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The New American Dream: Moving to Medellin

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Back in 2016, when I was planning to leave everything I knew behind to start a new adventure in a new place, I was so certain in my decision to challenge myself to live in a new place, basically do a soft reset. The CEO of my company was onboard, I had friends here looking out for me, and I just decided to jump in. Right before moving to Medellin, I went to a high school reunion, and my one-time high school crush pointed out how cool my new adventure would be. I hadn’t really looked at it this way until then, but after this, I referred to my move as my “Medellin Adventure”, and it has turned out to be just that, so thanks G, foreshadowing much?

I moved here with a handful of friends, no apartment and most fear-inducing no command of Spanish. I did have something very powerful on my side though, an oblivious sense of adventure and a desire to assimilate. 

The Colombian Dream

When I got here, I dove completely into Colombian culture. I know myself, and taking classes for Spanish is nearly useless to me, so I did what is best for me. I used several apps and most importantly, went out and talked to everyone who would listen to me. I failed a lot with Spanish, but this endeared me to the locals, and everyone was more than willing to help me with using the right words and pronunciation. The local paisa people were all very hospitable and welcoming, because I was trying. I ate their foods, learned their culture and had an almost child-like glee for becoming Paisa. 

Not everyone that comes here, comes with the same passion I had. I earned many friends and felt comfortable here. This is something that many feel while vacationing here, but then get here and find themselves in a place they don’t want to be after the honeymoon period wears off. The language barrier is too much, they feel like they are targeted by bad elements of society, and most importantly they feel isolated in a new place. For many that come here they don’t have regrets coming to Medellin to live temporarily, but they start to feel boxed in with the party vibe of the city passing its shelf life. This tends to be something that happens for people who party hard when they first arrive in Medellin. 

For those of us who have stayed, the city tends to offer something else past the glitz and glamor of the Medellin nightlife. For me it was a chance to live in a new place and meet new people who were welcoming of me. In the 8 years I’ve lived here, I have never felt uncomfortable or unwelcomed. Everyone here has been incredible at making me feel like I’m part of their culture. Sometimes, I get to be a chismoso and listen to the people talk about me, but then I love the look on their faces as I speak in proper Paisa Spanish to them and they are jovial and happy to talk. 

Dude, Where’s my Country?

When I would return home, or talk to people from back home, they’d almost always say the same thing to me, something to the effect of ‘you got out at the right time’, which always confused me to a point. Maybe it’s because I have not lived in the US for almost a decade now, but I can’t believe that the country that people were risking life and limb to come to was becoming a place where its inhabitants felt a sense of ire for their homeland. The perplexing part is that it was from both ends of the political spectrum. I could understand if they felt that way when the opposite party was in power, but that had little to do with it. 

What I found is that as the fringes of the political spectrum got further away from center, they alienated many that were more centerists politically. Over the 8 years I’ve been here, that continues to happen and centerits are feeling more and more disenfranchised, and not represented. Even those like myself who choose to not participate in political discussions, feel the strain of being in a no-win situation. I rarely speak about politics because it’s such a polarizing thing and literally can’t do anything to advance my life or relationships with people. 

When you combine this with extreme inflation in the US, of course people start to look at other options. Coming to a city like Medellin seems to be the answer to all their problems. But one thing I think people don’t factor in when moving here is that no matter where you go, there you are. If you bring your mindset from home with you here, you’re not going to have a great time. If you come here with the expectations of living in your comfort zone, you’re going to have a bad time here. If you come here and expect to get by without speaking Spanish, you’re really going to have a terrible time here. 

Technically Nightmares are dreams – The death of the American Dream

Despite the perceived issues in the United States, Canada, Europe, UK, Australia, etc, many locals still believe that there is an American dream waiting for them in the US. As many of you know, I am not here to candy coat anything, I’m about to tell you the harsh reality of this – The American Dream is in a coma that it may never recover from. 

I want to give a dose of reality to Colombians who see the United States, or the other countries named above as the answer to their problems, you’re not going to have a good time. I love Colombian people, but the standard work ethic here will not fly in the US. The culture there is very oriented around work, and despite what social media has made you believe, you will not be rich in the US without either selling your soul, working hard and getting EXTREMELY lucky. That lavish lifestyle you see on social media is “una mierda” and your chances of getting it there are the same as getting that same lifestyle here. Easy money is possible there, but it’s not ethical. Another thing is ‘doble morale’ is a thing there too, and the consequences are more grave than they are here. 

Beyond that, another thing that is driving people away is the cost of living and surviving. When many Colombians look at their reasons for going to the US, they see the salaries that people earn, and think that if they make $50k per year, they will live well in the US. That can’t be further from the truth. If you make that you can expect 40% of your salary to go to federal and state taxes. They also take it from your paycheck immediately. It’s not like Colombia, where DIAN works on the honor system; the IRS in the US doesn’t play around and they will get their money from you. So now, your $4000/mo is more like $2800/mo. Then your rent is $2000, then your utilities, car costs, food and if your job doesn’t pay for your health insurance you can expect 500-700/mo, and it’s mandatory to have health insurance. This is just to live the bare minimum life as well. If you want to live in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago, etc. you can expect 2x-3x in your expenses. 

