By Dr. Lee Dubs

When I was in training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1960’s, part of our psychological preparation included understanding what is commonly known as “culture shock.”  Based on research and interviews with North Americans – such as missionaries and government workers – who were living or had lived in other countries, psychologists had identified three stages of a common adjustment difficulty.  Almost everyone who experiences extended living abroad undergoes psychological challenges that range from mild to severe.  Being able to recognize and to overcome such strains play a major role in determining why some expats eventually leave their host country and why others remain.

Stage one discomfort is called “culture tension.”  By the second month the expat often begins to internalize minor annoyances that are the result of cultural differences.  When the word “mañana” continually means “sometime in the near future” instead of “tomorrow,” for example, the immigrant may become increasingly annoyed each time they hear it.  They might roll their eyes and mumble under their breath as they walk away.  Another example of culture tension is when one starts to long for certain products that the new location does not offer.  I remember wanting a cold milkshake as I spent my days living in a shack and working in a poor village on the coastal desert of Peru.

Stage two is “culture stress.”  As the name implies, many challenges of daily life go beyond tense; they may become seriously aggravating and even stressful.  Hearing again that an item will be ready “mañana” might provoke a gritting of the teeth, not a simple roll of the eyes. “If I hear that word one more time I am going to scream!” might well be your thought.  You may tell friends things like “I hate the mayonnaise here.  Why can’t they sell Hellman’s or Kraft?”  The immigrant who feels such culture stress fights the urge to grumble at the clerk.  Bad feelings are blamed on the locals, their culture, and even their language.  Whenever I hear a frustrated expat in Ecuador exclaim, “Why don’t these people speak English!” I recognize culture stress or the start of its next stage.

A final – and worse – agony is known as “culture shock.”  This often hits around months three to five.  You feel like you just cannot take it anymore.  “I hate this language!”  “Why does their bureaucracy take so long and get screwed up anyway?”  “I am sick and tired of this food.”  “Why can’t they be more like us?”  “Why did I ever come to this country, anyway?”  “I want to go home!”  The words, “these people” and “you would think” are used with increasing frequency.  When culture shock hit this Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru, I wrote a resignation from the Peace Corps and was going to look for a flight back to Illinois.  Fortunately, friends came to the rescue and helped get me out of my funk before I submitted that resignation.  I worked through it and finished my assignment just fine.  Some PCV’s, however, could not recover from their culture shock in spite of assistance, and they returned to the U.S. long before their two years were completed.  Culture shock is a feeling of pain and misery that can turn into despair.  Nothing is right in the new culture.  Life is not good.

North Americans in Ecuador (and a lot of other countries) have witnessed one or more of the above emotions in their fellow expats and may feel them themselves.  Emotional outbursts by stressed and “shocked” expats are not unusual and are often witnessed in public places.  I once was talking with a North American woman about a new teaching job she was to start, when she suddenly burst into tears.  Between sobs she said that she could not stand to stay in Ecuador another day. While her friends wondered about the cause of her irrational behavior, I recognized culture shock.  My efforts to get her to understand what was happening did not help and she left the country.

In the early Peace Corps years we learned that the best way to recover from those negative feelings is a temporary change of venue, to get away for a while.  My friends and I took a trip to a town in Peru where we saw trees, flowers, and grass, things I had not seen for months.  I returned to my assignment in the sand feeling much better.  Culture shock never returned, and when it came time for me to leave, it was with great sadness.  I had become part of Peru and its people, just as my wife and I are now part of Ecuador and its people.

A change of venue does not work for everyone, however, and some really do need to get back to their home country permanently.  They cannot recover in the host country and they remain unhappy.  They will continue to blame the locals for their bad feelings, they often blame their home country for being there in the first place, and they sometimes exhibit resentment toward fellow expats who are comfortable in the new land.

Those in culture stress or shock may try to avoid contact with people who do not speak their language.  They often make no serious attempt to learn the language of the host country.  Even though some may have expected immigrants in their home country to speak their language, they do not recognize their own contradictory behavior as immigrants in a country where they reject the national language. Culture shock does not produce logical reactions.  Victims in pain look for scapegoats.

A normal response to culture tension, stress, and shock is to focus on the differences. People in culture shock are convinced that almost everything about the new country is inferior to their own.  Unhappy immigrants frequently “vent” in private and in public. They complain about almost anything, even local products. They frequently criticize service employees who do not speak their language, and they may loudly complain to each other in public places, where locals hear them and resent them.  Attempts by others to help modify their behavior are occasionally met with hostility. Their allies are often fellow sufferers, and they reinforce each other’s frustrations.

