Saya: Guanajuato, Mexico – Latin American Expat Series

April 18, 2017

I’m so stoked to announce the next guest on our Latin American Expat Series. Saya lives in Guanajuato, Mexico and I actually met her through Instagram! When I visited Guanajuato last month we were able to meet up in person and she gave me some insider tips on the best spots to eat and visit. Guanajuato is only around 2 1/2 hours from San Luis Potosí, so we have made some future travel plans for this summer. Saya is not actually a blogger so you MUST follow her life through  Instagram and the foundation that she works for. Enjoy!

Please provide a little introduction about yourself.
I’m Saya I’m not a blogger, just a regular, traveling, social working, ukulele-playing, compulsively reading woman who decided to move to the middle of Mexico at the age of 30! I work for the Muskoka Foundation, which is a network that connects high-skill volunteers to high-impact volunteer opportunities throughout the world. 
How long have you been in Mexico? Where did you live before mexico?
I moved here full time about 10 months ago, and to be honest, things are kind of complicated right now and I have no idea how long I’ll be here. Somewhere in the range of 2 more years to the rest of my life! I lived most of my life in LA, but for a few years before I moved down here I had been living in a beautiful rural county up in the north of California called Sonoma, filled with vineyards and redwoods and the Pacific Ocean. I’m originally from Tokyo, Japan!
What made you decide to move to Mexico?

That’s kind of a complex question for me. I first decided to come here (for a few months) to gain more cultural fluency. I’m a clinical social worker and was primarily working with children and families who had immigrated to the States, and even though I was already was fluent in Spanish I wanted to just get to know the Mexican culture, specifically, in a deeper way. When I was first here (2 years ago), I fell in love with the city of Guanajuato – and one particularly sexy Spanish teacher. We realized we weren’t prepared to live without each other, so a year later I moved here permanently. We got married in February of this year!

READ MORE: Guanajuato; Mexico’s Most Colorful City 

What was the visa process like?

I wouldn’t say that I’m here illegally per se, but I have been here on a tourist visa now for almost a year (with trips back home to renew). Now that I’m married to a national I need to apply for residency, but the bureaucracy makes me keep putting it off.

How do you make a living?

A “living”! Funny! Well, the thing is- I am a social worker by education and profession but also by spirit and identity. I can’t imagine a life not doing some sort of social justice work whether I’m being paid or not. I knew it would be almost impossible to get a paid social work job here until I got my residency, so for a year I saved up money so I could live on that (trust me, not very much, more on that below!) and volunteer as a social worker, which I have been doing a community project called La Casas De Las Nubes, organizing and leading after-school workshops. Luckily (since my savings were running out) I was recently offered a paid, remote position coordinating volunteers and partnerships for a network of high-skill volunteer opportunities throughout the world, called the Muskoka Foundation; they’re an awesome network that actually helps connect meaningful volunteer relationships (none of this expensive, unhelpful “voluntourism” business!). My husband and I also rent our second bedroom out on AirBnB which pays half our rent! So, to answer the question – a lot of little things.

READ: Shelby: Expat Life in Peru

What is the average cost of things in Guanajuato, Mexico?

  I think this can have a range of answers, but for me and my Mexican husband, who live like Mexican people, very low when you think in dollars. Our 2 bedroom apartment (walking distance from centro) costs 4000 pesos (about 200$) including all utilities and the internet. We probably spend about 250 pesos a week on groceries (like $12, but we don’t buy meat), a meal at an average restaurant costs between 60 to 80 pesos (less than $5), the bus is literally 5 pesos (I don’t even know. Dirt cheap. A coin.) and a taxi anywhere within the city is 45 pesos (a little over $2). We go to the movie theater on 2×1 Wednesdays and it’s 35 pesos (like 2 bucks) for the both of us! I know people who make a U.S. salary remotely here and they live like kings.

 What have you learned since becoming an expat in Mexico?

I think I’ve learned a lot of things, both about myself and about the Mexican culture. Maybe the primary thing is that I’m not as adaptable as I thought I was. I grew up bicultural in two different countries, and then I have spent pretty much my entire adult life traveling around the world, sometimes living in really rough conditions, so I thought I would just be able to adapt to living here like it was nothing – not true, it turns out (more below). It’s way different to “live” in a place, as a choice, knowing you’ll be back home someday, than to really LIVE in a place, possibly forever, without even the option to leave. And really, REALLY adapting to a place after immigration, not just adapting as “a foreigner”,  is hard. I feel like I deeply understand people like my mother or other people who have immigrated to the States as an adult, now. 

