#5 Expats in Lockdown: Using intercultural skills to manage uncertainty (British in Mexico)

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Expats in Lockdown is a special series – a collection of interviews with expats around the world and how were all dealing with the coronavirus outbreak as best as we can. None of us have an instruction manual for times like these, especially while living abroad. My mission with this series is therefore simple – to show you how similar our experiences can be despite living in different countries.

Carrie Hodges is a British expat who has a long history with Mexico, a country that has repeatedly lured her back over the past 15 years.

Carrie and her  Peruvian-Spanish husband had been planning a return to Mexico for a couple of years. They arrived in Mexico City at the end of January and were beginning to establish themselves only to have their world turned upside down a few weeks later when coronavirus became headline news.

They’ve decided to stay put in Mexico City for the time being despite having no immediate support network socially or professionally. 

For well over a decade, Carrie worked as an academic teaching and researching in the field of cross-cultural communication . Having left academia last year to establish a consultancy in cross-cultural training and coaching now, by a twist of fate, Carrie is finding herself turning to the knowledge she used to pass on to students to self-coach herself.

Katherine: How did you end up living in Mexico City? 

Carrie: It’s actually my third time living here. I first came to Mexico for my PhD research in 2004. A year or so later I had the opportunity to work here. I always wanted to come back but waited for the right time for work and financial reasons. My husband and I had been planning this for 2-3 years. We were finally in the position to make the move last year. 

We began our new adventure by getting married in Mexico and then spending time traveling around the country. We decided to settle in Mexico City as it offered us the lifestyle and opportunities we wanted. 

We returned to the UK for a couple of months around Christmas for work reasons and to apply for our temporary residency visas. We then returned here on 22nd January. We finally received our residence cards this Tuesday [note: 17th March]. 

Whilst the immigration office in Mexico processes your visa you can’t leave the country without written permission. So whether or not we should leave the country following the news of the coronavirus pandemic was not up for discussion until now. It was really from Wednesday onwards that we began seriously considering whether we should stay in Mexico City or go back to Europe.

Katherine: What have been the circumstances around this decision?

Carrie: It’s a really hard decision to take as there are so many factors to consider. Obviously we feel a sense of responsibility for being away from our families at a time like this.

At the same time, this isn’t the best moment to be making a transatlantic journey. Plus return flights are limited and British tourists are scrambling for the remaining seats.

We spent more than 5 hours on the sofa the other day discussing whether we should leave, how we could leave, where we would go etc. 

We were just starting to build networks here in Mexico when suddenly, and for good reason, events, groups and meet-ups were cancelled until further notice. Once you realize that any opportunities you had for settling in have been put on pause, you start asking yourself why you’re here at all.

We haven’t yet been able to establish a network of friends, our family isn’t here, it takes time to find work opportunities. We could either leave and rethink our plans from another country or we can stay where we are for the time being, see how this plays out and revisit our decision further down the line.

For now, we’ve decided to stay put and ride it out in Mexico. After talking it through, we realized that we couldn’t possibly be with all members of our families anyway because they’re in 3 different countries! Who knows if and how our thinking may change in the days and weeks to come. 

The situation does play with your heartstrings quite a lot because this is obviously a plan that we were preparing for for a long time. Then you get here and after a month the world just turns upside down. You have to ask yourself if you want to let go of your plans so soon after arriving.

I left academia with a plan to build my own business. That’s obviously something I’m thinking about a lot now due to the uncertainty both here in Mexico and worldwide.

So, for us, whatever decision we make is more than just a decision about our health and wellbeing. It’s also a financial one and concerns our professional futures, where our friends and family are – all of these things come into play. 

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Katherine: What’s the status with the spread of coronavirus in Mexico City – at least as far as you can tell? 

Carrie: We’re probably two weeks behind Europe. We’re in a country where the flow of information from the authorities is nothing like we’ve been witnessing there.

Right now, the USA is the virus epicentre. As a neighbouring country, that’s obviously a big concern for us. Here we haven’t yet got any official message about drastic measures being taken nationwide – though several states have begun taking their own actions.

