By Dr. Lee Dubs
Although the following comments may be applied to almost any country, my use of the term “expats” refers generally to people from North America, especially the United States, and I use my many years of experience in Ecuador as examples.
1. MISTAKE: Being unprepared for the move to a new country by not doing adequate research before moving and/or by relying on faulty information.
RESULT: Many expats arrive with very little preparation for their new life or with misconceptions of what to expect. Some have no previous foreign experience at all, unless we count eating at the International House of Pancakes or spending five days in Cancun. They are soon unhappy and must make some difficult decisions.
SOLUTION: First, you need to make an exploratory trip of at least a month before committing to the move in order to get a “feel” for the country and to stock up on reliable information. If you cannot afford an exploratory trip, you probably cannot afford to live there, either. Second, be wary of biased and often misleading information from organizations and individuals who urge you to make the move for their own profit. Anyone who paints an overly rosy picture of the country and who is trying to persuade you to make the move usually wants your money. The most objective and reliable information comes from expats who have lived in the country at least a few years and who have nothing to gain from your move.
2. MISTAKE: Making the move for the wrong reason(s). If your main reason for the move is to get away from something or simply to find a cheaper place to live, your chances of a smooth transition are greatly reduced. If you are pursuing a dream of some idyllic retirement on the cheap in a foreign land, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration.
RESULT: Many “economic refugees” who have only one reason for the move – it’s cheaper to live there – often try to avoid admitting their real reason for the change, and they regale listeners with excuses: they had to get away from their own terrible country and its terrible leader; they wanted to escape the Japanese radiation belt or the chem-trails, etc. Many hold some bitterness toward their home country because they feel they cannot afford to live there in the style they want. If your reasons for moving do not include an appreciation of the new country, its people, and its culture, you may be in trouble before you even arrive. Estimates are that half of the North Americans who move to Ecuador leave within two years. They arrive unhappy and they leave the same way.
SOLUTION: Before you leave your home country, look in the mirror and tell that person the truth about why you want to move. Think twice about moving if it’s solely for economic or medical reasons. The move will probably not go as well as the profiteers have led you to believe, and you will be forced to make a lot of adjustments that you may not like, including living where the vast majority speaks a different language. Do not expect to find large English-speaking colonies in most countries; people who want your money greatly overstate the numbers to make you feel more comfortable and to create the sense that the local language is unnecessary to learn. Others repeat the exaggerated numbers out of ignorance; they believe them.
3. MISTAKE: Believing all the propaganda about moving to the new country. While there is accurate and trustworthy information out there, there are two groups that spill out an almost endless stream of nothing but positive information about the country. The first are organizations whose goal is to convince you to make the move in the first place and pay them for information. The second group is made up of individuals who sell goods and services within the country.
RESULT: Overwhelmed with information, expats who do research have to decide what is valid and what is misleading or even false. They are faced with a plethora of tours, seminars, relocation services, legal assistance, real estate “opportunities,” travel services, and endorsements of all kinds. Many of the latter are recommendations from expats who tout agencies with which they are affiliated or from which they get commissions, and they conveniently omit the names of even better services. Some are self-appointed “experts” who rarely speak the local language but profess to know all there is to know about something or about everything. Also, making the assumption that facts which are true back home are just as valid in the new land – such as trust in all financial institutions and real estate deals – can also have rueful results.
SOLUTION: Never assume that only superficial differences between cultures (language, food, clothing, etc.) are the important ones. Talk to experienced, objective expats before making any important decisions – especially those that involve significant expenditures. They also can tell you which services are good and also whose information is valid and whose is tainted.
4. MISTAKE: Rushing to buy real estate.
RESULT: Sellers are often quite good at convincing new expats that real estate is a great investment and that they should buy quickly to stay ahead of the inflation that they are causing. By only comparing prices to those in their own country, newbies think they are getting a real bargain, and they even brag about it to the folks back home. What they do not know is that they may be paying double or even triple the value of that property in the local market. When they decide to sell later, they discover that no one will pay what they are asking. Sellers are fond of using anecdotes of expats who boast of a major profit when they sold. In other words, some foolish buyers are lucky enough to sell to newcomers who are just as foolish as they were when they bought. Many of the same expats who complain of real estate inflation try to gouge others by overinflating their own selling price; and the cycle continues.
SOLUTION: Read the articles by experienced travelers and experts who list several reasons not to hurry to buy property in another country. Find out the true value of local real estate and do not be rushed into buying anything. What do you know about zoning regulations? Find out if they even exist. Couples who find or build their “dream home” sometimes end up with a nightmare, as a 12-story building goes up right next to them. Other questions also loom. What do you know about the connection between wills and property in that country? Savvy expats will tell you to rent for at least a year while you look around and while deciding whether you even want to stay in the new country. A wise rule of thumb is this: If anyone is trying to persuade you to buy property and urging you to compare prices to those in your home country or by telling you how foolish it is to rent, turn and walk away.
5. MISTAKE: Selecting a bank and depositing money without doing adequate research on financial institutions in that country. Some institutions may not have the same regulations or protections that you are used to. Putting money into a bank or co-op just because other expats do is no guarantee. They might not have done any research either. The blind often lead the blind.
RESULT: As has happened in Ecuador more than once, some banks can suddenly cease to operate. One day the doors are padlocked and there are guards out front. Investors may lose a chunk of their money or even all of it. As of this writing (February, 2014), a lot of foreigners and locals in Ecuador have yet to receive their money from one such collapse in June, 2013. Their demands, demonstrations, and even hunger strikes have had little effect.
SOLUTION: First, do not be greedy. Look for a bank with a solid rating and a long track record, not the one with the highest interest rate. Many expats in Ecuador who are still hoping to get some of their money back did not heed earlier warnings and, instead, relied on what other expats told them about wonderful interest rates. Remember that one of the Seven Deadly Sins is avarice.
6. MISTAKE: Demonstrating frustrations to the locals. Like it or not, you are seen as a representative of your country. In some cultures, all expats are viewed as members of one big family, and the family is expected to deal with those who misbehave.
RESULT: Foreigners who loudly complain in a post office, market, bank, or anywhere else, do a great disservice to the entire foreign community. In many countries people from the U.S. are seen as arrogant, ignorant, monolingual fools; some even prove it when they open their mouths. While some may fit the description, most do not, and those who create a boisterous scene over some cultural difference – such as a bank teller or cashier not speaking English – cause the locals to paint us all with the same brush of disgust.
SOLUTION: If you find that things are not what you expected, you have three choices: accept the differences and make adjustments; go somewhere else; or spend your time and energy complaining. If you cannot accept one of the first two options, at least help out your fellow expats by keeping your mouth shut in public. Demanding that the locals speak English because “there are so many of us here” is unacceptable to everyone. The foreign population in Cuenca, for example, is far smaller than the large numbers being touted by the arrogant and the ignorant. The reality is that foreigners represent less than one percent of the total population; furthermore, English speakers from the U.S. are only the third largest foreign group behind Spanish-speaking Colombians and Cubans. There are not “so many of us” at all.
There are other mistakes that are made, of course, but these are the Big Six; they seem to be the most common and the most egregious. Avoid them, and your overseas experience has a much better chance of being a good one. Like many locales, Ecuador is a beautiful country filled with friendly people. Come prepared and you probably will enjoy your new life.