Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Army brats in reverse: finding close relationships tough for long-haul expats

This past July officially marked my 19th year in Mexico. I came during the last month of my 20th year, and I just turned 40 last month. Soon I’ll be able to say that I’ve spent over half of my life here.

During that time, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, which I suppose is the nature of things when you’re part of a community of foreigners. One friend likened it to what it must feel like to be an “army brat:” constantly changing environments and social groups, only in this scenario, you’re the one that stays put while everyone else appears and disappears around you.

While I’m pretty much a permanent immigrant myself (at no time do I feel prouder at the airport than when I present my permanent resident card to the immigration official!) most others in my area only come for a stay best counted in months unless they’ve come to permanently retire.

Some are students, some are adventurers traveling through and others are evaluating potential places to live. There are a few younger long-haulers like me, but they’re harder to spot since they’ve generally blended into the local scenery and don’t tend to spend much of their time in obviously foreigner groups.

When I first arrived, I was determined to make friends with people other than my group of foreign students. After all, I could hang out with other people from the United States in my own country; why would I want to do so here? Plus, my goal was to learn Spanish, and I wasn’t going to do it by just spending my time with people who spoke my language.

I approached this, however, assuming that Mexicans’ attitudes toward friendship and their relationships with friends were much the same as those in the U.S. They are not, and it’s caused me to do quite a bit of reflection on the differences between the two.

Even as a sociologist, variety in attitudes toward the institution of friendship itself had never occurred to me, and much of what I’ve learned has been, like most things in life, through hard-won experience.

The main lesson I’ve learned here can be summed up in three simple words: family is family. And in Mexico, friends are not family, no matter how close you may become.

I’d often heard the phrase growing up, “blood runs thicker than water.” It never really meant anything to me, though.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my family. But the way that families here close ranks in tough times — and in great times, for that matter — is something that still catches me by surprise occasionally.

That was not the experience in my own family. My mother’s parents had been abusive, and she wisely and purposefully kept us away from them. My dad’s family was close-knit enough, but everyone was still fairly independent, all busy with their own lives.

Even before my parents divorced, my mother relied heavily on several close female friendships for social and emotional support. What you want to look for in a best friend, I remember her saying, was someone who’d “help you bury a body.”

When we went to her best friend’s house, we didn’t knock; we’d just walk right in and say hello as if we lived there. Decades later, that same friend sat in the hospital with our mom, holding her hand as she talked and sang hymns to her even though she was unconscious.

My sister and I, if we still lived in Waco, could probably still simply walk right into her house if we wanted to.

For better or for worse, my mother’s close friendships were the ones that became the gold standard in my own adult life, the kinds that I have personally sought out. It hasn’t always been easy to achieve here.

It’s not that Mexicans make bad friends; far from it. People here are, for the most part, gregarious and friendly, generous in all senses of the word and exceedingly polite. But if you’re looking for the kind of dynamic in which you become so close that you truly treat each other like family, you might end up feeling a little disappointed. (Exceptions, from what I’ve seen, are young and friendly good-looking foreign dudes who trigger some kind of nurturing mania in women here of all ages and are quickly absorbed into what seems to be several families at once.)

The obvious outcome here is that if you don’t have a family, you might be slightly on your own in ways that don’t become obvious until things really get tough. It’s a lesson I learned especially well when my marriage ended right before the pandemic and every family member I’d had through that union seemed to vanish overnight.

Isolation in the absence of family can happen in any country, I know, but I do feel that in my own culture, we’ve become comfortable with creating family out of whoever’s around. Good or bad, we tend to develop trust and treat good friends as if they were family quickly, which I think is a unique dynamic, and one of the things that makes me feel proud and loving toward my own culture.

It’s not a dynamic that I’ve seen quite as much here.

The lesson? For me, it’s 100% been to stop being such a snob. Continue developing and maintaining friendships with other foreigners, even if that’s not what you necessarily came for.

It comes naturally to immigrants all over the world because it must. Only other immigrants can understand the kind of peculiar alone-ness of not being surrounded by the people most similar you. (That’s another lesson I’ve learned, actually: I’m not nearly as unique as I thought).

Talking to and being around people who understand where you’re coming from, or at least how you feel as a foreigner, even if they’re from somewhere else, can often be exactly the balm you need. Two of my good friends here are from India, for example.

Because we’ll never quite fit in completely here. I’ll always be seen as a foreigner. I look different, for one — yes, there are blonde Mexicans, but I’m not visibly rich enough to be mistaken for one. And as good as my Spanish might get, I’ll always have a slight accent. I’ll probably keep guessing about 20% of the time whether I should use “por” or “para” in a sentence. I’ll always be exceedingly polite to people in the service industry, another dead giveaway that I’m not from here.

Other immigrants will come and go, and the going can be painful when you’ve become close to someone. But that’s life, and that’s our task in the absence of our families: to build family out of whoever and whatever we have around us.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, and her Patreon page.

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