Survival of the Fittest for an Expat in Mexico
Mexico City old and new.
The bells start at 6 a.m.
First it’s the cathedral, a severe, blocky structure on Toluca’s zocalo (center square). The bells are recorded and played over a loudspeaker, the four-part melody telling you if the time is :00, :15, :30, or :45, complete with imperfections in timing to make it sound more real.
For over a year I didn’t realize it was fake until my neighbor pointed it out. Sure enough, each hesitation between tolls comes at the same moment every time.
It’s fully dark at 6 a.m. throughout the year. Right after the cathedral, louder bells from a smaller church one block from my apartment start up. This is a real person ringing for sure. Rather than the coordinated tones of the cathedral, at this church someone yanks on the chord 20 times.
It’s LOUD. When guests stay over, they jump up off the couch and say, “What the hell is that?”
The tamal guy goes by sometime before 7. Tamales are palm-sized mixtures of corn meal, fruit and butter, or meat and lard, wrapped in cornhusks. They are sold out of big steaming pots driven around on clunky 3-wheeled bicycles, mornings and evenings.
A nasal voice repeats, “Tamales, tamales. Tamales oaxaquenos, tamales calientitos.” (Oaxaca tamales, hot tameles!)
Though most tamaleros (tamal sellers) use a microphone and small speaker, the specific phrasing of this call means it too is a recording. Apparently a tamalero in Oaxaca patented it and got rich.
At the sound of the tamalero’s voice, five or six dogs that live on my block all start barking. They don’t stop until the tamales have passed on. By now the cathedral has also chimed out 6:15 and 6:30. The sounds of city traffic hum and grow louder, with big trucks rattling the street and high-pitched blasts of honking horns from Volkswagen Beetles.
This is how I start my day in Mexico. My first class at the big public university begins at 7. I work in the language department and teach literature, phonetics, teaching methods, and general English or EFL (English as a Foreign Language).
University in Mexico.
I walk 15 minutes to the campus down a dusty downtown street as the sun rises, smelling the heavy exhaust hanging in a haze in the thin morning air.
After class I may ride my bike to a private university to teach Business English. I may go to Starbucks or someone’s house to teach a private lesson. But, most often I have translation work to do.
It’s been a busy week for translation. Many students from the public university are applying for the Student Mobility Program, which means they will study a semester abroad. If that semester abroad will be in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., or another English-speaking country, they need their documents translated to English. That’s my job.
Also, in a few days President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will come to Toluca for the North American Leaders’ Summit. First I translated a PowerPoint presentation about the State of Mexico for the Governor.
Then I translated four pamphlets about the Historic Center of Toluca, the capital of the State of Mexico where I live. During their visit Obama and Harper will visit 100+ year-old government buildings and the Cosmovitral, a beautiful stained-glass botanical garden in the center of Toluca. They will be given copies of my translation to explain it all.
The cosmovitral building in Toluca.
I am also a freelance writer, writing for travel and living-abroad websites and magazines, as well as on my blog No Hay Bronca. I must say it’s pretty cool that now I can count world leaders among my readers, even though I didn’t really write those pamphlets, merely translated them.
When I first moved here a few years ago and first started doing freelance writing, I read an article about living and working in Mexico. In it, an American expat university teacher tells the writer about the low salaries in Mexico and how it was tough to get by, and that although he was in his 40s, he still had to rely on financial support from family when he wanted to go home.
Well, he’s right, and it’s true – if you have only one job.
If you want to survive, you’ve got to hustle. Few teaching jobs are full time. Most teachers I know – Mexican teachers – work at more than one school. They teach private lessons. They do translation work whenever and wherever they can find it.
I only translate from Spanish to English. That’s the idea – as an expat you have something to offer that the locals don’t. It may be a special skill, it may be the mastery of your native language, or it may simply be another perspective on life. But whatever it is, find it, develop it, and be willing to do it for free for a while.
But whatever you do, learn the local language. It opens doors faster than anything else.
A week ago I spent the weekend in Mexico City at a study-abroad fair, promoting the English school in Vancouver I worked for as a teacher before I moved to Mexico. Three years ago, once my Spanish was good enough to explain the process of studying English in Canada, my former boss hired me for these fairs, which I travel to five or six times a year. This wouldn’t have happened if I had refused to learn Spanish, like a surprising number of expats here in Mexico.
Sure, you can survive without Spanish, especially if you work teaching English. But if you don’t learn Spanish, you’ll never do anything besides that.
It’s ironic that I’m a translator in Mexico, even translating for the government. I received some of my worst grades in high school and university Spanish classes, barely better than algebra.
But I can’t take all the blame for those missed opportunities and nearly failed classes. I was taught Spanish the way I was taught algebra – as if grammar is a formula to learn for its own sake, rather than a communication tool.
Like learning the local language, that’s something else that seems obvious but can be sadly overlooked – that there’s a lot more to teaching than simply knowing the language. You have to learn how to teach.
Fortunately, along with all the certifications and teacher training courses, the best way to learn how to teach is by doing it. Start at a small, franchise school and work your way up.
Above all you must keep an open mind. It all begins with seeing your students as clients, rather than seeing yourself as an authority figure.
You really never know where you’ll end up in life. If you are an expat, could you have imagined 10 years ago how your life would be at this moment? And what got you there? I’ll be willing to bet it was a healthy mixture of curiosity, flexibility, and open-mindedness.
And more than anything else, I bet you were also motivated by a desire and willingness to learn, grow, and be challenged. I mean, how easy would it be to just move back home? No more language or cultural misunderstandings, no more getting lost, and no more missing certain foods, places, or people.
I think I’d be bored out of my mind.