Margie Hord

Expat by Default

Tag: Mexico

Reverse Culture Shock Revisited

person holding black mask

by John Noonan (Unsplash)

Culture shock, as most of you know, is “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes”. But strangely enough, when you return to your native country, it is common to experience reverse culture shock. Yep, even after all these years, it takes time to adjust, in my case when I visit the US or Canada.

group of women facing backward

By Becca Tapert (Unsplash)

Greeting old friends, I’m not sure what to do for a moment. Oh yes, no kiss on the cheek, just a quick hug, or merely a “hi” and no physical contact. Well, in Quebec it’s a kiss on both cheeks, but I always forget where to start. Meeting people, I’m not quite sure whether to shake hands or just nod “Hi”.

Pedestrian heaven? Even before I get to the street corner or crosswalk, a driver is slowing down, and I almost do a double take. At a streetlight, if there’s a button to press to get a light to cross, I may forget the first few times. But sometimes I want to cross in the middle of the street, and I can’t! I have to walk to the corner, to the stoplight or crosswalk, and then return. What a drag!

woman standing infront of shelf

By Marie-Michèle Bouchard (Unsplash)

The abundance of foods and goods “up north” is mind-boggling. There are so many varieties of everything to choose from that it’s hard to decide. Consumerism has affected my adoptive home as well, with all kinds of milk and cereal, for example, but it’s still nothing in comparison. Food is the biggest constant in terms of variety, but there’s clothing too. In that case, it’s actually a boon to find jeans that fit, waist, length and all.

By Satria SP (Unsplash)

Part of the reverse culture shock is realizing how much those countries “up north” have been changing. They are ever so much more multicultural that in the past! Especially in larger cities, the variety of nationalities, races, and languages represented never ceases to amaze me. In Mexico City one finds a fair mix, but it’s barely comparable, and limited to certain areas, such as those where embassies abound, or in “el barrio chino” (Chinatown). I think I may only have seen a woman wearing a hijab in my city once.

Another aspect of culture change is that of sexuality. Gay culture is much more open in the US and Canada. At a high school reunion, I incurred in the politically incorrect faux pas of asking an old classmate where she and her husband were staying, as she had mentioned “we” at some point. “I never said I had a husband”, she stated. Later I confirmed that her current partner was female.

Language may not be culture, but it’s a part of it. When in the US or Canada I can’t think of words in English, I feel slightly like a foreigner. Those who don’t know me personally must wonder if I have mental lacunas!

In the dollar store I wanted a pad of colored paper but couldn’t think of the name. So I explained what I was looking for, and the attendant responded, “You must want construction paper.” Ah yes. “Cartulina” in Spanish.

round green and yellow fruit lot

By Hoach Le Dinh (Unsplash)

My sister asked me to buy limes in the grocery store. Upon my return, she suggested that I had forgotten what she’d wanted, because I’d brought lemons. We don’t have those in Mexico, that I know of. We have big or small “limones”, mostly green, some with a tinge of yellow. So the two English words would be represented by one term in Spanish, but the yellow lemons are nonexistent in the Mexico I know.

Living crossculturally is fun but can be confusing at times. My kids and grandkids have experienced the opposite kind of reverse culture shock, after living in the US or Canada and returning to Mexico, where they grew up. But that’s another story…

California: Am I in the US?

Years ago, an international event found me in Anaheim, California and one day I went sight-seeing with my colleagues from Mexico, where I live. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant/ cafeteria, where we selected items before paying. I was the last one from my group in line, and was flabbergasted when the Chinese cashier spoke to me in Spanish. Obviously, despite my very Anglo-Saxon looks, she realized I was with the Mexicans and was well-prepared to attend us. It was then that I realized how important Spanish was in California.

Recently, family connections have brought me to southern California again. It’s easy to forget I’m in the States when every other person seems to be speaking Spanish. Amazingly, Hispanics now make up 39% of the state’s population (Texas comes in a close second place with 38%) and Spanish is the second most spoken language.  Continue reading

Understanding Mexican Courtesy or “Buena Educación”


When I was in Spain a few years ago, it shocked me to find a server treating us somewhat rudely, until I remembered a friend once telling us “you almost have to use swear words to get a waiter’s attention in Spain!” What?  Then other contacts have confirmed that Spaniards tend to be very direct and in-your-face, often appearing offensive to courteous Latin Americans.

