Too Many Expats?

Our friend Denise posed a great question last week in a comment: I would be curious to hear your thoughts about expats, and specifically why you are opposed to a larger expat population where you settle. I attempted to answer the question in a reply to her comment, but realized that the answer required not only more room but quite a bit more thought on my part.

The number and presence of expats we encountered in San Miguel de Allende was a new experience for Brett and me. We have wracked our brains and memories trying to remember any other location we’ve visited where we encountered so many foreign residents. We know that large expat communities exist in cities like Florence, Bordeaux, or Lisbon but we never encountered any Americans or Canadians in any numbers other than on the wine tours we took in Bordeaux (one of my fondest memories there is the young American girl who sat next to us on the tour bus so, she said, she could hear American English spoken. She’d been in Bordeaux for almost a year and missed hearing and speaking English. We included her in our conversation both coming and going on the tour and had a great visit). We’ve visited Japan many, many times but rarely run into other expats during our stays, and certainly not in the concentrations we encountered in San Miguel de Allende. Expats seemed to be present everywhere there, in restaurants, shops, markets, walking down the streets, etc. We ate in restaurants where every customer was an expat or tourist, and the waiters spoke English to everyone. We walked down streets of Centro and other neighborhoods and heard nothing but English spoken. Other than the gardeners and other occasional workers, we heard only English in the condo complex where we stayed. Everyone we met or encountered was nice, and the easy availability of English certainly made our time in SMA easier, but it was a strange experience for us and in the end one of the things that put us off living there in the future.

San Miguel de Allende is not an especially big city although it is expanding and growing. It’s a charming place to visit, full of history, bright colors, colonial architecture, beautiful churches and parks, extensive shopping, and a lively and affordable restaurant scene. The cost of living, compared to the U.S., is enticingly low, but it’s actually one of the most expensive cities in Mexico. Americans have been coming to SMA since the post-WWII years, when GIs came to live in SMA and study art on their GI bill funds and Stirling Dickinson opened the Instituto Allende. The city is now a haven for artists, and after being named the Best City in the World in 2021 by Condé Nast Travel & Leisure, it’s a place tourists, both foreign and local, feel they need to see. So many had sung its praises that we felt we should experience it too. Many visitors, especially retirees, fall in love with the city while they are there and decide to relocate. There are real estate offices all over the place, and building going on everywhere as the city expands to fill the need for housing. Prices are climbing however – currently the median price of a colonial home in Centro has risen to over $500K.

The number of expats and tourists we encountered in SMA reminded us somewhat of our time on Kaua’i and the changes we saw happening. We had the unique experience of living there for around a year while the island was closed to tourists, and then witnessing how quickly things changed as visitors, mainland investors, and wealthy retirees returned when the island opened back up again. The explosion of the island housing market was one of most noticeable changes, with prices rising into the stratosphere as properties were snapped up at inflated prices. Young, local families became completely priced out of the market. Also, once-quiet venues and beaches became filled with visitors who didn’t want anyone, local or otherwise, messing with their “Kaua’i experience.”

Encountering so many American or Canadian expats in SMA, I often thought, Do you know you are changing things here? Like pebbles tossed into a stream, expats cause places to change in ways that might not be immediately recognizable or affect them. While the cost of living might be low for an expat, the prices that locals pay for housing, for food, for other necessities go up, sometimes rapidly. Local water sources and other infrastructure become more strained, and traffic in and out of cities, and in the city centers, becomes crowded and often stop and go. Expats do bring benefits to a city, including charitable efforts, but those benefits can be harder to see or not seen at all until after a long time has passed. We weren’t especially looking for it, but during our time in SMA we didn’t see a whole lot of exchange between expats and the local community other than on the surface. Expats tended to cluster with other expats, although we know it did go deeper than that in some cases.

Will we cause things to change by moving to Mazatlán and becoming expats? Of course. Will there be lots of other expats there? Probably. We look forward to meeting some of them, making friends, and learning from those who have lived there for a while. But we’re also hoping for numbers where expats are not to be found everywhere, every day, in every place we go. Our goal will be to find ways to make a positive impact on our new location, to add to it versus just reaping the benefits, and to get to know our neighbors.

The number of expats in San Miguel de Allende was uncomfortable for us. While we weren’t looking for some “authentic Mexican” experience while we were there, we were unprepared for the numbers and presence of Americans and Canadians we encountered. We are educating ourselves about Mazatlán now so we know what to expect, where we might want to live, and so forth and educating ourselves to fit into the culture rather than having the culture fit us.

13 thoughts on “Too Many Expats?

  1. Excellent thoughts on this subject! As you know, I’m looking to move out of the country in about the next five years. We’ve considered Portugal but I feel like parts of it are becoming like SMA. We will just have to see, as we get closer to that time. In the mean time, we’ll be doing some traveling in Europe to find other places we might want to call home.

