Dreaming of Being a “Lexpat”

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IMG_4520What on earth is a lexpat anyway?

Lexpat:  An expat who (desperately) tries to live like a local.

I actually just made up this word.  At least I think I did after searching google and the urban dictionary and not finding it.

For me, this has been one of the biggest challenges of living in Cuenca, Ecuador for two months.  I’m an expat desperately trying to live like a local.

And it doesn’t work very well.

Our neighborhood in the western part of Cuenca.
Our neighborhood in the western part of Cuenca.

Part of the confusion is that I’m not quite an expat because this isn’t my permanent new home city, but when people ask me if I’m “on vacation” here, I have to say no.  I don’t consider two months away from my home country a vacation, especially when I am staying in one city for the vast majority of the time, rented an apartment and continue to work.  My household goods are in storage in the US and I don’t quite have a firm address there at the moment.  Home is here, for the moment.

Yet, I’m not a local either, despite trying to live like one.  I’m being tutored in Spanish, arranging a volunteer experience and taking the buses and walking (vs. taxis) nearly every day, shopping at the markets and engaging Ecuadorians in conversation whenever possible.

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Arturo – an Ecuadorian friend – with my husband Tony.

I’m working in English most of the time.  My husband is here with me and we speak English to each other.  I have made non-Ecuadorian friends who speak English and I do love socializing with them.  I’ve successfully avoided, as much as possible, the expat population here that chooses to live in an “American expat bubble”.

While I have a purist attitude about how one should immerse when abroad, I have been reminded that in those moments when my husband and I retreat to our comfort zones (the occasional expat style café, the visit to Supermaxi market, the easy English conversations) it gives us strength to venture back out into the unknown.

Some "gringo" friends on a day trip to Paute, Ecuador.
Some “gringo” friends on a day trip to Paute, Ecuador.

However, I also see how my learning is slowed down by spending a lot of time with my fabulous husband because he is only at a basic level of Spanish. (Having said that, he is very excited about learning and doing a great job of it!)  I find myself supporting his learning at times instead of expanding my own. Perhaps that is an excuse. I’m not 100% sure because I am in such a reflective space right now – living what I write about for a living.

But I do want to operate as the “l” in “lexpat”.  I want to know the people where I live, to understand their values, customs, history, politics, families and humor.

Dancers at the Pase de Niños parade in Cuenca on Christmas Eve.
Dancers at the Pase del Niños parade in Cuenca on Christmas Eve.

The reality, of course, is that two short months doesn’t quite allow for anything close to this.

How much can one really learn in two short months?

What I’m learning is that while I have advanced my linguistic skills by 100 or so more words and have begun to revive my ability to use the past tense correctly at times, I have miles to go. In that regard, I’m an expat.

Tony and I waiting for the bus. We've struck up many conversations with people this way!
Tony and I waiting for the bus. We’ve struck up many conversations with people this way!

Yet, I’ve adjusted to many daily living aspects, such as navigating the bus system, feeling more comfortable using the phone, and engaging in some meaningful conversations with Ecuadorian friends. That is when I gift myself the “l” in lexpat, at least at times.

But, really, how much can one learn in a short period of time?

One answer is a lot and nothing. Another answer is that you can learn a lot about how much you really don’t know by beginning to understand the vast delta that exists in your attempt to be a lexpat.

You can scratch the surface and desire more.

When you reflect (prior to returning home and while at home), you can make plans to return to immerse for a longer period of time and to build upon what you know and make a list of those countless unanswered questions.  You can make conscious decisions to research and engage in your home community in a different way, study via language exchanges, volunteer in your community, read about the country, watch films and documentaries, remain in touch with friends via skype, write, reflect, educate others and make plans to return.

A delicious Christmas Eve dinner with the Garate family.
A delicious Christmas Eve dinner with the Garate family.

Yet while I’m here, I’ll continue my quest for “lexpatriation”.  I’ll continue to reflect.  I’ll continue to process these moments that often feel as “clear as mud”… but they are part of the journey.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the goal of being a lexpat.  I’d be particularly interested in how this post has challenged you to reflect on the value of students going abroad for short term education abroad.

Missyheadshot2.jpegAbout the Author: Missy Gluckmann is the founder of Melibee Global. She and her husband Tony are living in Ecuador for 2 months so that they can both learn Spanish. They also intend to try every variation of gluten free empanadas de verde that they can get their hands on! You can learn more about why she built Melibee Global and her background here.  

  • mariacsnyder

    Thank you for sharing this, Missy. What an incredible opportunity.

    • Missy Gluckmann

      It was Maria! We live in an area with much history around civil rights. There is a sign a few blocks from our place that shows where the sit in was in Winston Salem. I feel like I'm walking amongst ghosts at times!

  • Lindsay

    I thunk this experience is just a reminder that it is unrealistic to think you can just move to another country and immediately be like a local. I think that even after YEARS of living in a new country we still carry our home country values, biases, ideals, launguage, etc., with us. It’s really unavoidable. That said, I think it’s great to to to immerse oneself into the culture as much as possible and adapt wherever we can–just as you are doing! It’s the only way to learn and get a better understanding of our hist countries.

    • Exactly Lindsay! It is truly a dream to be able to do such a thing, one that might not be achievable in a lifetime. It is fascinating to be in this process when I write about it…that is the biggest challenge for me. At least today! Thanks for your thoughtful and encouraging comment!

  • Rebecca Adams de Garate

    There is always a realm where people like me reside. I’m an expat, but I’m not. There is no category for me. We are a multicultural family, a multilingual family, living in my husband’s home country. One of us is always out of our “natural” realm, which is okay. But as far as categorizing, a new category is needed… or perhaps, none at all. 🙂

    • Yes, Becca! Every day is a cultural booby trap in some ways I’d imagine – raising 2 kids to be bi-cultural yet living in one of the “home” countries. I am learning a lot observing you and your family – it is such a gift and requires a lot of reflection. Thanks for reminding us too that sometimes categories are not needed. Always learning!

  • Don’t worry about me. I can find enough things to do on my own, like go hear some house music at a local club, while you’re inviting an Ecuadorian family over for dinner or something. 🙂