Expats Exposed


“The Best Places to Live in Mexico as a U.S. Expat”: Good, keep them out of Oaxaca.

Who are these itinerant people, and what are their stories? For twelve years now I’ve been living with a bunch of expats from the U.S. and Canada who have come to Mexico for many different reasons. I’ll be talking to some of them in future posts. The point will be to reveal something about what moves people to leave a familiar culture for one largely unknown. For now, I’ll try to explain what this move has meant to me politically and culturally.

So let me give you a few excerpts from things I’ve written about moving on in my life. From the conclusion to Moot Testimonies, a fictionalized memoir published about a year ago:

I expatriated myself ten years ago in part because I was broke, in part to get away from American politics and culture, in part to start a new life. One takes a modest pride in being an expat because it is a conscious opting out. (An exile usually signifies someone who is excommunicated, banished, cast out.) As an expat, I’m in no way a Mexican immigrant: I don’t want Mexican citizenship and I like the indeterminate nature of living here. Expats will never be part of the Mexican polity or culture, and most of us accept that. Being an expat is a way to try getting beyond your former experience.

Earlier, in another attempt at a memoir, Jive-Colored Glasses, I tried to explain the political and cultural motives behind my move:

After a number of visits there, Mexico seemed my best option. For one thing, I found cultural and political life in the U.S. increasingly impossible. By 2009 when I moved out, real commonality had all but ceased for most people, and class warfare was a term being bandied about. The liberal elites were living lives as circumscribed as those of the working class (though they didn’t realize it), and both groups were still captivated by the myth of human progress. For culture, the elites watched PBS; the working class (many of whom were not working) watched American Idol. I felt little connection to either group.

 . . . My last three years in the U.S. after [working for] the Navy and before Mexico were spent in the state of Maine, living with my sister on an idyllic farm with Angus cattle, beautiful short summers and long ice-bound winters. . . . The solitude of Gardiner, Maine, was hermetic and hard to break out of. Instead of inspiring my creativity, the natural beauty of the place brought me an emptiness of spirit. Maine was forever economically depressed. And I was far too preoccupied with finding work and keeping the woodstove going, never getting the relief that a good walk in the woods should bring. It was what a lot of folks in Maine experienced: the bucolic blues.

But living in Maine does something to you. I had that in common with my friend Conrad who passed on about six years ago. We both had careers in academia and had developed similar misanthropic views about politics even though we counted ourselves as part of the liberal majority that so predominated in Oaxaca.

After his death I put some words in his mouth, again from that fictionalized Moot Testimonies attempt. Conrad had become one of the more important and loved people in my life. He understood the finer points of what it meant to be an expat.

I’ve seen and done all Oaxaca has to offer. So part of me is just tired of being the house liberal, and I think Goods has felt the same way. Every progressive cause has its downside. Living in a liberal bubble like Oaxaca can get tiresome.

After all, we are the privileged caste, aren’t we?—the white folks who call ourselves expats, so unlike those Nicaraguan and Mexican “migrant workers.” I recently read a piece in The Guardian about this. Arabs, Latinos and Asians are immigrants; we and the Europeans are favored and called expats. Well, I can’t get too exercised about this linguistic snobbery, though many of my Oaxaca friends are always preaching from that liberal state of mind where every last kind of injustice must be called out as unfair, insupportable or immoral. I come from good French-Canadian stock, working class folks who had no money or time for such bullshit. Mainers by and large don’t put up with such bullshit. They can’t afford the indulgence. Goodman gave up on the American Way, maybe for similar reasons.

In our ways we both were trying to express the dissatisfaction that comes from looking at life as identity politics. It becomes more discernible when you’re living abroad. I don’t know what to call myself these days, but I guess liberal will suffice.

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