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Taking The “Foreign” Out Of Retiring In A Foreign Country: Culture

Foreign Culture in a Foreign Country

By Edd and Cynthia Staton, nationally known experts on retiring abroad and the creators of the program, Retirement Reimagined!  This article is Part 2 of a 4 part series that talks about how to retire overseas affordably and comfortably. Edd and Cynthia currently reside in Cuenca, Equador.

Immigration is a polarizing, hotly debated topic these days, and you probably have your own ideas on the subject.

But let’s turn the whole issue on its head…

How would you feel being an immigrant?

Let’s face it, “expat” is just a fancy word for “immigrant,” isn’t it? Expatriating means immigrating to another country where you are now the foreigner. If you retire overseas, when the plane touches down you’ve arrived in a world where generally people don’t look like you and speak a different language.

You may feel odd and wonder, “How do you deal with feeling out of place?”

Edd and friend Sam
Edd Staton and his local friend Sonia in Cuenca

Yes, it is odd in the beginning. You might feel like locals are staring. For example, Ecuadorians are often short in stature with deep brown skin tone. Edd is 6’3” with blue eyes, fair complexion, and a totally bald head. In his case they definitely were staring!

Many times though it might just be you feeling hyper-aware that you’re a fish out of water.  We experienced a lot of sensory overload when we first arrived,and quickly enough our self-consciousness faded. There was just too much to do! Eventually the newness of it all wore off and we became confident going about daily life.

How you deal with cultural barriers and differences can make or break your expat experience, so let’s dive in and explore what worked for us.

Acclimate to your new surroundings and culture: Our 4 keys to success

Pick a location with an established expat community…

Being a stranger in a strange land is challenging enough without taking on the role of the Lone Ranger. There are dozens of outstanding retirement choices all around the globe where a network of English-speaking expats is already established. Plugging into these groups for answers to your many questions about the culture and everything else will speed up your learning curve considerably.

Learn the cultural basics…

We mentioned in Part 1 of this series the importance of knowing the proper ways to greet others and convey appreciation for their assistance. In Latin America, for instance, you never charge into a store and announce, “I’m looking for so and so… Can you help me?” No, you always start cheerfully with, “Buenos días. ¿Cómo estás? (Good morning. How are you?)” To do otherwise is considered downright rude. And that’s not you, right?

But don’t pretend you can speak the language because you memorized words you looked up on Google Translate. We once did that and apparently we were so convincing the clerk responded by unleashing an avalanche of rapid-fire Spanish. We stood there dumbfounded and after a long pause mumbled, “¿Habla Inglés, señora (Do you speak English, ma’am)?”

Befriend bilingual locals…

An expat friend who is fluent in the local language is certainly an asset if you have one. Knowing bilingual locals is even better because they are uniquely qualified to help you learn the cultural communication ropes.

In our early expat days Cynthia hosted a baby shower for a bilingual Cuencana neighbor. At the scheduled start time she and her mom were the only ones there. As the clock ticked off the minutes, and then hours, the guest of honor kept saying, “Don’t worry. They’ll be here.”  TWO HOURS later the other guests began arriving, brought relatives not on the invitation list, and stayed so late that we had to politely ask them to leave. This behavior is not considered rude, just part of the cultural norm.

Go with the flow…

Which brings us to the most important tip of all: No expat has ever successfully altered a nation’s culture, and you will not be the first. Get used to “Tico time,” as they call it in Costa Rica. The repairman will probably be late or may not show up until three days from now. Or ever.  If you’re a woman, don’t be startled when an introduction includes an air kiss on the cheek (both cheeks in Spain). Recognize that your definition of proper personal space, hygiene, or driving etiquette may not apply. And please don’t pontificate about what your adopted home “needs” to do to get its act together. We have a saying: “Go with the flow, or go home.”

The Bottom Line:

Relax. Observe. Try not to offend. Apologize when you do. Laugh at your mistakes. You’ll be fine.


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