Thinking About a Move to South America?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Ecuador
IF YOU enjoy a challenge, then you will like South America. New places to see, interesting people to meet and exotic food to delight you. It is all here. More and more people are discovering this challenge by moving to South America.
Among the various reasons for people relocating here are employment transfer, retirement and health. Others come with a Christian missionary spirit. Motive aside, there are certain aspects of such a move that you should consider.
The Challenge of Language
Perhaps the most immediate challenge that one faces is that of language. You may come face-to-face with this problem as you pass through the port of entry and find that you can barely make out what the customs official is saying. This can be frustrating. There is something rather humbling about an articulate adult’s being reduced to the vocabulary level of a three-year-old. But here the adult can learn a vital lesson from the three-year-old. The child, his mind uncluttered with the fear of what others may be thinking, mimics others and masters a language very quickly. In point—forget yourself.
You are going to make mistakes—all learners do. These mistakes have a way of impressing on one the need of a sense of humor, as was the case with the man who went to the hardware store and asked for ‘a pound of fingernails.’ Although the Spanish words for nail and fingernail are entirely dissimilar, the learner simply got them mixed up. So expect to make some mistakes. Do not take yourself too seriously. Although you may think others will laugh at you, they rarely do. People want to help.
Be prepared too for disappointments, and perhaps even some tears of frustration. They are part of the experience of learning. Expect to have to work hard to master the language. Few people have a so-called knack for language. The majority are just like ourselves—ordinary. Shun the use of the mental crutch, “I can’t learn,” or, “It’s too hard for me.” Some people are still saying this after twenty years.
Such persons have resorted to language segregation. Resist this temptation. Instead of always seeking conversation with those who speak your native tongue, go more than halfway in initiating conversations in the local language. Others are encouraged by your willingness to try.
The need to meet the challenge of language head-on bears emphasis. All the other challenges associated with a move to South America are directly connected to learning to communicate in the local language. Getting off to a good start with the language will better equip you to weather the other changes. If at all possible, plan to devote the first month or more to concentrated language study. Experience has shown that for new language students such intensive initial study, in some cases as much as eleven hours a day, gives immediate and gratifying results. At the end of four weeks one can manage limited conversation on various topics.
So when making your move, apply yourself to learning the language. Remember that this is a challenge. Will you accept it?
The Challenge of Homesickness
The problem of language-induced isolation is often complicated by the pangs of homesickness. There are those who claim not to suffer from homesickness, but it would appear that most persons are susceptible to it.
Many times the presence or absence of homesickness depends on one’s attitude. A Christian minister once offered this interesting viewpoint: ‘God gave the entire earth to man as his home, without any modern-day injunction to confine himself to one particular area.’ From this enlarged point of view, the minister had come to appreciate the entire earth as his abode, resulting in his feeling very much at home anywhere.
One’s acquaintances and associations play major roles in making one feel at home in a certain geographical location. So do you want to overcome homesickness? Then, as soon as possible, make yourself at home in the new environment. Make acquaintances. Let them help you.
Nonetheless, there may be those days when you feel homesick. It may only be a spoken word, the sight of a small child playing with his toys or even a sunny afternoon that activates the floodgates of memory and there may be a whirlpool of melancholy. What to do? Well, does a particular hobby engross you? Do you enjoy good reading? Have you visited the local parks and museums? What do you really know about your new surroundings? Follow a busy schedule, and this will help to combat homesickness.
The Challenge of Environment
Closely related to the problem of homesickness is your new environment, which includes climate changes, local customs and living standards. Strange as it may seem, the first reaction of many new arrivals is, “But it’s so different. It’s not like back home.” Why, of course it is not! The new home would not be new if it were an exact duplicate of the former.
In view of this, expect a period of adjustment. In reality you are undergoing a transplanting. The effects of such are not to be minimized. Transplants are frequently accompanied by a series of crises that vary as to seriousness. Be adaptable, like the youngster who within one hour of having arrived from winterbound Europe had stripped to the waist and was happily playing with some toys and was trying a few words of Spanish. Here again the encouragement of friends is a great help. If you have made the necessary effort to make such friends, the adjustment will be much easier.
Come prepared to face life as it truly is. Every country has its own customs and social standards. Quite possibly these will not be your natural customs and standards. However, reflect on your purpose in coming to this country. Are you coming as a social reformer? In most cases this would not be wise or even appreciated. These people’s daily pattern of life is distinctly their own. If you have decided to locate yourself within that pattern, then be prepared to make some adjustments.