It has occurred to me that, as Mexican culture is a fusion of Spanish and indigenous influence, perhaps its emphasis on extreme politeness and “doing the right thing” is more related to its indigenous roots after all! It is commonly called “buena educación”, which is a bit more all-encompassing than “good manners”. It has to do with being a decent person, or as Paul Yeatman says, having “good upbringing”. Among other things, he says, “Personal hygiene and courtesy are of primary importance, from the look of the fingernails to table manners to the rituals of politeness”. Continue reading

Raising Bilingual Kids as an Expat

Our son was three or so when he entered preschool. After a few days, his “miss”, as they often call female teachers in Mexico, asked, “Do you understand what he says?” Obviously, she didn’t. We had gotten used to his childish language, in which he mixed a bit of English and Spanish. Of course, before long he straightened things out.

When I took a course in bilingualism as part of my M.A. studies, I wondered if it was too late to help my children become as fully bilingual as possible. But looking back, we hadn’t done that badly, even when our actions were not necessarily the result of conscious decisions at all times. Continue reading

Food: ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple

Resultado de imagen para comal

If I ask, “What’s your favorite food?”, some people will conjure up images of elaborate dishes that are prepared for special celebrations. Others, however, may reply with something amazingly simple.

It’s pretty hard to come up with a single answer. I used to say “lasagna”, which I occasionally make but find somewhat painstaking. Those noodles always tear apart on me, for example. At least now it’s possible to find the pre-cooked kind. The variety of cheeses, the color and texture of spinach, when included, the tomato or white sauce and its condiments, all blending in with the simplicity of pasta are a delight to the senses.

A dish from central Mexico that fascinates me is “chiles en nogada”, stuffed poblano chiles in walnut sauce. Their confection involves chopping up a variety of fruits as well as almonds. The sauce itself is a challenge to make from scratch, from soaking fresh walnuts to peeling off the skin, famously leaving one’s hands darkened. Some recipes include goat cheese and white wine. The peeling of the chiles and removing their seeds and veins is painstaking, as is beating egg whites and dipping them in batter for frying.

All the same, isn’t simple food wonderful, as well? Who can resist the smell, the taste and texture of warm bread, shortly after it is popped from the oven? With or without butter melted on it, this is the staff of life, and our whole being says, “Yes!”

Continue reading

Never Blending In: Racism Goes Both Ways

Growing up in Honduras, little by little I began to understand how the world I lived in classified people. I was pigeon-holed as a “gringa”, much as that technically means an American and I am Canadian. I recall walking to school and having someone yell “Gringa!” at me, and wanting to shout back: “I was born here; did you know that?” Even after four decades in Mexico, I realize that my skin color and features still scream “foreigner”, and even after long years of being nationalized, I am usually considered an outsider. Whenever I meet someone new, or even take a taxi, within minutes I am usually asked, “Where are you from?” or “How long have you lived here?” If the person is fairly young, I sometimes reply to the latter, “Longer than you!” (To be truthful, my accent is a giveaway too.)

In California, during a recent visit, some Latinos were trying to take turns to get a family picture with the Hollywood letters in the background. I offered to be their photographer, and they expressed their admiration for how well I spoke Spanish. I just told them I have lived for years in Mexico. Unfortunately, my accent isn’t as “native” as one would expect it to be, however, and even on the phone I’ve been asked, “Where are you from?”

Continue reading

Expat by Default


Once I was interviewed for a book about expatriates in Mexico. In the end, the editor indicated a chapter had to be cut out to limit the length of it all, and… guess what? That meant my story. My take on it is that mine was chosen because I was not your “normal” expat compared to the others included, not a retiree who had chosen to live in Mexico instead of the U.S. or Canada, for example. Besides, my husband is Mexican.

That’s about when it occurred to me that for much of my life I’ve been an expat by default, not so much by a conscious decision to live in a country, but due to my connection to other people.
Growing up in Central America was the result of my Dad’s choosing to work there. Marrying a Mexican in Mexico meant, for me at least, taking for granted that we would live here, where he had a small business and would not have to start out from scratch in a foreign language.

Living here by default means that I never really had to take inventory of the pros and cons of living in one country or another. I took Mexico with its pluses and its blemishes, which were mostly familiar to me after studying and working here. Then again, I had spent so little time living in Canada that when people ask “Do you miss Canada?”, it’s hard to say that I do. Of course one misses family, but I also grew up far from all our relatives, knowing that in the summer we’d see at least some of them.

As a Christian, I realize that I am also an expat by default, of sorts. Scripture says we are citizens of a higher realm, who will never feel completely at home until we are there with our heavenly Father. In reality, I did not choose to follow Christ; he chose me and when the time was ripe, I responded. I’m a pilgrim here, not fully attached to one culture or another, but feeling a special connection with others who share the same “citizenship”, no matter what their background.

Fellow pilgrims, let’s make the most of whatever world we live in, and never get too comfortable with where we are, for our true home is around the corner!

© 2020 Margie Hord

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