Distressed expats who cannot recover from culture stress and shock sometimes do benefit from moving to other countries that have what they need.  A lot of North Americans are leaving Ecuador and moving to areas in Mexico where there are larger numbers of their own people and familiar comforts such as Wal-Mart, Costco or Radio Shack. It is usually a wise decision for them. Others, for various reasons, choose to stay where they are unhappy. The culture will not change for them. Locals will not start speaking English for them.  The bureaucracy will not suddenly function perfectly for them. The external excuses for their unhappiness will not change.  It is they who must try something different if they hope to be happy.

Living in someone else’s country is not always easy.  Early bad feelings are normal.  Taking action to overcome those feelings is the key. Most immigrants make adjustments and learn to enjoy their new life. Others seek contentment elsewhere.  A minority never fully recovers and its members continue to blame others for their discontent.   In Peru, I finally came to realize that the cause of my distress was not external; it was within me.  I quit complaining, became proactive, and pulled myself out of it with the aid of friends.  I finished my Peace Corps experience speaking good Spanish, having a lot of Peruvian friends, and with a new outlook.  It ended up being one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Lee Dubs first visited Cuenca in the early 1960s and has been a full-time resident for the past eleven years. A retired language professor from North Carolina, he and his wife, Carol, are the owners of Carolina Bookstore on Calle Hermano Miguel at Calle Larga. Lee can be reached by email at cld941@yahoo.com.


By Dr. Lee Dubs

One of a group of writers who want to encourage people to be better prepared when they move to Ecuador, Dr. Dubs is a long-time resident of Cuenca. This article is one that reflects the observations of local and foreign residents who have seen too many distressed North Americans in Ecuador. These writers hope to help more immigrants arrive fiscally and psychologically prepared for their move by providing facts about life in Ecuador. This article addresses the issue of expat emigration from the country.

You can find a lot of articles that tell you that Ecuador is the perfect place to retire. Plenty of writers encourage you to move to Ecuador, and many want you to make that move for reasons of their own. Some even use words like “thousands” when wanting you to believe how many English speakers live in particular areas, implying that language and culture will present no problems. Astute readers recognize a sales pitch by those who intend to make a profit from their move. One fact that few writers reveal is that not everyone is happy and that large numbers of English speakers have left and are continuing to leave Ecuador.

Starting in late 2008 and early 2009 international travel readers encountered a plethora of articles extolling the virtues of moving to Ecuador, and North Americans by the hundreds heeded the siren’s call. By 2012, some profit-driven organizations and paid writers were claiming that there were over four thousand expat English speakers living in the city of Cuenca alone. They cited figures from government agencies, not explaining – and sometimes not even knowing – that government figures only show how many temporary and permanent visas, as well as national I.D. cards, were issued over the years, not how many expats are actually living in the country or in any given city. While some Latin countries such as Mexico and Panama do have large English-speaking “colonies,” any purported massive English-speaking communities in Ecuador is a myth. Numbers are much smaller than those extolled by the profit seekers and the ill-informed.

It is a fact that there is significant emigration (departure) by North Americans from Ecuador. Although there are no statistics to reveal how many expats have left the country for good, there is a growing belief that the number of English speakers who are leaving Ecuador is growing, while the number arriving had been shrinking by late 2014. One official from the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Relations confirmed to this writer last year that applications by North Americans for resident visas were declining.

One indicator of the drop in immigration into Cuenca by foreigners and also by returning Ecuadorians has been a dramatic slowdown in new construction. Multi-unit buildings sit unfinished and buildings that were scheduled to be constructed are on hold. In some cases, houses were demolished to make way for high-rise buildings, but only rubble sits on the lots.

A second barometer of continuous emigration is the almost daily list of sales on English websites of furniture, appliances, cars, and other goods by those who are leaving the country for good. Expats who have lived in Ecuador a few years or even a few months are saying adiós.

Why are so many Americans and Canadians who came to make Ecuador their home pulling out? What has changed their minds? What are the causes of the accelerating emigration? Reasons vary with individuals, but there are some factors that have been cited frequently by emigrants.

Cost. Many North Americans moved to Ecuador without first making an exploratory trip or doing their homework, choosing to believe often exaggerated figures they had read. Large numbers of immigrants were surprised to find the cost of living higher than they expected, and their budgets were not prepared for reality. Ecuador requires individuals to show proof of a minimum of $800 per month of steady income to acquire a resident visa, a figure that was unrealistically low when it was established in 2003 and which has never been adjusted, even for inflation. Immigrants soon realize that living well requires more than $800 per month. There are different ways to describe how one goes about one’s economic life abroad: living comfortably, subsisting, or surviving. Numerous immigrants have sought methods to create in-country income to supplement their budgets. Most have discovered the complications and expenses of operating a business abroad. Those who operate “under the radar” run the risk of heavy fines and deportation.