People’s viewpoints differ as to public hygiene. Although very strange to you, others have found that walls and vacant lots can be used as public latrines. Working mothers may breast-feed their children on public streets. You may choose not to adopt such practices, but these are realities of daily life in many parts of the world. Your moving from a location where this is not the custom will not alter these established patterns, nor should you expect it to. Rather than stand back as a critical observer, come prepared to get in stride with the pace of life as you find it here and you will come to understand why things are as they are.
How long will this adjustment take? The answer depends to a great extent on the individual. But it takes time. One handbook makes this comment: “It has been learned from experience that a person does not really appreciate the people or the language nor does he get accustomed to his foreign assignment before two years have passed, and by the end of three years he learns to know the people and the customs of the country and to like them.”
Avoid, therefore, rash decisions and the tendency to let first impressions become lasting ones. Some people have gone to great expense moving their entire families to a new location, only to stay a few days or weeks and then return home. There have been cases of those who decided as they walked from the airport that they were not going to like their new home, and they did not. This is indeed sad. It is like the man who goes to buy a new suit but stoutly refuses to try any on. He goes away unhappy without ever knowing how fine he would have looked in one.
Simulating the Change
Sometime before actually making the move, one might find it beneficial to simulate, to some extent, life as it will probably be in one’s new home. Arrange for the entire family to participate in the experiment, since they will all be involved in the change of living conditions.
If possible, visit a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. Listen to the voices! Do they sound louder than what you have been used to? Immerse yourself in the seeming incoherency of their conversation. They talk so fast, do they not? The myriad of words may cause a sensation of mental confusion.
Take a ride through the lower-income neighborhoods of your city, preferably through those of one of the large metropolises. Conditions as you see them there may well predominate in your new surroundings. A number of South American cities offer a near-ideal, relatively smog-free climate year round, but poverty is still very present. You will have to live with it. Can you see your family there? It is a challenge.
Try preparing a whole week’s menu without using any canned, packaged or frozen goods. They are either unavailable or prohibitively priced in many countries to the south. This includes the preparation of such staples as salad dressings and mayonnaise. You will find recipes for them in your cookbook. It takes a few minutes longer to bake a pie from the basic ingredients than to reach into the freezer-case in your supermarket. A can opener is much faster than a paring knife in the preparation of vegetables, but during the trial week do not use the can opener.
Your trip to the supermarket will prove interesting too. Do the week’s shopping without asking a clerk for anything. You may be amazed at how much you would like to tell the butcher just how to chop, slice or grind the cut of meat, but, remember, you will not be able to communicate until you learn the language. Also, remember that all the labels will be unintelligible and many of the brand names you are used to just are not to be found. A good practice is to look up the many items on your shopping list in a foreign-language dictionary.
As to getting home from the market, or anywhere else for that matter, forget about the car for the week. Try going everywhere on the public transportation system, or by taxis. Although cars are available in South America, they are very expensive and it may be some time till you have one. Remember that all this restricted activity must be undertaken during the same week. Do not try each step individually, but all at once.
Now, of course, this experiment may sound quite amusing. Please be assured that it is a very real happening once you make the move, and all of these situations, plus homesickness and the challenge of the environment, rush in upon you. Try it out.
Deciding to Come
The decision to come to South America is yours alone to make. There may be persons who try to discourage you. You may be surprised to find that even friends from whom you expected encouragement may try hard to dissuade you. Among the reasons they may advance for not coming may be the lack of material comforts, danger to your health and that you are needed more where you are now.
On the other hand, there is much to encourage one. How stimulating it is, for example, to see those who have accepted the challenge and met it. There are families who have lived in South America for five, ten or twenty years. Their children are robust and healthy. They have gone to school, visited the doctor when they were sick and survived very well. They have a rich field of personal experience on which to draw. They are bilingual. They have the inner satisfaction, not to be depreciated, of having met the challenge and won.
You will want to sit down first and calculate the expense of your move both materially and emotionally. Do this as a family. Remember that all members will be involved. Some families have sent one or two senior members on a reconnaissance trip to the prospective country. The firsthand knowledge gained from such a trip can more than offset the added expense.
Above all, do not try to deceive yourself. You will have difficulties. Such a move is a real challenge. But those who have already come, and who have already met the challenge and stayed, will be with you all through the ups and downs. Count on them to help you stay, if after weighing the cost, you accept the challenge to move to South America.