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Our identity, and how we construct, shape, and try to control it has always fascinated me.
I appreciate that my identity has its fair share of idiosyncrasies.
First off, I’m not one of those sixth-generation, been-rooted-here-for-decades Americans; I am first-generation and proud.
Born in New York City to a mother from Ukraine and a father from Poland, I feel significantly lucky to have multicultural roots, since I do believe they are one of the many factors that have shaped my ineluctable attraction to other cultures and languages. More importantly, my heritage and upbringing helped shape a strong desire to seek out diversity of thought and experiences.
Looking back, I feel significantly lucky to have multicultural roots, since I do believe they are one of the many factors that have shaped my ineluctable attraction to other cultures, countries, and languages.
While studying at Duke University, I was gifted with the opportunity to experience Latin America for the first time through a program called DukeEngage in Guatemala, working with a microfinance organization for two months. The country and all of the Guatemaltecos with whom I lived, worked, and interacted, from homestay siblings to coworkers to field research survey participants, were so warm, welcoming, and full of life—did I really have any other choice but to fall in cultural love?
On that plane ride back to New York, I made a steadfast vow to myself: someday I would work and live in Latin America, and it would be for much longer than two months.
However, upon graduating, I naturally slid right into the pursuit of the what-I-should-dos, working in various roles in marketing. Clearly this was the path that achieved that delicate balance between what my parents and society seemingly wanted from me—to make money in a stable, flashy, corporate role—and what I could manage to do in the short-term without losing my sanity, right?
What ensued were four years of long commutes, high stress, daunting workloads, unreasonable bosses, and even a few ethically questionable business experiences thrown in for good measure. How have we come to convince ourselves that the unhealthy, unreasonable, and sometimes downright immoral practices and behaviors occurring in many companies are not only permissible, but also even worth sacrificing our well-being?
I’d had enough. I gave in my two weeks notice, did a bit of traveling, moved to Mexico City, and haven’t looked back since.
As for the transition to day-to-day life in Mexico City, certain aspects were relatively easy to adapt to, while others, well, not so much. As a New Yorker, I felt at home right from the start with the quick rhythm and chaos of the city, yet at times it left me feeling exasperated.
I appreciated the city’s quick pulse, with cars streaming down the streets at all hours of the day. Yet, I wasn’t as prepared for their daily bouts of relentless honking during rush hour. I liked the unpredictability of the city’s symphony of sounds, from being serenaded by the saxophone player outside my apartment on Sunday mornings to enjoying the cumbia melodies flowing through my window from the taco stands out front. I even learned to love the omnipresent tamales oaxaqueños street vendors. Yet, at times the Mexico City orchestra sounded more like a cacophony and I longed for a small sliver of silence.
As my roommate once pointed out, this is a city of countless realities colliding with surrealism, an endearing blend of contradictions that I just can’t help but appreciate. It’s tough love, but love nonetheless. And to be fair, not everything took getting used to; one thing I found immediate alignment on between me and my Mexican counterparts was our mutual loathing of Trump.
Initially it was a job opportunity that brought me to this city, but I now have chosen to continue living here because this journey has provided me with that same diversity of thought and experiences that I had always craved from an early age.
As far as my personal life in Mexico City goes, my first year was filled with some extreme ups and downs.
One particularly salient experience occurred on September 19, 2017, just four weeks after moving to the city, when we were struck by the strongest earthquake to hit the city in 32 years.
It was a truly traumatizing yet uplifting experience, a difficult juxtaposition of emotions to handle. After accepting the initial feelings of dejection from seeing the extensive damage to my neighborhood and watching one-too-many news segments announcing the rising death toll, I went out to volunteer.
I was astonished to see just how many people had not only felt but also acted upon a personal responsibility to help with the rescue and clean-up efforts. It truly felt as if almost every chilango had shown up to help their neighbor. Being a small part of this movement of strength and solidarity cemented a highly unique bond with the city I’ve called home over the last two years, a connection that I most likely will never experience again with any other city.
Once the city had rebounded and gone back to “normal”—more or less—I was lucky enough to take part in some of Mexico’s most exhilarating events in 2018.
Like watching the Mexico-Germany World Cup game and the ensuing several-hour celebration my friends and I had upon Mexico’s historic win, which we kicked off alongside the parade of loud and proud Mexicans dancing, singing, screaming, and hugging at the Angel of Independence.
Or Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s historic win in the July presidential election, with hoards of people swarming into the Zócalo to hear his acceptance speech in which he affirmed that he would listen to, serve, and respect indigenous communities. My roommate and I sat glued to the TV with tears silently rolling down our faces, utterly moved by the shift in tone of the leadership of the country and what it would mean for marginalized individuals.
