all of the trivia of daily life is different — not so much that I can’t adjust, but enough that most of my prior experience is entirely irrelevant. We’ve had to start over from scratch at learning the most basic, quotidian things.

The need to negotiate most interactions in a foreign language (which I have not been actively studying enough), does add another layer of stress. In the most common, repetitive areas I am reasonably comfortable, but anything unexpected still throws me for a loop. And if my brain is tired, I can become embarrassingly inarticulate in Spanish, even on subjects in which I am theoretically conversant.

All of that, however, is temporary and constantly improving. When we first arrived, I would commonly have three or four conundrums (problems I had no idea how to solve, needs I had no idea how to fulfill, etc.) per day; now at the ten-month mark, I’m down to perhaps two or three a week.

To put things in perspective: previously, by far the most stressful move I’d ever made was to New York City. The first few months living here were approximately comparable, stresswise, but it’s gotten easier a lot faster here than it did there, despite the language barrier. (I lived in NYC for just under three years, and it never got easy.) Overall, people are much nicer and more helpful here, which makes a big difference.

What’s the one thing that has been the most unexpected part of life in Mexico? What do you enjoy the most about living there? What do you miss the most from the states?

The last question is the easiest: The thing I miss most is access to a good public library (in English). I read quickly and voraciously — mostly nonfiction in a variety of fields — and although the web is awesome, there are still many things I need to know (as both a writer and a human being) that are only available in book form. I need books almost as much as I need food.

Given unlimited access, I can read probably 200 books a year. Buying them all is out of the question; I save my pennies for the really dense ones, after I’ve already read them once and am sure that I can continue to learn from them for years to come. I cheated for a while, and kept using ebooks from the Seattle Public Library — a vastly reduced selection compared to the physical books, but still better than nothing. But last month they somehow figured out that Jak and I are no longer Seattle residents, and canceled our access. I am now limping along with a Scribd account and making puppydog eyes at some of my urban, library-connected American friends.

Runner-up: pine shavings cat litter. This clay clumping crap is so suboptimal.

It’s also next to impossible to get decent bedsheets in Mexico (and I know it’s not just me; I’ve seen literally dozens of expats make the same complaint). I suddenly feel like I understand the old trousseau and hope chest customs — my collection of cotton bed linens is now one of my most valuable possessions.

Nothing yet has been wildly unexpected — either I’m pretty good at research and setting expectations in advance, or else I quickly forget what expectations I previously had that were unfulfilled. :) The only thing that comes to mind is that I am having slightly less success at making good, close friends among other expats than I predicted. (My expectations around making close friends among Mexican nationals were and remain very low, at the very least until I become proficient in Spanish.)

What I enjoy most has to be … simple moments of beauty, followed by delight at experiences that are so different from everything that has come before.

I don’t know if this place is objectively more beautiful, or if I am just better able to recognize the beauty because it’s unfamiliar. But I have little carbonated bubbles of happiness sometimes, just walking through the busy street market, or listening to a thunderstorm, or seeing a spray of bright flowers climbing over a wall.

Experiences, because although I’ve lived all over the United States — South, Midwest, East Coast, West Coast — I’ve barely ever set foot outside my home country, and the last fifteen years I lived in just one city, Seattle. Which I did love, once, but I think my heart left some years ago, and I only stayed as long as I did because of duty and commitments. I knew it was past time to make a change, but not until I had done so did I fully recognize how constrained I had been, or how important new experiences are to my happiness.