READ: Lauren: Expat life in Mexico City 

What is your favorite thing about being an expat in Mexico /Guanajuato?

Three things. First, I love my work up in La Casa de Las Nubes. It’s hard as a social worker in the States these days to really do grassroots work, as everything is controlled by bureaucracy. I feel like I’m getting down to what I wanted to do in the first place. Second, of course, I love being close to my husband after spending a year apart. And third, I love the way that strangers become neighbors. When I walk around, people say hello to me just from recognizing me – the man who bakes my bread, the woman who cleans my neighbor’s house, the little sisters who live in my callejon. I don’t know their names and they don’t know mine, but there is this recognition that we are neighbors, and that makes me feel like I live as part of a community. That never happened back in the States. 

What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Mexico/ Guanajuato? 

There just are days where everything feels so… hard. This definitely depends on your lifestyle, as mentioned above. I know people whose lives don’t seem to be all that different here. But for me, I have to do my laundry by hand and walk 45 minutes to the supermarket, and they don’t sell Swiffers so you mop with a regular mop that doesn’t clean anything, and the buses don’t come on time, and I can’t get Japanese ingredients to cook, and the gas runs out when you need to take a shower, and you catch people peeing in front of your house… and there are definitely days, although they’re getting farther in between, that you just think, WHY is everything so HARD? You just want to drive in your car to a Target and be in air conditioning and get everything you need, and for everything to be easy. But then you slap yourself for being spoiled little brat and remind yourself of how much you have.

What do you miss most about home?

First, I miss the ocean. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever lived more than 30 minutes away from the coast, and it affects me in a deep way. I miss my car! Yes, I usually gain about 10 pounds just being at home for 2 weeks. I know it’s good for my health to walk, but I miss just being able to get out of the city really easily, into the wilderness, when I start to feel claustrophobic. And of course I miss my friends and family, but we have been all over the place for a while anyway so I’m kind of used to that part. And I miss THAI FOOD. 

Do you speak Spanish fluently? What has your language process been like? 

I think I would say I am fluent! Between having a Mexican husband and working with a Mexican community, almost 100% of my life is lived in Spanish. It was exhausting at first but now even when I talk to American friends, Spanish words slip out. I first “learned” Spanish in high school, and actually learned when I lived and traveled in South America. And my husband was my “Mexican Spanish” teacher here in GTO, at La Hacienda Spanish School here in GTO, where I learned all the advanced grammar rules that I had been inventing myself as I went along. Immersion is the best and fastest way to really learn, in my opinion.

What did you do to meet people and integrate into your new home? 

That’s been the hardest piece of it, for me, because as an introvert this is hard for me anywhere. Most of the people I know in the city are because they are involved in my community project, La Casa de la Nubes, in some way. And of course, I spend time with my husband’s family. It’s a hard thing because the local people already have their lives and friend groups well established since they have lived here their whole lives, and the immigrant (gringo) population is very transient. But after almost a year, I’m finally starting to feel like I have good friendships here.

What custom/ habits have you found to be the most different from your own culture or have found to be the most difficult to adjust to?

The communication style is so different. Direct communication doesn’t seem to be a thing. It also has to do with the fact that Mexican people seem to feel “grosero”(rude) if they straight up say no to something. So if you are planning an event, I’ve noticed that EVERYBODY will tell you that they will be there. No one will say no, but you have to keep in mind that maybe half of the people are not really planning on coming, they just don’t want to be rude and say no. It’s taken a while to get used to. Also, the way that animals are treated just breaks my heart. 

How do you feel that the people of Mexico see you? Are you treated any differently?

It’s kind of strange because my mixed Asian heritage has given me this vaguely Latina look, or at the least, I’m ethnically ambiguous. When I walk around alone or especially with my husband, it seems that everyone just thinks I’m Mexican. Mexican tourists even ask me for directions! If I am talking to someone for a long time, they will pick up on my accent, which they identify as Asian or Japanese, and I get a LOT of questions about that side of my background. No one seems to have any interest in my U.S. side, except to grill me on how Trump won. I definitely don’t get the (often unwanted) attention that gringa, Black, or full Asian travelers seem to.

