Stages in Expat Perspective

peterchristopher's picture

Over the past five years, during most of which I have lived in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Philippines, I’ve seen the same story play out time and time again. Idealist moves to third-world country. Idealist trusts people he meets in the way he would like to be trusted. The golden rule, right? Treat people like you would like to be treated?  Then he learns his lessons.

I remember when I arrived and was in that first stage of development. It isn’t long before he gets the first scare. Maybe he sees another foreigner terrified about how he’s been robbed. Maybe he is about to fork over a wad of cash, then he takes a look at his local companion (who told him about the thing to be bought) whom he sees with wide eyes, and wonders, “Why is he so excited? He’s not getting any cash out of this transaction, right?? Or maybe this isn’t the kind of friendship I thought it was.”

But this is just a scare. The idealist goes through with his plans of the moment. Only a few weeks later does he think, “Oh, shit!” and starts to think seriously about going straight back home. About half do. “No use throwing good money after bad,” he says to himself.

Those who stay, if they have the savvy and the wherewithal to become more established, then try to be more aware of what is going on, not so naive. But the reality is that they are still idealistic, still gullible, still do not how the locals view him. They still believe it is possible to make money doing business honestly in the third world. They still believe that the locals will recognize the love in their actions and not take advantage of them. And yet they have begun to be more cautious. But they often are more courageous also. What is the real limit, they do not know. Now they are asking the questions: “Can I walk down this San Jose street at 6pm? I’ve walked down the street at 4pm!” “Can I trust my worker to spread the fertilizer in my field on his way home, or will he put it in his backpack and sell it when he gets back to town?” “Can I trust this woman I just met in the bar, leaving her in the same room with my wallet, when I’m in the toilet taking a shower?”

One of those times when he calculates wrong, he gets a quick lesson in hard knocks. Maybe he loses his entire investment to a worker who disappears and/or a judge who buys a new car. Maybe he gets mugged and beaten up, for love or money. Maybe he finds his wife in his bedroom with her ex-boyfriend and realizes that for her it was “to death do us part, and let it be sooner rather than later, dear God.”

At this point, almost everyone has to go home for at least a visit. Then what? Most of them stay home, half of the remainder try a new third-world country, a few go back to their first one.

At this stage in the game, he accepts that he cannot ever trust the locals the way he had trusted his neighbors back at home. He has learned not just “it’s good to have a dog” but he has a dog. He has learned not just “don’t go out in San Jose in the streets at night” but he follows the directive religiously. He has learned not just, “it’s good if the neighbors respect one” but when he moves into a new house, he promptly asks the neighbors to sharpen his machetes or has his friends come by and they do a little target practice. He has learned not just, “don’t have enemies” but when he is angry, he does much better than he could years earlier holding it in, and tries to avoid embarrassing others in public. He learns not just to be informed, but when he learns about crime in his area, he wants to know every last detail.

Unfortunately, all this means he usually has much less interaction with the locals. Now, instead of living on the other side of the US-Mexico border, with the border guards there, he lives in his own mini-compound, with his own mini border patrol. Now, a “seasoned expat” he wonders to himself, “Am I really living in the third world, or not?” And he never knows the answer. Of course everyone’s path is different, and yet I think that there is not one expatriate who has lived semi-permanently in the third world without going through this progression.

At the “conclusion” of my progression, the expatiates then end up following different paths. Some are then open and honest with others about the challenges of living in the third-world and the strategies for how to do so safely and sanely. Others recognize that any information they give to others makes them more vulnerable, and they keep quiet. Then there is the group who, while adopting all the behaviors of the other two cautious groups (dogs, weapons, staying inside, avoiding business relations with locals, etc.) nevertheless publicly claim that crime is low, that the locals truly are culturally advanced of the foreigners, and that one can easily live cheaply in the third-world if one treats others with respect, for respect begets respect. (The latter group is almost always made up of real estate agents, but sometimes also includes wealthy (by local standards) idealists who are being systematically milked by layers of intermediaries and dozens of locals, who protect their benefactor and delay their ultimate disillusionment, as long as the benefactor is still spreading the wealth.) Let me say again, of course everyone’s path is different, and I apologize to the reader if in my attempt to make something clear I have erred in making this caricature too black and white.

This expat post was originally inspired by: (signup required)

"if you don't want negativity about costa rica then don't read this. i know some of you don't want to hear negative things that are happening here but i just have to report this house crime. as many of you know we lived outside of jaco in the campo for the past three years. we had our house broken into five times and then when they came in while i was gone and almost murdered robyn we decided enough was enough. we had a dog, they poisoned it. we had bars on the windows when they got to robyn. we had on order the pull down metal curtains but unfortunately they arrived the day after robyn was beaten. since we moved out last december we have been robbed another four times. [...]"



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Hi, welcome! Great point about family

Hi Claire, I think I remember reading something from costaricapages forum from you?  Welcome here also on Central America Forum.  You raise a great point about family.  Extended family often has more of a role here than where we came from, so that leaves most of us guests without family less connnected.  It takes such a long time to establish non-family connections, as you say, the society isn't built around those kinds of connections.  Have you found that after two and a half years you are developing some of those connections despite the obstacles, or are the obstacles too big? Peter

One more stage...

I've been living in Central America only 2 1/2 years, straight out of college. I found a cynical understanding in your article, and my pessimistic side agrees to most everything, even being a 24 year old female who has not yet staked out my fortune. "Living" here is different from passing through, obviously, and I have already found that my current self has to bite her tongue when hearing the idealistic free love speeches from passing backpackers. The only stage I would add to that is the retrospective one, in which I get upset with myself for putting up barriers for physical protection, which are difficult to separate from social barriers. I want to fit in with the ticos, I want the freedom to meet up with friends after dark, etc. Then even my Tico friends say I'm crazy, and 'do you know how dangerous that is'. I think Ticos deal with the insecurity in the same way, only they have their families to fall back on. You will note that most social groups have familial ties running through them. It's like after puberty, you can't trust your neighbors. Every gringo is an island, where as tico islands are composed of family or gang members. There has to be a way around this!? Life in paradise can't have such a high cost!

new favorite things

there are new things to try that may well take the place of old favorites


This is a great reminder.  Where would Milyn and I be without homemade coconut butter, homemade coconut oil, daily fruit shakes with fresh noni, chirping birdies, howling monkeys right outside the window?  In withdrawal at least.


Expat transition

 We did not have such a huge change, moving to Costa Rica in 2003, as we came from rural Northern New Mexico, which often seems like a country other than the US.  We found the pace, the culture and even the corruption to be similar to what we had experienced.

We did, however, learn to be much more patient and have an even better sense of humor.  If one cannot develop serious patience and laugh about what did not get done or did not work out the way you planned, you will most likely leave.

It is all a growth experience, if you allow it to be.  Doing without is also a growth experience.  Maybe you will never be able to purchase some of your favorite things, but there are new things to try that may well take the place of old favorites.  Flexibility is so important.


When I originally wrote this, I think I was projecting too much. For instance, "I think that there is not one expatriate who has lived semi-permanently in the third world without going through this progression." This statement assumes that every expat who moves abroad is an idealist. Upon closer inspection, I think this is not universally true. Some expats are not idealists when they move abroad. They may have already had training in street smarts in their home country. The article would have been more accurate if it had clearly stated this from the beginning.

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