The Expat Phenomenon

Beryl Gorbman

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.



About BG

Beryl Gorbman is a writer and private investigator who divides her time between Seattle WA and Merida Yucatan Mexico. She has published two works of fiction, 2012: Deadly Awakening, and Madrugada. They are both available on Amazon and other outlets. Also at Amate Books, and Casa Catherwood in Merida. You can read about them in various articles on this site.
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11 Responses to The Expat Phenomenon

  1. Grant says:

    Interesting, Beryl. Of course, Mexicans had long experience with El Norte before any of us showed up in Merida, so there shouldn’t be too much culture shock. Also, from what Wm Lawson writes, the locals are more affected by the influx of waches from DF and other parts of the Mexican mainland than by the still relatively small numbers of foreigners. That said, the observations you note are well taken.

    I asked the engineer who supervised the work on my house why he and his young wife wanted to live in the north end of town instead of restoring a pretty old colonial. It wasn’t an issue of money, he said, as much as fashion and amenities. All the other hipsters (my interpretation, not his words) were living in the north end in more modern houses. For them the downtown was very old fashioned. I suspect that if the gringos weren’t fixing up the old houses, the locals wouldn’t have much interest in them, so we ought not feel like we’re driving the locals out of the market. I think they’re happy to let us have the old ruins.

    • BG says:

      I agree. No young hip Mexican couple wants any part of these gorgeous old homes. We have done a great job on Centro, don’t you think?

      • Grant says:

        I do. Not to make us sound like we’re so great, but we’ve seen the old houses with different eyes and in some cases made the locals more sensitive to the beauty in their architectural heritage.

  2. kwallek says:

    I suspect that progress has as much as anything to do with the city looking better. People investing in their homes is a natural thing, Merida is no different than anywhere else on that count. The town I grew up in Ohio had many homes with out-houses and kitchen-pumps, there are none today. I was born in 56, there were people in my high school class who were still sweeping a dirt floor as part of their chores when I graduated from high school. The US standard of living has been ahead of Mexico for about 100 years, Mexico is catching up fast.

    • BG says:

      I bought my house in Sta.Ana in 1988. I was lucky because although it had been empty for a year, it was completely habitable. I dont think there was anything lacking in the standard of living for the wealthy Mexicans who owned what are now our homes. When I first went to Merida, downtown looked neglected and ugly. I think a lot of the original owners had already moved north.

  3. You may not have known that the banks will not float loans to mortgage or renovate these homes. Apparently only new homes can be mortgaged. No wonder the locals abandon Centro for newer parts of the city.

  4. Sandy L. says:

    Remember the village we drove to to bring the sick girl to Merida for her surgery?
    The one aunt didn’t have money to go to Merida. The bus fares are very expensive for them. She lost her cleaning job because of a death in the family, didn’t have money to call to her job, nor a phone. Their toilet was out in the back yard. They didn’t have any food. So many of them live in squalid conditions. Just a few examples.

    So, I don’t think the influence of the ex-pat community has helped the majority of the folks who mostly live in abject poverty.

  5. Beryl,

    Enjoy reading your observations-
    The changes that are taking place in the world are amazing!
    At the same time, there are Hispanics in Santa Clara County (CA) (Silicon Valley) (about 2 hours and a half from Davis, CA where students were pepper sprayed for sitting on the ground with bowed heads) are wanting to buy houses but are afraid to speak to realtors to help them. Or the Chinese who want the best deal always and the realtors’ commission too. Or the Indians who want to buy houses without letting the realtor talk to their lender even in order to make a competitive offer on a house. And the Japanese who want only new houses that have never been lived in. They select their fruit the same way (only blemish free produce). In some places, woman Muslims are going about their lives covered from head to foot with large bangle earrings peeking out of their outfits; only their eyes and their earrings showing, especially at Ross for some reason. Here and there a few Israelis, Portuguese, Brits, some Vietnamese with baggage, maybe a few Cambodians with stories of their escape from their country, Peruvians, Chileans, Italians with their food, some Russians from love, a few Africans from various parts of Africa including Xi’s home territory- he has such a great smile, Thai restaurants everywhere in between the McDs, Taco Bells (bells for Christmas?) Burger Kings, Dairy Queens, Dennys (serving only clean shaven white folks), Trader Joes, Whole Foods, etc. I can walk through Safeway and hear 10 languages besides English to get our groceries for the week. Or just watch The Thom Hartmann’s program on the Free Speech channel. Fred has been watching Thom’s program a lot and getting angrier. or philosophical depending on your perspective.
    It is cold in the Santa Cruz Mountains tonight-
    Fred built a fire in the stove; the house is warm without the big PG&E company’s electrical or the chemicals used for accessing natural gas by fracking, (sp.?) which pollutes the ground water.

    May we all live in peace.

    • BG says:

      Sally, you are absolutely right. I should have said the Northamerican caucasian Expat Phenomenon. Sorry about that. The issues I am talking about concern what happens when the American white majority, the ones denying the American (“minority”) immigrants their rights, go forth into the “third world” and stridently demand goods and services just like those in the USA.

  6. monica says:

    Can anyone tell me please how many Brits and Germans are living in Merida? Does this area have a tourist industry and if yes which countries are they coming from?
    When is the best time to visit Merida and does it have an international airport?

    • BG says:

      This is all probably available on the internet. Of course we have an international airport. Does this area have a tourist industry? Is this spam?

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