So far in Mexico City we have received basic public health advice about being conscious, washing hands and social distancing as much as possible. The schools are also closed and the latest announcement is the closure of all government / civil service offices.

We’ve been relying on European media sources and taking our cue from what family and friends have been asked to do back there. We’ve thus chosen to self-isolate – other than for a daily walk in the park. 

You still see a lot of people out and about and restaurants and cafes, so far, remain open. In Mexico, life happens in the street. 

The challenge here in Mexico is that so many people work in and depend on the informal economy. Millions live from whatever money they take home at the end of each day, week or fortnight.

From that perspective, it’s understandable that many appear to be prioritizing their livelihoods and working as much as they can now, in anticipation of what is to come. You realize just how much more complicated things are in this part of the world.

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Katherine: Considering that your family is so spread out around the world, what sources of information are you aligning with the most right now?

Carrie: At first we were heavily following the BBC. I’m saying ‘were’ because it got to a point where I said to my husband that I have to stop doing this. 

Because you’re almost living in two realities. I was living somebody else’s reality through the media; a reality which is out of kilter with what is happening outside of my window.

All the narratives you hear from the BBC are catered to changing behaviors in the UK. They don’t necessarily fit where we are. We got to a point where we became increasingly frustrated that we weren’t seeing the same measures being taken here. 

We’re of course also following the Spanish media. Spain has been taking a much more extreme stance compared to the UK.

Meanwhile in Peru there have been even more severe measures. Peruvians will be in quarantine for at least 30 days with police patrolling the streets and taking people away for taking the dog for a walk or putting the rubbish out. So Peru is also dealing with things in the way they believe will work best for their local reality and with a messaging tailored to that reality. 

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Katherine: How are you coping with self-isolating on a day-to-day basis? 

Well, my husband and I arrived in Mexico with a suitcase each and a booking for an Airbnb to stay for the first month. That flat has now become our base for the foreseeable future.

We’re fortunate we landed in a reasonably comfortable place in a nice neighbourhood  – with plenty of options for green exercise whilst social distancing. But it isn’t our home – it’s full of someone else’s belongings. We aren’t able to find solace in home comforts whilst self-isolating.

Unlike family and friends who are taking advantage of time to get on with household chores which, in some way, are therapeutic – clearing out wardrobes, spring-cleaning or DIY, that’s not something we can do. Where we can, we have made some ’improvements’ to our living space.

The spring weather in Mexico City is glorious. The jacarandas are in bloom and birds are singing all day. Recognising the importance of boosting our vitamin D but not having any outdoor space…

…we rearranged the living room furniture to face the outside. The sofa is now in front of a large window that slides open wide. We have what feels like our own rooftop terrace in the trees with regular visits from doves, hummingbirds and squirrels! 

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In addition to that, as an interculturalist by training, I’m growing increasingly aware of the ways my intercultural skills are being put to good use during this period of social isolation. I’m completing a coaching certification via distance learning so I’m trying to look within and see how I can use what I’ve learned to coach myself  (laughs). 

Some of the key skills I teach in intercultural training are the ability to manage uncertainty, tolerate ambiguity, the need to be non-judgmental, and strategies for reframing thoughts and experiences. It’s now time for me to sit back and consider how I could use these skills to effectively manage how I adapt to this period of uncertainty. 

I’m also thinking about how I could use my current experiences in service of others when the time comes. 

We’re still observing how people around the world are reacting to this crisis and coming to realize what might be important to each and every one of us in this context. It’s a time when we can all revisit our values, attitudes and beliefs. What we’re experiencing is inherently intercultural. It’s a global issue! 

A lot of it is also about relinquishing control. In the UK many of us have been socialized into thinking that we can control our own destinies. Suddenly, that illusion of control evaporates. Right now, we’re dependent upon each other staying at home, we’re dependent on the authorities taking the most appropriate decisions, we’re dependent on the world experts finding a treatment or a vaccine. 

We are realising just how interdependent we all are. 

On 30th March, the Mexican government declared a national health emergency, and the immediate suspension of all non-essential activities in the public and private sector until 30th April.

British expat quarantine in Mexico

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