Monday, January 24, 2011

What is an "Expat"?

A Real Expat
As a part of the group of not-rich expats in Playa del Carmen (i.e. the ones who don't own condos near the beach worth half a million dollars, or even a condo a few blocks back worth $150,000), I've realized two things about us.  One is, we blend in better.  We live in the lower-middle class neighborhoods, speak Spanish (somewhat successfully), hang out with our Mexican neighbors and are often married to Mexicans.  The other is, we really don't think of ourselves as "expats."

Officially an expat (shortened from "expatriate") is anyone who resides in a country other than their own on a long-term basis.  For internet marketing, businesses whose target market are anglophone North Americans, "expat" means people who have some money (not necessarily rich, just enough to own a vacation property worth $150,000 or more), don't speak Spanish, hang out with Canadians at beachfront restaurants, live in gated communities, or high security condo complexes, and only have neighbors from Texas and Italy (even though they live in Mexico.)  Interaction with Mexicans is charity and buying local handicrafts.

Of course, this is a huge generalization. I've met Americans with no money who speak horrible Spanish (and almost worse English); I've met people with vacation property is worth more than the sum of my entire life's financial worth (including the years I still have remaining to live) and are very in-touch with Mexico, Spanish and their local neighbors.  It's also worth noting that this has nothing to do with like-ability; I've met many of the other expats who are very pleasant people, and great to talk to.  They're just not into the whole "diving into Mexico head first" thing.  In any case, the generalization does have some truth to it.

Much more important than the money / no-money distinction is the adventurous / non-adventurous distinction (see Where's your adventurous spirit?).  Many Americans come down here for warm weather and beaches, and are kind of unsure about Mexican culture; living in a bubble of Gringos is just a more comfortable way of enjoying the sun.  Other Americans  come here to live in Mexico, and really enjoy a Mexican lifestyle, learn Spanish and become a part of the real Mexico; apparently these more "adventurous" Americans far outnumber the other ones.

While statistics are hard to get exact since there's no way to accurately count all expats, government sources estimate that 1 million Americans live in Mexico. Extremely generous numbers (probably exaggerated for the sake of promotion) place less than 10% of these among the nice resort communities like Cancun/Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta.  Another 5% or so could be found in the towns of Lake Chapala.

These same stats estimate that between 400,000 and 600,000 Americans live in Mexico City and nearby areas; that's 40-60%!  (That would also be the largest American population in any city outside of the U.S.) But when you go to Mexico City, you don't see many Americans around.  My guess is that it's because of 2 reasons; one is that the city is just so huge.  You can easily half a million people in a city of 25 million.  The other is, they're probably the "other" expats; the ones who live in Mexican communities, learn Spanish, get swept away by a Mexican woman (or man), and lured into living their entire life here (see WARNING: Mexico is DANGEROUS! Do not come here - unless ...).

I would write about Canadians, but I don't have any stats about us, except that the the total is around 300,000, if I remember correctly.  I assume the breakdown of locations is similar.

The numbers are contrary to what people would expect; you walk down the main street of Playa del Carmen, and you're not sure if you're in Mexico; Americans, Canadians and Europeans everywhere.  There are "expat" bars that make you feel like you're back home.  On the other hand, you can walk for hours in Mexico City and not find a single American or Canadian - even in the "hip" neighborhoods.  That's because those expats are at home with their families, or at work, or in a Mexican bar, or at the taco shop.  They might be making enchiladas or mole for their kids.  They drink coffee from Chiapas.  Sometimes they're helping to start a new church, and may be working with mostly Mexicans in this task.  When they go on vacation, the go on roadies to nearby villages and places where tourists just don't go.  I'm sure, once in a blue moon, they go to beach. I also go the beach once in a blue moon.  Last time I went it was about 10 minutes away.  I hope that's still true next time I go.

It really wouldn't surprise me that no body notices the majority of expats; we're just here living our lives, quietly and happily (well, maybe not so quietly - that's hard to do in Mexico - but definitely happily), enjoying Mexico the real way.  Spring breakers and drunk middle-aged people working out their midlife crisis by acting like spring-breakers give Americans a bad reputation.  The others who just want their comfortable expat community, give the impression of distance and, sometimes superiority (this is a question of perception, not necessarily the intentions of those expats.)  Canadians have largely escaped those reputations, but it is still assumed that we can't handle the real Mexico.

But the truth is, the majority of us - Canadians and Americans - CAN handle Mexico, and LOVE being a part of Mexico - really a part of it.  We are the real expats.  But no one pays attention to us.

That's OK though.  If the others are anything like me, they don't to be paid attention to.  They just want to live their lives - in Mexico.  I'd like to meet some of them sometime and find out if my guess is true.


  1. This is so True! I guess my husband and I would fall into the gated community but not rich, and most of our interactions are with Canadians. By the way we are from Texas. Hopefully we can change this. We have been in Playa for just over a month now and our goal for moving down here was to experience the culture and of course learn spanish. I guess it will take some time to break away from our bubble. Great Blog.

    If you are interested I have been doing a little blogging of my own and our move to Mexico

    Also if you are interested in hanging out with expats from Texas, we love meeting new people.

  2. Well, I'm glad you've got to know a lot of Canadians! I hope they've been good people to be around.

    I took a peek at your blog, and it looks interesting. I think your son goes to a school just a block or two away from my son's school. If I remember correctly, I have a few posts here about my son and the school system. If not, I'll be doing some pretty soon.

    We're in Canada right now, but we'll be back in the fall. We'll try to get it touch then!