I’m not sure how to verify accurate numbers on something like this but the fact is that a “number” of North American expats who move to Ecuador (and other locations) don’t make it. I know this because I have personally said goodbye to some of them as they leave and read the periodic farewell messages of others that are posted on expat forums or Facebook pages. I have personally heard or read their reasons for returning home.
For some it is the loss of close family connections; missing children and grandchildren that is the prime motivator. For others, it seems the adjustment to another culture and language has simply worn them down and returning to the familiar seems easier.
Before writing this piece, I really wanted to understand the issues involved with expatriates who repatriate to their home country. I wanted to find the connective threads that ran through them all. I reviewed old postings on various forums seeking clues and remembered the personal conversations I’ve had with those who left Ecuador. With a very few exceptions such as returning for specific medical care or family emergencies, the rest of those who returned to their home country simply couldn’t make the adjustment. First of all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Sometimes, those of us here tend to scoff at those returning home, muttering under our breath. There is no need for that! There is an infinite number of ways to live one’s lawful life, none better than the next. But we humans do like to gather support around our choices, don’t we?! At our core, I think we are all frightened 7th graders still trying to find our way to homeroom on the first day of school.
If you came to Ecuador to retire, returning to one’s home country after a couple of years really isn’t hard to understand. If you have been living under one set of cultural norms for sixty years, more or less, it is one helluva change to surrender your first language and begin to learn another at a mature age! And that’s just the beginning!
The food you grew up with, the seasonings you loved, the television programs you watched (in English), the relationships you shared with the people in your neighborhood, the newspapers you read, the sports teams you may have followed, the way you learned to stand politely in line waiting your turn, the reliance you enjoyed upon the power grid, the daily routine you followed and the simple fact that you could effortlessly, clearly and fluently communicate your thoughts without struggling …all of those things disappear when you move to Ecuador (presuming your Spanish language skills are minimal or non-existent). A new “normal” is slowly rebuilt from nothing, replacing an entire and complete life that you left behind. Are you prepared to do that? Many do and, like Diane and I, love the results! Maybe the life you left behind or want to leave behind is not the life that you want any longer. Some come to Ecuador to escape that life. Just know that there is an exchange required.
Now, this is the place where you have to say to yourself, “Why did I leave…or why am I thinking of leaving?” As Diane and I sat on our terrace last night discussing our future plans and the unbelievable fact that we were actually living a wonderful life on the equator in South America, we reflected upon our individual experiences the first 6 months we were here. I shared that I was completely, if quietly, overwhelmed by my inability to communicate. Of all the cultural changes we faced, the loss of my ability to simply communicate was the one thing that nearly brought me to my knees. I certainly knew my Spanish skills were minimal before arriving but that got very real, very quickly! These days, I no longer carry my English/Spanish dictionary with me, the cover long ago replaced by cardboard and duct tape. I get by and Diane and I are about to complete an 8 week Spanish class here in Bahia. It was a great help! In fact, a number of Ecuadorians have recently complimented me on my Spanish but I know those compliments are offered in the same way that a parent compliments and encourages a small child who has finally memorized the alphabet. I know I have improved but I also know they are being kind and encouraging. My Spanish still sucks but it sucks far less than it did when we first landed almost two years ago.
Diane shared that she didn’t have any problems at all with the transition to Ecuador…NONE! That’s what it looked like to me, also. She just waltzed into Ecuador with her smile and a few bags and settled right in. Damn her!! Diane is fifteen years younger than I and a whole lot smarter! Thanks to her long-time Cuban boyfriend and his family years ago, she also had a huge exposure to the Spanish language before leaving the states so her language skills are certainly better than mine. That’s a help! Diane also recognized that this opportunity allowed her to retire while still in her mid-40s, something that would never have happened had we remained in the states! Now, she volunteers at a local school, plays tennis, picks up a few writing and editing gigs as she wishes and enjoys a few close friendships in-between naps and walks on the beach. Not a bad gig!
We have maintained contact with friends and family through Skype video calls and regular calls, emails and Facebook exchanges. As a former military guy who lived for a very long time away from extended family while in Alaska and Asia, I am not uncomfortable with long distance connections. For those whose family ties are reinforced by regular visits, babysitting the grandkids, lots of local phone calls, family gatherings etc., you may be among those who will struggle to separate. I call it the “Grandma Factor”. Diane and I do not have that to deal with that issue.
As I researched this piece, I came across something quite unexpected. Many of those who have repatriated to their home country also found it difficult to merge, once again, with their former culture. I know that when I flew back to the states in November, I found that I wanted to speak Spanish…it had become normal and I caught myself ordering fast food in Spanish. Now…in South Florida…that worked but in Kansas City, not so much! I tended to want to wander to the front of any line, not waiting my turn as is the custom in Ecuador. My driving was a lot more defensive and I was surprised that other drivers actually followed traffic laws and drove in their own lanes. When the time came to leave the states, I was glad to return to my new home country. It had become more familiar than the United States.
Diane and I don’t see ourselves ever living in the United States again. We have discovered a better way of life for us; one that provides a higher standard of living combined with a sense of adventure and freedom that is not available in the United States. Neither of us is willing to exchange what we now have for the mundane. We are expats and it is our choice to remain expats!
I wish I could positively tell you that there was a secret combination that would guarantee your success as an expatriate. The only thing that seems to be a constant thread is that those who remain in Ecuador, have persevered through the initial transition challenges. How long does that take? It takes as long as it takes. If you move, as we did, to an area where there is only a relatively small number of gringos and you work diligently to learn the language and make efforts to integrate into the culture, your learning and adjustment will happen more quickly.
If your expat life consists mostly of hanging out with other expats and speaking mostly English, you may be in for a longer adjustment period.
As I often say, you never know if you can fly until you step off the ledge. Best of luck!