Insufficient income is one reason a lot of expats either find a cheaper place to live, go back home with reduced expectations, or stay and maintain a lowered standard of living. It is cheaper to live here than in North America, but it is not as cheap as many were led to believe.

Culture. This is the most common reason for leaving. The pitches that encourage a move to Ecuador focus on cost and are generally scripted to appeal to those with no significant foreign experience. The presentations make it sound as if living in a place such as Ecuador is like a cheap combination of Shangri-La and Utopia rolled into one. To entice foreigners to head to Ecuador, promoters paint warm impressions and often include photographs of beautiful architecture, sandy beaches, and smiling people, where foreigners walk hand in hand with faces aglow. It’s the rose-colored glasses approach. Who doesn’t want a perfect and affordable retirement?

Many people who never even experienced another culture in their own country believe they are ready to live abroad. After their move to Ecuador, they quickly discover that having lived where there were Spanish speakers in one’s own country is not the same as living in their country and experiencing their culture 24/7. Even trying to avoid the locals and immersing yourself exclusively with fellow expats – as some attempt – cannot protect you from the challenges and frustrations of living in a foreign culture day after day after day.

Some expats suffer culture stress from the lack of certain amenities they were used to in their home country. Some emigrants have said that they could not live where there was not a Wal-Mart, for example. Ecuador’s growing list of bans on imported products cuts deep with many expats who can no longer get the “right” brands of mayonnaise, cat food, ketchup, sauces, and a lot of other products. They must buy local brands and often have to adjust to different tastes.

Living in a country whose language is different presents daily frustrations. One writer implied that most Ecuadorians speak English because they almost all study English in school. How are you with the French you studied in high school? Are you ready to chat in French? After all, you studied it. No, most Ecuadorians do not speak English, and foreigners who know little or no Spanish are at a disadvantage and must deal with never-ending frustration.

It is not unusual to encounter expats who cannot or will not accept the changes that face them. They resist their host culture as long as they can, finally realizing they cannot change it and that they will never be happy there. Such realists leave, usually returning to the comforts of their “real home.” Some continue to stay in spite of their growing misery, and anyone within earshot knows how unhappy they are. Fortunately for everyone, most of those finally give up and depart, too.

The daily challenges of living in a foreign culture lead many immigrants to experience culture tension, culture stress, and even culture shock. A remedy for many is simply to get out.

Health. Even with good health care, some immigrants simply get sick and stay sick. Test after test and medication after medication do not provide solutions to their chronic condition. Continuous nausea, diarrhea, weight loss, and other symptoms make for miserable living. Even those who love their new country have to give up and leave.

Homesickness. There are a lot of expats who leave for a fourth reason. They may enjoy life in the new country, but they miss their friends, their children, and their grandchildren too much. Daily contact through email, Skype, and phone calls is not enough. South America, in particular, is too far from “home,” and they finally decide to return in order to be with their loved ones. They thought the distance would not trouble them a lot, but it did.

Note: Homesickness is sometimes the reason given for leaving, when the underlying issue is culture stress. People do not want to return to their native country and hear, “I told you so.”

Crime. In spite of denials by some writers, the types of crime that affect expats are increasing. A representative of one for-profit group answered a question about all the bars and gratings on windows by explaining (presumably with a straight face) that they have nothing to do with crime; they are there to prevent broken windows from all the soccer balls the children kick in the streets. Many expat residents have suffered various degrees of crime, some violent; and it sent them packing. There have been increasing reports of everything from “grab and run” thefts and daylight assaults to home invasions in which people were terrorized, sometimes tied up, and threatened with weapons. Even coming home to find their place ransacked can be the final straw to anyone who is already feeling stressed. Who can blame those who suffer such trauma for leaving?

What is the common denominator to all of the above? Choice. Every North American immigrant in any country chose to move there, in spite of occasional excuses about “having to leave” for economic or political reasons. Every immigrant who arrives voluntarily in someone else’s country chooses to stay or leave. The point of this article is to inform readers that more and more are choosing to leave Ecuador for various reasons. Think before you move.

Living in a foreign country is not for everyone, regardless of how rosy a picture is painted from outside. People who finally admit to themselves that they are not happy in another country choose what to do about their dilemma. Increasing numbers are deciding to leave and to seek happiness elsewhere. Some of us who are happy to live abroad have chosen to write about the realities of life in another country. We want to help people arrive prepared. We do not wear rose-colored glasses.

For consistently accurate information, two good websites are CuencaHighLife.com, as well as SouthofZero.com.

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