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    1. We used to think Portugal would be a good fit for us, but so many Americans are moving there now (and the language is very difficult). We’ve looked at several other foreign locations (and would still move to Japan in a heartbeat if we could obtain a visa) but figured out that Mexico ticks all the boxes for us, especially the cost of living and proximity to the U.S.

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  2. Housing prices do rise even in the U.S. when folks from other more expensive states sell their homes there and move to a less expensive state. Idaho and Utah have had housing prices increase substantially as Californians sold their homes there at a high price and moved to Idaho or Utah. I am not saying that is bad, except that I know local folks who have had families and ancestors live there for over a hundred years and who are now priced out of the housing market. They simply cannot compete with cash buyers from out of state. It is also a problem in other areas of the country also. Baldwin co on the coast of Alabama is another one. I can imagine it is even harder for locals in Mexico and Portugal to compete with expats for housing. I don’t know the answer. I am
    not criticizing folks for moving where it is cheaper, just saying it becomes an issue with local folks not being able to compete.

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  3. Bravo! Very well said! I have lived in Switzerland for 15 years. My English-speaking community is very important to my mental & social health, but I speak Freanch well enough to converse easily with Swiss people & to conduct all of my affairs in French. Fine for Americans or Canadians who want a frolicking good time for a week or two in SMD without having to know the language, but the experience of living there would be as shallow culturally as going to Disney World. I applaud your decision & attitude.

    By the way, I was wondering if you weren’t at all concerned about settling in a country so rife with corruption at the highest levels, so violent & where drug kingpins rule the day? The US has huge such problems too, & I understand your wanting to leave there, but there are other countries cheaper & more secure, it seems.

    Lynn D

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    1. That was my feeling as well, that the experience of being in Mexico could be very culturally shallow if all one intends to do is hang out with other expats.

      There are still unsafe places to go in Mexico, but things are changing and there are areas/cities that are safe for visitors. Are there still cartels and crime – yes, but as long as you’re not interfering in their territory or going where you shouldn’t (selling drugs, going into the wrong neighborhood at night or such) visitors and expats will be fine. Policing is changing in Mexico; in fact, Merida is rated the safest city in Latin America. Mazatlan is considered safe and is well-policed, although there is petty crime as there is almost everywhere else in the world.

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  4. Well thought through, as are many of your moves. I am left wondering how you see having a positive impact.
    We considered Thailand thirty years ago. We were glad we chose not to do it when our son traveled there and rarely heard Thai. They only commonly heard German and English.

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    1. We still would move to Japan if we could (no worries about hearing English there!) and we’ve looked at other countries but we think Mexico will be a good fix, and we like the proximity to the U.S. Spanish lessons start in earnest at the beginning of 2023.

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  5. Your take on the effect of a large expat community and presence reminds me of the problem of gentrification occurring in cities in America. More affluent people move into a neighborhood that has seen better days. Houses and apartments or condos are purchased and fixed up. Soon, overpriced coffee shops, retail outlets, and specialty grocery stores follow.

    The end result is those who live in the neighborhood find their lifestyle completely changed. Rents increase dramatically and basic retail options disappear. They must move to a more affordable neighborhood, leaving behind familiarity, family, and friends.

    I have never lived in an expat-type environment so I am not sure what my reaction would be. Part of me says why travel to live in another version of the States? But, I imagine over time I would want to hear English spoken and be able to live day-to-day without language and cultural differences to contend with.

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    1. I think gentrification is a very good way to compare or at least think about an influx of expats to an area. The percentage of American expats in SMA is really not that big, only around 10%, but seemed much more than that while we were there because their presence was noted everywhere.

      I think Americans move to SMA because it’s not only charming but doesn’t require a major cultural adjustment. You don’t *have to* learn a new language or go without familiar products, two things that contribute to culture shock. The expat community is large enough to find things to do and get involved in, there are English language churches, and there’s even a large English language library as well.

      We’re hoping for a more challenging environment in Mazatlan. Brett and I will begin Spanish lesson in the new year, and while we’ll most likely live in an area with other expats there most likely won’t be all the other English speaking amenities we’d have in San Miguel de Allende. It will be less easy, but we want to have to work a little harder and dig a little deeper to settle in.

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  6. I received the vanilla coffee today. Thanks. It will be part of a birthday gift for a friend. Thanks for the opportunity to win.

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  7. Your observations about SMA are very well stated. When I lived in Sweden, I began to try to avoid too much contact with other Americans. I really liked my Swedish friends and the challenge of fitting into their culture. Once, a Swedish woman said to me “I really don’t like Americans, but you’re ok.” I was not at all offended, because I understood where she was coming from.

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    1. Bruce, I’m right there with you – I too like the challenge of fitting in, and having my cultural preconceptions challenged. I think we Americans sometimes expect everyone loves us (the whole exceptional thing) and it can be a shock to discover that’s not true, that we’re not automatic celebrities, and we have to earn the respect of others.

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