“At the moment you are most in awe of all there is
about life that you don’t understand, you are closer
to understanding it all than at any other time.”
“Do you like living in Mexico? Are you happy here?”
I look across the table at the man asking me this question. We are sitting in one of the outdoor cafes that line three sides of the zócalo, or main square, of Oaxaca. My inquisitive companion is a new acquaintance, a North American, recently arrived to live in the city. He isn’t simply making small talk. He is sincere. Overwhelmed by the enormity of all of the details involved in his decision to relocate to a non-English speaking country, he genuinely wants to know how he might survive the impact of living in a different culture with a greatly reduced level of proficiency.
The term culture shock is a common phrase that describes the personal jolt of plunging into a new socio-economic environment. More specifically, proficiency shock, is the realization that one has to relearn the essential fundamentals of survival, including the language. Acquiring food and shelter can be a monumental challenge. I understand what my companion is experiencing since I am still dealing with proficiency shock, even after living here nearly three years. Often, having been reduced to the level of an inarticulate child, I have had to stifle the urge to throw myself on the ground, kicking and screaming from the frustration of, not only my ignorance, but the utter inability to alleviate the situation by asking questions and understanding answers. I sense the desperation behind his words and I need a moment to think about my response.
There are really two completely different questions in his query. The first: Do you like living in Mexico? is fairly straightforward and easy to answer: not always. I do not like the poverty or the racism against indigenous people. Nor do I care for living so far from my family. Other dislikes include the quality of television, litter in the streets and lack of emission control on vehicles. I could go on. But the important thing is that there are going to be some aspects of life that I do not like, no matter where I live. I can complain about any number of things and yet, at the same time, be happy. So that leaves me with the second part: Am I happy here?
Happiness is individual. For me it is when I open my senses to what is going on around me, free my mind of the clutter of the past and everyday preoccupation, and simply absorb and participate in every aspect of the moment. This is how I lived when I was a child. That little girl who wanted to throw tantrums from the frustration of everything being so new and overwhelming had the innate capacity for experiencing everything as new and overwhelming. Each passing minute was a wonder. I remember a summer morning when I was seven. The warm hours between breakfast and lunch stretched ahead, promising the discovery of secrets, new sensations, knowledge to be soaked up. The feeling of that long ago morning epitomizes happiness for me: filled with curiosity and marvel, I was intent on capturing every nuance of life and there was no room for doubt or worry.
Somewhere along the path to adulthood, I lost the ability to naturally approach each moment in this manner. Life became mundane, repetitive. So many mysteries were explained that I ceased to believe in mystery at all. I learned from experience and closed my mind to the possibility of new outcomes. Working for the future, I let the present slip away. The flow of modern living carried me in a convoluted direction and I forgot how to find my way back to the simplicity of innocence.
But the act of traveling, gently yet persistently, nudges me into re-focusing. When I step off a plane or bus in London, England; Huehuetenango, Guatemala; or Madison, Wisconsin, I involuntarily shed the smothering overcoat of obsession about putting the kids through school, paying the mortgage, and remembering that Tuesday is trash day. I physically open up: shoulders back, eyes intent, ears tuned. Almost unconsciously I mentally retrench, pull in all of the sensory stimuli that are floating around me like an invisible aura of groping tentacles searching for answers to insoluble problems, and focus instead on the very step I am taking, the new sounds I am hearing, the smell of this exotically different world.
Moving to a foreign country is simply an extension of travel. I carry a bubble of curiosity around me as I live my daily life, walking along the streets of Oaxaca. Something intriguing and new to me is going to happen. It won’t all be delightful, but it will be a continuous adventure because I have returned to my childhood capacity for wonder. Here I have no historical background from which to draw judgment or anticipation of what the outcome will be to almost any situation. I am like an empty vessel, waiting to be filled. Life is a constantly changing kaleidoscope of novelty where even the golden glow of the setting sun is a discovery.
Only seconds have passed while all of this is going through my mind and my companion is still waiting for my response. Behind him is the sentient explosion of late afternoon in the zócalo: a tragically bent beggar going from table to table, fried grasshoppers being sold by an Indian woman, traditional music filling the air around a group of laughing teenagers practicing an age-old dance. Mentally I leap up, spread my arms wide and embrace everything. I want to take the newcomer by the hand, twirl him around, shake loose his anxiety and fear, and shift his viewpoint just a fraction so that a completely new vista opens up. But I know that I cannot do this for him. If he is wise, if he is very lucky, he will find his own way to happiness. This one is mine. Instead I smile, nod my head, and say, “Yes. Yes! I am happy here.”