Colin recently returned to America for a spell and agreed to answer a few questions about his experiences.
How long did you live abroad?
I lived in Peru and Colombia for just over five years by the time I went back to the United States.
What made you decide to go back to America?
I had $10,000 in credit card debt and a pregnant wife. I wanted to earn some fast cash to pay off the credit cards, and in the process my son could be born in the United States.
What were your first impressions after arriving back in America?
I had been making one- or two-week visits every year, but this time I had not been home for over two years. Each time feels a little strange for a few days or a week, but I think anybody quickly adjusts to being home. Except maybe my buddy Christopher, the subject of my latest book Mad Outta Me Head who has spent almost 30 years in Colombia without returning to Ireland. I think he has been gone so long that if he went back to Dublin, there would be no quick adjustment. He would be confused and depressed.
One impression that really stuck with me was how small St. Louis is. Buildings or commercial districts that, as a kid or a teenager, I used to see as big-city lights. Now it looks like a cow-town. "Cow town" might be a little harsh, but just a medium-sized, Midwestern manufacturing city.
I felt oddly at home with my friends and family. When you're an expat abroad, especially a gringo in Latin America, you inevitably meet and hang out with other expats. So you learn all kinds of slang and quirks about Brits, Irish, Canadians, and everything else. You feel more of a kinship with other Americans even if they are from faraway states or different backgrounds. Being back in suburban St. Louis was a strange wake-up call to who I am. The kind of guys in my social circles back home don't really go abroad. I had gone years without being around so many corn-fed white boys with thick forearms and deep voices. I worked on my cousin's lawncare crew after a tornado came to town. Hauling fallen trees out of yards - some were huge - reminded me how manual labor is a virtue in the heartland. In Latin America not at all. Before going expat I had developed an increasing disdain for St. Louis and Missouri. But when I went back, I felt more at home than ever before in all my life.
What experiences did you have trying to get a job?
My plan was to wait tables or bartend for fast cash and get right back to Peru. But I let my wife and parents talk me into going out for a corporate gig, to "use my degree" as they say. I sent out dozens of resumes and went to meet with headhunters and ad agencies. I got zero interviews. It went absolutely nowhere. Even without my scandalous blog, which I had thoroughly sanitized during this time of seeking a "real job", I generated zero interest whatsoever. I think when companies see somebody who has been doing his own thing for a long time, they know he isn't going to stick around. Or maybe I am too far out of the corporate mold. In which case they would've been right. But on the other hand I know I would have eventually been hired somewhere if I kept looking.
I eventually got a job waiting tables and bouncing at a bar, which I did for about eight months before retiring to tend my herbal supplement business from home.
What were your wife's impressions of America?
We arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, which is one of the country's nicer airports (American Airlines' headquarters). It has its own light-rail train just to take you around the different terminals. The size of the facilities, the cleanliness, the sparkling largesse, the lack of poverty. She asked why I would ever want to leave this country.
She loved the food. A lot of people are down on American food, including me before I ever had to suffer Colombian food. But if American is so bad then how do you explain why it dominates the restaurant scene throughout the world? My wife's favorite plate is BBQ ribs. Then Buffalo wings, then chili. She absolutely loved St. Louis-style pizza, which most out-of-towners hate. All bold-flavor meals. The variety in ethnic eateries is something you only get in the first world. She had never had Middle Eastern or Indian cuisine. I'm sure there is a place in Lima - maybe two - but she had never had either one.
The worst part of the United States for her was the need to have a car. She doesn't know how to drive. You can live without a car in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. But not in St. Louis. You can actually do it, and I did for two years, but it requires being in a lot of bad neighborhoods and I wasn't going to do that with a pregnant Peruvian wife. So we got a cheap apartment in a quiet suburb. And a used Buick which I put a Baby-on-Board sticker on.
What were the good parts of life in America for you?
The best part was being around my family for more than a week. With a new baby it was even more important - he is my parents' first grandchild. Plus they only met my wife for the wedding in Peru. We must have spent at least half of my days off at my parents' house, me and dad drinking and everybody having fun. And wifey speaks pretty good English now. She can watch television with no subtitles and talk on the phone (however she bombed the TOEFL).
I liked eating the foods I missed, but that gets old in about a month. You can only eat ribs and wings and Imo's Pizza so many times before it loses its appeal. Then eating in the United States ultimately becomes what everybody complains about it for - processed and convenience foods. If you choose to eat well and have money (Whole Foods money), I don't know how many places offer better eating than the United States. But most people are hurried from stressed-out lifestyles, driving in rush-hour traffic to and from work. They end up eating frozen lasagna in a box or precooked frozen fish filets, or whatever food is already completely prepared but just needs heating up. The $5 hot-and-ready Little Caesar's pizza, the fast-food drive thru, and the microwaveable stuff is why American food gets the bad reputation. We did a lot more homecooking than most American families given my wife stayed at home, but it's impossible to escape the American garbage. It's too tempting. So the American food is a double-edged sword. It is the world's best in my opinion, but with the American lifestyle you end up eating a lot of shit. I am ecstatic to be eating in Peru again.
I like the sporting opportunities in the United States. Finding pickup basketball is rather difficult in Latin America. I found my way on to competitive league teams, but I prefer casual play over coaches and practices and that. I briefly got back into a boxing ring in St. Louis, which I would have liked to stick with. An old dream of mine was to fight professional just once. While it's a global sport and there are several hotbeds, the United States is the world's biggest boxing country. On the other hand, boxing is difficult to find in Peru. And then strength-training is easier in the US because there are gyms catering to people focused on performance - many more Olympic platforms than I've ever seen before, which I attribute to the popularity of CrossFit. At least half of the Latin American gyms would prohibit you from deadlifting. And in the ones that permit it, everybody will look at you funny. And you have to hold on for dear life to a gym that lets you clean or snatch.
What were the worst parts of life in America?
The worst part about life in America is the reliance on a car and the suburban lifestyle. Again this is a choice, but it is not too cheap to live in Chicago or NYC. So we were not able to escape buying a car, getting insurance, filling it with gas, and generally spending a lot of time inside the car driving around every day. Aside from that being inherently annoying, it is also a problem for somebody who likes to drink. In the States they'll crucify you for driving drunk, and being the only one who can drive made it difficult for me to drink outside the home.
Everybody watches American movies, so I assumed my wife would know about the reliance on a car in the suburbs. But she had no idea. She never got over the fact that she could not walk from our apartment to run all the errands, or hail a taxi for a longer trip. She absolutely hated it. The neighborhood was very quiet, but we both want to live an urban lifestyle.
The car was the main focus of our distaste for American culture. But in addition, the people are cold. People from America's bigger cities pride themselves on being cold, for being "tough", for not caring about others. In Latin America people are friendly. Even in the biggest capitals, people will say hello in the street. Store vendors ask where you're from. You can make a new best friend while out drinking and it's just a nicer way to live. Many Americans have little sense of humor. The country as a whole produces great comedies, but it's not a great place for somebody who always wants to have a laugh. Latin America is better for that, a true clown's paradise.
What are your plans for the future?
Raise children in Lima.
Before we came back to Peru we spent a weekend in New York, my favorite American city. It was immediately my wife's favorite too. So we are now entertaining the idea of, after the children are out of the house, moving to New York as empty-nesters. But that would be at least 20 years down the line and I would have to have earned a ton of cash in the meantime.
* * *
I intend to do more Re-patriation Chronicles, but I've had a few other interviewees flake on me. So if you'd like to do an interview about your experiences returning to your home country after some time abroad -- it can even be a short time -- drop me a line at englishteacherx(at)yahoo(dot)com.