One of the most frequent questions I get asked here in Ukraine is why I left Latin America at all. This happens right after I explain how I spent 7 years living all over Latin America, how I felt at home in Mexico City, and how I think that Rio de Janeiro is the greatest city on earth.
I first ponder that question, but the answer is always the same: “I had to leave. I stayed as much as I could, but at one point I realized it was time to go home.”
The reason I left Brazil is probably a combination of many things, but, ultimately, it was because it was time to leave.
I had my fun. I learned my Portuguese. I had a long-term Brazilian girlfriend who wanted to marry me, but, in the end, I decided that I couldn’t stay in Brazil forever.
Ultimately, I didn’t “own” Rio de Janeiro. I didn’t own Brazil. Rio de Janeiro won’t miss me.
I’ve been location-independent since 2008, and when I look around all the digital nomads around me, I see the same pattern. People move around, live in one place for a while (from few months to few years) and then either move back home or spend the winter in Thailand or Bali.
They oscillate between love for their current country and absolute disdain. Either everything is excellent (low cost of living, super feminine women), or everything sucks (too many foreigners, the place is very Westernized).
I think the real issue is something else: the problem is that they don’t “own” the place where they’re at. They’re rootless cosmopolitans who treat locations as simply checkmarks; when one place gets old, they simply move to the next one.
There’s no commitment. There’s no laying down roots. There’s no responsibility. There’s nothing holding them in the country.
It’s crucial to feel that you “own” the city/country you’re in. And, in order to do that, many stars must align.
For instance, take a city like New York City. I grew up in Brooklyn and feel like I understand and know the city pretty well. I’m proud to have grown up in such a place instead of some little village in the middle of nowhere. NYC is heavy.
But, I don’t “own” it. I don’t feel like I belong here. I visit every now and again, but it’s not a city I feel comfortable staying long term. NYC and I don’t mix.
Kiev, on the other hand, is a city I “own.” I have lots of friends here, lots of contacts. I know a great real estate guy who can find me absolutely anything. I know a couple of business lawyers and a great accountant (an ex-girlfriend of mine). One of my BJJ training partners works in the police force as a captain. Next year, I will be looking to buy property in my favorite neighborhood.
One of my friends is planning to launch a restaurant soon, and I’m leveraging my Facebook/Google Ads expertise to help him spread the word out and bring people in when the place opens.
In fact, I will soon be working on lots of “local” projects to market and spread awareness about upcoming events and openings.
In Rio de Janeiro, I was just another gringo who learned Portuguese and had a hot girlfriend.
In Kiev, I’m local.
The difference is like night and day. Not only because in Brazil, I had to deal with lots of bureaucratic tape to keep renewing my tourist visa, but in Ukraine, I’m a fully legal resident—but, because, of the above, everything just clicks here without me needing to put forth lots of effort.
My mom returned to Ukraine last year for the first time after immigrating to the States many years ago. She was duly treated like a VIP guest as I hooked her up with all the best stuff: great hard-to-get-into restaurants, awesome plays, cool theater performances, etc. That’s not something you can do if you’re a mere tourist in the city.
American American vs Ukrainian Brazilian
One of my friends here in Kiev is an American guy who’s originally from New York. He’s been living in Kiev for about four years on and off. He often complains about the city and the country. He’s moody; one day he’s super happy, another day he’s pissed off at everything.
He often goes to the US for a few months and even spends winter months in Thailand. He barely speaks any Russian.
Compare that to another friend I have: a Brazilian guy who’s been living in Kiev for ten years and is married to a Ukrainian girl.
First of all, the Brazilian guy speaks fluent Russian. His Russian is so good that he barely makes any mistakes (that’s pretty difficult). Knows the owners of all the cool Latin bars. Teaches at a local BJJ academy every now and then.
He absolutely loves Ukraine. He looks as Brazilian as they come, but I consider him a local. In fact, one of my favorite activities is speaking street Portuguese in coffee shops or restaurants. It gets attention very quickly.
