Expats are making an increasing impact on countries around the world as baby boomers are retiring and looking for warmer, less expensive places to live out their days. The presence of expats in other countries is increasingly dramatic. It’s okay. The world changes.
Many foreigners have moved to Merida in the past ten years and now there are between 3,000 and 5,000 expats, many of them in the downtown core. The immigration has changed the nature of the city. Depending on who you talk to, the change is for the better or for the worse.
Whatever arguments people might make that the foreign influence has negatively impacted the city, it is a fact that the appearance of downtown has gone through a miraculous revival. Years ago, many of the colonial homes were piles of rubble. Now they are transformed into lovely, colorful, inviting homes, probably close to their original condition. Meanwhile, the City of Merida has made important changes in intersections (La Hermita) and upgraded the parks, so at this point, the city looks pretty spiffy. The City of Merida has also been re-doing the elegant colonial facades of many of the old buildings. And how many cities have wi-fi in their public parks? The City has not looked this good in many years.
Before the bulk of the foreign influx, giant colonial homes were available for under $15,000 USD. They have increased in value at least ten times. If a local middle-class person wanted to buy one, he probably wouldn’t be able to afford it. Instead, Mexicans are moving to new suburban areas. It seems that lots of Mexicans prefer the new suburbs, with new, clean construction, good roads without gridlock, better air, proximity to schools and shopping, consistent electrical power and underground waste disposal systems. The foreigners fall in love with the romantic older homes, so they rehab them (providing employment), and upgrading downtown.
What are the effects of the expat influx on the nearby Maya villages and towns? The social structure has morphed in the last ten years. Fewer people are home during the day as the men go to their regular work (or new work as masons, tilers, painters, plumbers or gardeners) and many of the women work as domestics for the foreign population of Merida. They are busy. Some ride the bus to work in the city for over an hour each way. No more huipiles. No more chicken coops. No more litttle gardens and hanging herb pots.
When is the last time you’ve seen a house like this?
The extra income in the households has afforded people better nutrition, and more access to education for the children.
In 1980, a film was released called The Gods Must Be Crazy. It was set in Botswana. A glass Coke bottle falls from an airplane and Xi, the headman of a tribe of bushmen wandering in the Kalahari, finds it.
Here is a summary from Wikipedia:
Xi and his tribe of San/Bushmen relatives are living well off the land in the Kalahari Desert. They are happy because the gods have provided plenty of everything, and no one in the tribe has unfulfilled wants. One day, a glass Coke bottle is thrown out of an aeroplane and falls to earth unbroken. Initially, this strange artifact seems to be another boon from the gods—-Xi’s people find many uses for it. But unlike anything that they have had before, there is only one bottle to go around. This exposes the tribe to a hitherto unknown phenomenon, property, and they soon find themselves experiencing things they never had before: jealousy, envy, anger, hatred, even violence.
Since it has caused the tribe unhappiness on two occasions, Xi decides that the bottle is an evil thing and must be thrown off of the edge of the world. He sets out alone on his quest and encounters Western civilization for the first time. The film presents an interesting interpretation of civilization as viewed through Xi’s perceptions.
Are there parallels between the film and the spread of expat populations to poor countries all over the globe? Does the presence of foreigners change the local cultures? You bet it does. Do people from the villages see new machines, new kinds of clothing, new ways of cooking? They make decisions about which parts of our culture they wish to integrate into their lives and which they want to throw away, like the offending coke bottle.
Recently I’ve been reading non-commercial expat blogs from around the world. Again, these are written by people who moved south for less expensive homes and services and better weather.
I’ve read blogs from growing expat communities in San Miguel de Allende, Lake Chapala, Cuernavaca, and far away in Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Bali, American Samoa, Okinawa (!), Malta, Luang Prabang (Laos), Bangkok, Leon (Nicaragua), Ecuador, Panama, Colombia and Ruwanda. In each of these places, people write about their need to reach out to their own kind, to find some semblance of “home” to mitigate the dramatic change in location and culture.
The following points have been common threads in countries that are poor. The economic gap between the expats and the local indigenous populations is huge and it’s hard to prevent certain unhappy results, such as those below.
- The indigenous population, friendly at first, dislikes the incursion of the foreigners.
- Most of the contacts the expats have with local people is in some service capacity.
- Relationships between local people and expats often lead to the local asking the expat for goods or money.
- The expats alter the physical environments they move to. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good.
- Expat influx results in a jump in property values in most countries, pricing local people out of the market.
- Expat groups tend to form cliques, tend to learn the local language slowly, and live in a “bubble” with other foreigners. (called the “expat bubble” on some of the sites).
Most of the expat blogs were designed to bitch and moan or to provide practical information for new arrivals and people considering the move. I didn’t find many sites that talked at length about the expat effect on local populations.
A notable exception – a truth-telling website from a Canadian writer named Stan Combs who lived in several locations in Vanuatu. Vanuatu is a string of islands between Fiji and Australia formerly known as New Hebrides. Combs lived there off and on for years, working for NGOs. He learned the local language, Buslama, well enough to conduct fascinating interviews (on his site) with local residents.
Some of his words are sad, but telling.
Underdevelopment and the Real Vanuatu – My Conclusion
I have come to the conclusion that in the Vanuatu context, “underdevelopment”, or ni-Vanuatu loss of control over their situation, is the result of a giant culture clash between village cultures and the Western juggernaut, with “bewilderment” being the operative word on both sides.
Another blog I found and enjoyed was one called I Was An Expat Wife. The articles are insightful, and written with humor and clarity. Her article about 12 ways to become an ugly expat is wonderful.
Last week late at night, I was casting about for something to watch on TV and found Househunters International, a reality (?) show in which white people are looking for the perfect tropical paradise. On the program, they meet with a realtor, see three houses, and of course, buy one. The one I watched was in some tropical paradise (hah) somewhere in the Pacific (they make them all look exactly alike). It showed the English-speaking realtor driving wealthy Brits down a third-world road complete with chickens and children, creating a terrible dust cloud, and not even seeing the little communities they were passing as fast as they could. They arrived at their destination – an area full of mansions with neatly trimmed lawns and lush plants and no chickens or children, and picked thier way through an obscenely huge house, criticizing the layout or obstructions to the water view. They did not see or care about the country itself. They saw the villages as places that supplied servants. They most certainly would never visit one of those villages or learn the local language.
I imagine the locals don’t think much of the expats in this place. As maids and servants, they learn the most intimate details of the expats’ lives, and many of those details aren’t pretty. The foreigners treat them like furniture and pay them as little as possible, expect them to do extra work, and come in even if a family member is critically ill. The gulf between the cultures couldn’t be wider.
This is happening all over the world. It will be interesting to see what the next stage is.