When we moved from Las Vegas to Cuenca, Ecuador, in 2010, we knew we would be dealing with a new culture and language. But after more than a decade of living here as expats, we’ve been surprised that the biggest lessons we’ve learned have been about ourselves.
1. How To Adapt To New Surroundings
Relocating to another country is overwhelming at first. You’ve transplanted yourself from an environment where everything is familiar to one where nothing is. There’s so much to learn about and do. Your emotions run the gamut from excitement to frustration.
With all of this on our minds, it never occurred to us how we would feel in such a different setting. Well, it didn’t take long to find out.
At that time, Cuenca was home to maybe 500 expats out of a total population of over 500,000. To say that Edd, with a light complexion, blue eyes, bald head, and a 6 foot 3 inch frame, stood out like a sore thumb would be an understatement.
Locals would stare like they were encountering a visitor from another planet. Children would point and make comments to their parents that we couldn’t understand. Since we arrived with minimal Spanish skills, we didn’t comprehend much of what anyone was saying.
Most expats gradually adjust, but some grow weary of the unfamiliarity and return to their home country.
2. Patience Really Is A Virtue
Along with our suitcases, we also brought along our Type-A get-it-done-yesterday mindsets when we moved to Ecuador. We quickly discovered that the pace of life in Latin America is, well, different.
You probably think, as we did, that the Spanish word “mañana” means “tomorrow.” We learned it has a variety of translations — tomorrow, next week, next month, even never. But for sure, not right now.
Bureaucracy feels like an endurance sport. After waiting forever for your turn at a government office, no matter how many documents you provide, the clerk always seems to need “one more thing.”
In the beginning, these differences can drive you crazy. As you settle into the rhythm of the culture, however, you find that exactly when something happens often isn’t as important as you have been conditioned to believe. That the old saying turns out to be true: Patience really is a virtue after all.
3. Knowing Why Is Highly Overrated
Hand in hand with this discovery is the realization that always wanting to know “Why?” is highly overrated. Coming from our overscheduled, multitasking culture, it’s easy to become exasperated and wonder: “Why can’t they just tell me everything they need the first time?” “Why are people here always late for appointments?” “Why don’t they do it like [fill in the blank]?”
The answer to all such questions is, “Because they do it like this. And they’re perfectly happy with it.”
One way or the other, nothing changes, so what difference does it make? Rest assured an entire culture is not going to suddenly change based on your unsolicited opinion. Once you accept this simple truth, expat life instantly becomes less complicated and more enjoyable.
4. Living Simply Is Easier
In the U.S., there is a dizzying assortment of options for everything from mustard to detergent. The sheer abundance of goods and services at grocery stores can almost be overwhelming.
In Ecuador, you don’t have all of those options. While initially it can feel frustrating, fewer choices can make life easier. The limitations can be freeing, appreciating what you have, and learning to live simply.
5. Smiles Are The Universal Language
Lack of fluency in the language of your adopted home country inevitably creates awkward situations. On one of our early trips back to the United States, an immigration officer asked us something about our visas that we didn’t understand.
Not knowing what else to do, we simply stood there and smiled. He asked again. We kept smiling. Finally, he just stamped our passports and waved us through. Whew!
Edd once got his Spanish words confused and asked a sales clerk for a prostitute instead of a shopping bag. A potentially embarrassing situation was defused when everyone had a big laugh.
No matter where we’ve been in the world, we’ve found that smiles are the language that everyone understands.
6. You Are More Resilient Than You Think
People often design their lives to minimize challenges and surprises. This helps daily activities run smoothly but does little to exercise one’s resilience “muscles.”
Moving to a new country provides countless opportunities to whip that aspect of yourself into shape. Because no matter how much planning you do, things frequently can and do go sideways.
Successful expats are often amazed at how flexible and resourceful they become. We’ve been hopelessly lost. Totally confused. In way over our heads. But we showed up in Ecuador telling ourselves, “No matter what, we’re going to make this work at the highest possible level.” For over a decade, that’s exactly what we have done.
7. Your Home Country Looks Different From Afar
Some Americans choose expat life because of disgruntlement with their home country. The stressful lifestyle, political polarization, and careening economy become too much to bear.
At the same time, locals in Ecuador have repeatedly asked us why we would leave our country to come there. Thousands of Latin Americans are crossing the border into the U.S. every day, some traveling for months on foot for the chance to better themselves in what they view as the land of opportunity.
Living abroad has changed our own perceptions of the United States. On one hand, we feel a greater appreciation for our nation’s prosperity and efficiency. But we’ve come to question the relentless pursuit of accumulation and upward mobility after observing the focus on family, happiness, and leisure in so many other countries.
8. Home Is Wherever You Are
Two years ago we put all our furniture in storage and have since visited 10 countries and 25 cities while traveling full-time.
Temporarily residing in so many different places has expanded our perspective of what “home” means. We’ve come to realize that personal possessions are only one aspect of what defines a domicile.
A residence can be anywhere. The most important thing inside those walls is you. Now when people ask us where we live, our answer is, “Today our home is here.”
9. People Are People
It’s far too easy to incorrectly pigeonhole people and even entire nationalities based on limited stereotypical information. Such biases exist even within different regions of the same country.
One of the greatest blessings of expat life is experiencing the basic goodness of people no matter where they live. Throughout our extensive travels, locals have consistently been kind, compassionate, and helpful to these two sometimes clueless strangers.
Did we have to leave the country to improve on positive traits like humbleness, patience, simplicity, and kindness? Technically, no. But perhaps you can relate to our realization of how easy it is to get caught up in the frenetic energy of a fast-paced society that prizes conspicuous consumption and offers little reward for quiet contemplation.
Over the years our Spanish has improved, and we’ve acceptably integrated into the local culture. More importantly, our expat experience has taught us how to be better global citizens wherever we go.