So, what’s the difference between the American guy and the Brazilian guy?
The American guy is just another tourist; the Brazilian guy is pretty much a local.
The Brazilian guy never complaints that something “doesn’t work in Ukraine.” He always has a smile on his face. Even though he’s used to Rio de Janeiro’s tropical summers, he never complains when the hot Eastern European summer quickly turns into freezing winter. He just puts on his warm coat, zips it up and goes outside.
The Brazilian guy doesn’t have the need to constantly switch places like the American guy.
The Brazilian guy is living at his new home; The American guy is a rootless cosmopolitan.
I admire the Brazilian guy, but I don’t feel sorry for the American guy. They both have the exact same opportunities, neither one had the critical advantage of being born in the country or, barring that, other special hookups.
Now, of course, not all places around the world have such strict divisions between what it means to be a local and a foreigner. Eastern Europe does. Latin America does (gringo). Japan does (gaijin). Thailand does (farang). The cities that don’t have such strong divisions are called Western cities.
The more Western is the city, the less is the division between a local and a foreigner.
Western world: where everyone is equal
New York City is the quintessential Western city where everyone is a New Yorker. Spend a couple of years living there and you’re a New Yorker. London is another. An Asian city that’s rapidly moving into that direction is Kuala Lumpur. It’s a rich, international city with lots of expats and an expat culture.
Rio de Janeiro is the quintessential city where you’re either a local or a foreigner; you’re either a Carioca or a gringo. I can never see myself “owning” Rio de Janeiro, for one simple reason: I can’t roll my “R’s” like a Carioca.
Of course, If I spend 20 years living in Rio, I can see myself becoming a sort of gringo-Carioca or something.
This is why people spend a few years living in Rio and then go home. This is why people spend a few years in Kiev and go home. This is why people spend a few years in Vilnius and go home. This is why people spend a few years in Mexico City and go home.
They don’t own the cities they inhabit.
All of their friends are other foreigners. They have no local friends, no local connections, no local hookups. They date random girls they meet online instead of being introduced to high-quality women from inside a powerful social circle.
Come to think of it, they don’t own shit.
Becoming a local isn’t easy, but, as you can tell, there’s a multitude of rewards. The main one is never feeling like a foreigner or an outsider. And not experiencing the psychological problems as a result of being a permanent outcast wherever you go.
The first thing you must do is master the language. This is not an optional step. Don’t pass go, don’t collect $200. Master the language. Speak like a local. While you don’t need to become entirely fluent (for some languages, that’s next to impossible), you should at least become conversational.
I have insane amounts of respect for someone who comes to Lithuania and masters Lithuanian or comes to Mexico and masters Spanish or comes to Ukraine and masters Russian/Ukrainian. This is a person’s way of saying, “I decided to come to a new country, and I’m ready to pay my dues. I’m ready to do what it takes.”
Following that, you have to make a certain commitment to a place where you’re living in order to feel that you fully “own it.”
When I lived in Brazil, I trained BJJ which connected me to all kinds of Brazilians, young or old. As a result, I had a certain level of connections whether it meant being invited to a cool Favela party or figuring out how to extend my tourist visa.
I also tried to limit the number of gringo friends I had. I knew plenty of expats, but I didn’t come all the way to Brazil to hang out with other foreigners.
Even after doing all that, I still didn’t feel I “owned” Rio de Janeiro. A couple of years just wasn’t enough time; perhaps after 5-10 years, I would’ve felt different. Thus, it’s no surprise that, one day, I bought a one-way ticket back to NYC.
Of course, there’s another option: live in a Western city where everyone is a local and you’re considered a foreigner if you arrived today or yesterday.
Or become a rootless cosmopolitan who’s always moving around without building anything meaningful and lasting in the country they reside.
I’ve done both for many years, and nothing beats knowing you have an actual home, with an awesome apartment in a beautiful neighborhood, and a security guard, a tough grandfatherly man who’s always dropping little nuggets of wisdom about what it means to have a meaningful life.
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