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Expatriation is Freedom (But Not the Way You Think)

During a Jillian-imposed viewing of Lord of the Rings last night, it dawned on me that I am perhaps happier now, living in Yucatan, than I have ever been in my life. And as that bearded dude droned on about the Fellowship, that computer-generated monster said, “my precious,” over and over again, and I drifted off into the sweet release of couch-napping, I thought about why.

Expatriation is freedom, sure, but not in the way you think. It’s not a run away from America, or a nose-thumbing of that culture. I never intended to live my life outside of where I was born, but my parents had other ideas when I was a kid, and I suppose that lifestyle has been passed on to me. I was never one of those crying little hippie kids, not even in college, pretending that I was going to move to Canada if Bush got re-elected or shave off my moustache if we invaded Iraq. Frankly, I didn’t give much of a shit about the world around me, which is often confused by Jillian and other family members as either an insane anti-social tendency, or being utterly self-absorbed. This may be true, to a point. But I want to make it very clear that when we made the decision to move, it wasn’t because we were failing at life, hiding from anything, or running away from responsibility.

Quite the contrary. We had a pretty tidy little life going for ourselves, aside from the rampant alcoholism and boredom, at times even with each other. We had our cozy apartment full of Ikea furniture, a car that occasionally ran, a cat, and careers that were being shaped on our own terms. We made the decision to walk away from that because, for some reason, it just wasn’t satisfying anymore. We were pretty burnt out by the time we were 25 or so, and at the time, we couldn’t figure out why.

As I type this, it occurs to me that the initial surge away from New York may very well have been running away. We just weren’t sure what we were running from.

Getting a foothold first in Merida, and now out on the beach, was all-consuming. It was all so vibrant, so new, at every single conceivable level; colors, language, culture. It was easy to convince ourselves that, though we weren’t sure what we had run from, what we had run to was pretty compelling. Over the last two years, I have been returning to the US more and more infrequently, and often, I miss our new home within a few days of being there. Now, I have the privilege of enjoying even the normal frustrations of the day, because at least they are arranged and assembled in a slightly different way. As it turns out, even the drudgery becomes exciting when it is so outside the realm of your experience.

Now that we have settled, that initial sheen of blind charm has worn off, and our lives are increasing in their normalcy once again. That may mean that another move is inevitable, as it is clear we thrive on the new. What I am learning though, is that a move back to the USA seems to be something that is moving further and further away. I am happier, more optimistic, and more engaged in my own life than ever before, because expatriation is freedom. And I’ll tell you why.

I don’t want to get all bullshit intellectual with you, Fight Club style, but what you don’t realize until you leave the States is that there is a constant weight associated with being there that, if you’re anything like me, kind of makes you feel like you are going to explode. Expatriation means not just a freedom from a political system you don’t like, or from Swedish pressboard furniture, or taxes, or any of the things that people may think about those who choose to expatriate. It is, in a much more indefinable, abstract way, the ability for the expatriate to be very selective, and to pick and choose the parts of American culture or their old lives that they wish to continue taking part in. We have the ability, now, to see the latest pictures of Britney’s underpants, to watch the morning news, to see Rachel Ray cook an omelette. We can buy a fancy car, we can shop for sheep’s milk cheese, the right jeans, ironic t-shirts; we can toy with the idea of vegetarianism. We can get a bank loan, start a new business, invest in mutual funds. We can go green, go biodiesel, go fishing, go big.

Or…we can just, well, not. We don’t actually have to do any of those things, if we don’t feel like it, and there are absolutely no social repercussions. Living by your own set of rules is entirely possible. You can jaywalk, or you can wait for the light. You can take your garbage to the dump, or you can just put everything in a huge pile in the front yard and set that big bastard on fire. Living abroad means defining your conduct, be it physical, social, or mental, entirely for yourself. It means unbridled opportunity for self-expression, self-employment, for self-sustainability, for self-reliance. There is, almost, a total lack of accountability, which can feel alternately exhilarating and scary. But you know what? It feels fantastic.

There Are 8 Responses So Far. »

  1. You should work in marketing. Seriously, as always, well put.

  2. i wonder if you’d ask jillian what differences she feels. There is a huge weight off me, as a woman, that I don’t think men ever experience. It is the constant evaluation of your situation in public and “keeping safe” that I have never felt, in 4 years on Mexican soil, in various (Zacatecas, Queretaro, Guanajuato, Tamulipas, Coahuila, Sonora, Sinaloa, Jalisco, Nayarit, Puebla, Veracruz, San Luis Potosi, Aguascalientes (but we spent little time there), Chiapas, Morelos, Estado de Mexico, Hidalgo, Yucatan, Campeche, BCN, BCS or Quintana Roo) states.

  3. When people ask “Why?” it is a little tough to put into words. I tell them this isn’t for everyone. It’s an adventure, a test of how well one is able to adapt and see the once mundane from new and different angles. It’s not America bashing or running away. It’s running toward the rest of your life without fear of failure. It’s like a slap in the face. Until you do this, you have no idea of how complacent your life has gotten. You are reintroduced to abilities you’ve forgotten you had. You learn how to live without electricity and water from time to time. You relearn how to cook. You start reading again. It goes on and on. And it’s great we have the blogs to share with each other, isn’t it?

  4. I would argue that the freedom doesn’t come from leaving the US, but from where you ended up — the same sense of freedom that you have in the Yucatan would not be there in London. It’s true that you could selectively pick the bits of American culture you wanted to maintain, but there’s a first-world, western civ point of view that’s broader and more uniform than the particulars of national identity.

    By opting out of that framework, you’re free to evaluate life by your own measures, and those of your current neighbors. They might think you’re a little bizarre, but they sure don’t think you’re a punk because you’re not an investment banker.

  5. This is perhaps the best statement I’ve ever seen on the “why’s” of living the expatriate life. It’s a feeling in your soul that can’t be duplicated any other way…it’s freedom, it’s life in it’s wholeness and glory.
    Being back in the states for the last 3 months has made all those reasons for being somewhere else very, very, clear.
    Thank God, (and us!) you are who you are!

  6. I totally agree with you. One of the things I love about living here is that we no longer feel the need to have top notch “stuff.” It was so hard to part with some of our crap that we rented a storage unit in the states and didn’t sell our house. The longer I stay here, though, the more I feel like that crap we left is just a weight and our house is like a nail that’s keeping us attached to the US. We keep saying we’ll do two years, maybe three and re-evaluate. If the US housing market wasn’t in the tanker so bad, I’d push to get rid of it all. It’s been very cathartic to be free of all that crap that we called our “life.”

  7. I agree with another poster that this is refreshingly written from a first-hand point of view. I grew up in the US, became an expat for eight years in Germany, and moved back here in 1994. Throughout the years I have analyzed the differences, the good, the bad, and I can truly say that one can pretty much do whatever they want to do, wherever they want to (in advanced countries such as the US, Mexico, France,,,and meaning within legal bounds of course). I chalk that up to an “anonymity” factor abroad, here in the US it is moreso a choice one can make. There are symbols of status in any city and it’s a choice whether one wants to mix in that. Not discounting anything, just saying what I’ve experienced. Been to Merida / Progreso and we loved it, nice articles here.

  8. MORE COMFORTABLE? here in Mexico? No, I would not say so. I don’t feel unsafe, though I never did in the States either, and at least there a solitary walk isn’t an invitation to question my motives and morals.

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