This is another reason that people are leaving. Now that many jobs are moving to a remote working model, thanks in part to COVID changing the dynamic of how companies view worker relations now. This makes people more mobile, and it has given many the opportunity to do their jobs from anywhere. The appeal of a city like Medellin has been a beacon to those looking for a better life. This makes it look like the American dream of a house with a white picket fence and 2.3 kids in the suburbs is quickly being phased out. Those who have the gumption and the ability to be mobile are doing just that – exercising their option to be somewhere that they can live comfortably while working from home. When Colombia introduced the “Digital Nomad” visas, it put Colombia on the map as a place where many foreigners could start pursue their Colombian Dream. 

Home is where the heart is

With this said there are many people who I talked to researching this who feel a sense that they don’t belong in either place. Typically this is due to feeling like their country has left them behind and what makes their country tick now doesn’t represent them anymore. This doesn’t just mean politically, but more socially. There is a growing sentiment in the US that as life becomes more and more untethered to where you are from, they feel that they are able to move away from the US even if just to get a break from the stress and nonsense of living in a pressure cooker of a society. 

Many come here with the same thought I initially had – I’ll try it for 6 months and if it doesn’t work, I’ll come back and regroup. Statistics show that 9 months is the average time that people live here. Many who move here renew their visa once, and either return to their country of origin or move on to other countries in search of greener pastures. It’s part of why when I tell locals that I’ve been here 8 years, they are impressed. 

I’ve seen this city at its best and at its worst. I know that there is a foreboding sense of Medellin circling the bowl lately, but I have seen this city in much worse places in my time here. For example, when the pandemic was in its final days, and the country reopened. Mayor Quintana’s plan to market and reopen Parque Lleras and Provenza to the outside world as a party hub, in an effort to jumpstart the economy backfired, ushering in a lower class of tourist who came here for sex, drugs and partying. Adding to this was the fact that most spent the better part of a year cooped up indoors looking for an outlet, and Medellin sold its soul to give that to them. I’ve also seen Medellin pre-pandemic, when things were starting to come together where the infrastructure investments were starting to bear fruit, and the social climate was more collaborative and community based than it is now. 

There are pros and cons to anywhere you live. If you move somewhere with the pressure of that place fixing your life and being your personal land of milk and honey, you are setting yourself, and your new home, up for failure. I know to many, the low cost of living and the weather in Medellin make it appear to be heaven on earth. Maybe when you came here on vacation you fell in love, but keep in mind that there are tradeoffs. Just like those that look at the income earned in the United States and Canada and that looks like heaven to Colombians. None of the three are without issues. If you are not happy where you are, chances are that moving to a new place isn’t going to fix that. You’re just trading in one problem for others. 

…Your Destination is on the Right

So, I’ll leave it to you, what do you think of a dream that is based on living in another country? Do you truly think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence? What is your perception of the American dream/Colombian dream? There are many reports of long-time Medellin residents leaving Medellin for greener pastures, specifically Brazil and Argentina. Is it just online blustering or is a mass exodus of Medellin coming? I want to hear from you. In the comments, tell us how you feel. I want to hear from others on this topic. Let’s start a dialogue, Medellin. 

6 Responses

  1. What a great, thought provoking article. And, I couldn’t agree more! Like anywhere – some will come, adapt, and stay long-term; others will assess pretty quickly that this is not the place for them.

    I have made it my personal mission to talk many an Uber driver out of their goal to enter the US undocumented, believing the streets are paved with gold and trees drop dollar bills. I remind them of their numerous holidays and how only a fraction are offered in the US – and so frequently ignored and disrespected.

    There is one thing that Paisas do really, really well and that is a work/life balance. We ‘Americans’ have much to learn from them, in this space.

    After all, isn’t that a strong PRO for making this our new home?

    1. Hi Julie,

      You hit the nail on the head here. I have had to go out of my way to get better with that balance. I still have much of the US work ethic though. I just can balance a little better.

      I personally blame social media and SM culture for the way that the US is perceived. Instagram in particular promotes a vapid and non-substantial lifestyle. This and our propensity to be competitive shows miserable people pretending to be the happiest people on earth.

      Just like here, there are pros and cons to living anywhere. Glad you see it too 🙂 You’ll have to come out to one of the small gatherings we have out and about, it’d be great to meet you!

      Cheers, Steve

  2. Great article Steve. Thoroughly enjoyed. I have been visiting Medellin since 2020 and contemplating retiring here. All factors are positive except I haven’t figured out what I will do here once I move. I don’t have many friends here and I believe that’s essential. Would love to meet up when I am down there again in last week of June

    1. Hi Aasem,

      Absolutely, When you’re down here, we can set up a meetup with other expats, so you can have a real lay of the land from people who live here. Drop me an email at [email protected] and we can coordinate.

      Cheers, Steve

  3. Nice article. You and I arrived here about the same time, although I never lived in M/dellin. Glad to see you’ve learned to be chismoso, you’re almost Colombian. I’ve had similar experiences, expecially with my US friends saying things similar to “you got out at the right time.”

    I’d be interested to read a future article about: Why Medellin, when there are a thousand other places in this beautiful country? I’d never say that M/dellin isn’t a great city, but it amazes me that upwards of 90% of exPats end up in only one city, while ignoring dozens of other wonderful towns and cities. (I am extremely happy in Santander. ) My theory is that it has something to do with the bandwagon effect, or maybe that it’s easier to get along without Spanish dominance. I’m not sure though. As an exPat who has one foot firmly planted in Paisalandia and another in the exterior. I’d be interested in reading your opinions and what your research can suss out.

    1. This is a really good idea. I am working on wrapping up the dating series and I’m also working on a “Women entrepreneurs in Medellin” article, then I can tackle this. This seems like a really good idea.

      – Steve

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