READ: Why I Don’t Mind Always Being a Gringa

What is a myth about your adopted country?

I have 2. The first is that ALL of it is dangerous. Yes, the drug violence is a real thing. But Mexico is a HUGE country! Comparing Guanajuato (or any number of perfectly safe places) to some trafficker controlled town in Tamaulipas is just as silly as comparing South Central LA to, I don’t know, some little suburb out in Iowa (sorry, I am from LA- my knowledge of towns with no crime is pretty slim). The second is that “They are so poor but they are so happy.” I feel like this is kind of a weird form of survivors guilt. Yes, I do feel like the people here, in general, know more about the things that truly make human beings happy, simple things like spending time with family. But I work in the poorest part of town. Poverty here, as anywhere, has terrible symptoms, and it feels to me like saying, “Well, they’re happy though,” is a huge negation of their daily suffering and is a little too close to saying “They’re happy SO IT’S OKAY”. I mean, believe me, people don’t just walk around “so happy” every day because they can’t find work and don’t have running water in their homes.

What is your favorite dish in Mexico?

OH SWEET JESUS, DONT DO THIS TO ME! Probably my two favorite things are esquites (corn kernels in a cup) with all the fixings, and tlacoyos (tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, and a guisado and then fried). But I also love a good sopa azteca, or enchiladas mineras. My mother-in-law makes a BOMB pozole. And I am known to buy a dulce (mazapan, tamarindo, cocadas) almost daily!

READ: 19 Destinations in Mexico You Need to Visit 

What advice would you give someone when traveling to Mexico/Guanajuato?  

For Mexico – skip the beaches. I’m sorry, but you get the same sparkling turquoise beaches in any number of countries and you’re getting an EXTREMELY skewed perception of the country if that is the only part of Mexico you see. Give inland Mexico a chance – places like Guanajuato, DF, or San Luis Potosi. And for Guanajuato, don’t come with a plan. The best way to explore this city is to walk around, wander, and get lost in the colorful callejones. 

But always remember there is a side of the city that the tourism board wants you to see. Yes, it is absolutely beautiful, and clean, and feels like an affluent city when you walk around the centro historico. Because the government takes care of that area. But go up to the Pipila monument for that famous, breathtaking view- and then look out towards the hills. You’ll see the colorful, historic buildings thin out, and gradually turn into unpainted, crumbling brick houses, and eventually just shelters built of salvaged aluminum and cardboard. There are people, guanajuatenses, who live there, too. And if you decide you want to see that side of Guanajuato as well, shoot me an e-mail. It’s important, I think, to personally observe the contrast in every place you visit and try to do good where you can.

READ: How to Land an Expat Assignment 

What are your travel plans for 2017?

We are actually right in the midst of planning our honeymoon, 6 weeks of volunteering through Central America, in May. We will be visiting Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua and volunteering through the network I work for, The Muskoka Foundation. My husband has only ever been to the U.S. to visit me, so we are VERY excited! Also, my friend Kiona at How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch is coming down in August, and we plan to travel all around Mexico – including to see you, Emmah! In September I am going back to California for a friend’s wedding and I’m actually very excited about that as it’ll have been almost a year.

READ: Latin American Expat Series

Where to connect with Saya 

Check out more of Saya’s adventures on her instagram

For high-impact volunteer opportunities around communities that really need you, visit
La Casa De Las Nubes grassroots project changing kids’ lives in Guanajuato:

More about Eemma Iseman

    1. Love it! I’ve also spoken to Saya in Insta since hopping on the comments on your photos Eemma and she’s so lovely. Hopefully I’ll be able to volunteer with the Muskoka Foundation soon 🙂 Now I just need to meet you two in real life!

      1. I would love to volunteer with the Muskoka Foundation as well! I definitely need to go to Guanajuato again too! I was only there for like a day and a half! So much to see and so little time! Can’t wait to hang this summer!

    1. Thought-provoking, inspiring interview. The Spanish school I’ve attended twice in Guanajuato, Escuela Falcon, has partnered with La Casa de las Nubes in the past to provide school supplies and yoga and English teaching volunteers. Hopefully when I attend again I’ll be able to help out on a project.

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