Then when the holidays came, I was touched by the sheer kindness of my roommate and his family when they offered to take me in for Christmas, opening up their home to me while I was still in the process of trying to create mine in a new country.
And when I had the chance to begin exploring beyond the bounds of the city, I discovered just how multifaceted Mexico’s culture truly is; from eating tlayudas in Oaxaca and taking in Hierve el Agua at sunset, to eating homemade pozole on New Year’s at a friend’s house and celebrating with his family in Guadalajara, to touring the Lagos de Montebello in Chiapas with a local 15-year-old guide.
My first year certainly hadn’t been boring by any means, yet I can confidently say the positives outweighed the negatives.
I’m tremendously grateful to have had countless coworkers, friends, and acquaintances who went out of their way to help me in times of need, who welcomed me into their circles, and who gradually helped me build a comfort zone and ultimately a life here. I’m so glad to have chosen this truly amazing and beautiful place to call home, and this equally fascinating city as part-microcosm, part-anomaly of the country as a whole.
I’ve realized that making the transition to living abroad was such a colossal challenge at first because it meant not just leaving my comfort zone, but literally living outside it 24/7. Each day I completed entirely outside of my comfort zone was like overcoming a mini challenge. Each time I experienced a small personal or professional win, it was like taking one of the bricks in the walls of my original comfort zone and moving it to construct a much larger, much more diverse one. This challenge to create a semblance of a new comfort zone in a foreign culture ultimately became one of the most rewarding and enriching aspects of life abroad.
The new comfort zone is still not complete, and probably never truly will be. Yet, seeing how much it has evolved and expanded throughout my time in Mexico illustrates to me just how much I’ve grown—a unique, intense level of personal development I’m convinced would be absolutely unattainable in my native culture and language.
It has been nerve-wracking, baffling, and downright exasperating at times to try to embrace a new culture, language, and political and economic climate. However, successfully navigating this process has been equally invigorating. At times, I feel like a ball of clay, taking a certain shape one day only to be molded into an entirely new one the next, professionally, personally, socially, mentally, or culturally. I’ve grown thicker skin. I’ve become more empathetic and less judgmental of other lifestyles and viewpoints.
What better experience to have when you’re young, not yet settled down, not 20 years into a career, and not yet overwhelmed by regrets and “what-if-I-hads?”
Living and working in Latin America was an experience I’d known for years I had to do, and I was equally aware I would absolutely regret not seeking out the opportunity when I had the chance.
But ultimately, making the decision to move abroad wasn’t something that happened overnight. I can look back over the six years prior to that decision and pick out individual moments that, over time, accumulated to finally give me the courage to take the leap.
One such occasion was the vow I’d made on the plane ride back from Guatemala. Another moment of clarity came when talking to a friend about my career-related uncertainty. I was discussing dissatisfaction in my job and mentioned my dream to work in Latin America, addressing it more as an afterthought than a real possibility. When I finished, she said she could see my whole demeanor shift when talking about Latin America; my eyes lit up and the passion came through in my voice. From her perspective, there was no doubt it was something I should pursue, and I knew she was absolutely right. I’d known it all along, but time and again had been brushing it off instead of truly accepting it and taking action to move toward it.
So to all the young people aspiring to travel or live abroad yet hesitating due to fear, social pressure, career norms, or any other reason, I urge you to fully listen to that yearning rather than ignore it. Acknowledge those moments of clarity each time they occur.
There are so many excuses we can make for being unable to pursue a life abroad, but too often, the sole roadblock is ourselves.
If you’re thinking about moving abroad but feel hindered by various factors, try to view them as objectively as possible. Are they things that are both directly blocking you from pursuing your goal and completely out of your control? Or are they circumstances that could be overcome in some way with a bit of effort? In my experience, I found that the situation was almost always the latter.
To be clear, I do wholeheartedly acknowledge that my viewpoints come from a position of significant privilege.
I am inexplicably grateful to have had the background, resources, education, and health that enabled me to embark on this journey. Almost every day, I try to remind myself this is not an opportunity available to everyone, and to therefore make the most of it. I also strive to remain highly conscious of the fact that my parents made a similar move more than 40 years ago out of necessity, whereas I’m lucky enough to pursue it as a lifestyle choice.
I do think that those who have the privilege and opportunity to live abroad, even for a short time, should absolutely take advantage of it.
Don’t just seize the day, seize the world.
I’m beyond convinced that aside from being a fun adventure or unique learning experience, this journey has helped shape me, and countless other expats, into more informed, empathetic, and empowered global citizens.
Perhaps it may be too idealistic—and I’m not usually known for my idealism—but I think that living, working, or simply traveling abroad is one of the best ways to reduce ignorance, enhance empathy, and spark action to combat some of the world’s most important issues.