As we were packing up all our stuff and preparing our luggage for our big trip, I had a bit of time to reflect back on my time in Costa Rica. I know it’s not goodbye forever since we plan to be back someday next year but it’ll be goodbye for now.
It’s strange to think about who I was before I left and the person I am now. I was a fresh faced 23 year old, a year out of college working full time. I was always a bit unsure of what I wanted to do with my life and if anybody asked me five years ago if I imagined myself living in a small country in Latin America, I’d laugh at them and tell them they’re crazy. And yet, surprise! Here I am now with two years of living in Costa Rica under my belt.
I have to admit, before I moved I was a bit naive living in my USA bubble. I never really understood how or why the rest of the world sees the States the way they do but now I do. My eyes opened up to so many things, about myself, about other people and other cultures.
Living in a foreign country will always change a person in one way or another. It doesn’t need to be a profound change but it’s safe to say that most people will testify to the fact that they aren’t the same person they used to be.
So if you’re thinking about moving to Costa Rica, be warned. You WILL become a different person, you WILL learn more about yourself and you WILL fall in love with it. I only hope that everyone has the same wonderful experience that I had! I did have a few surprises but that is to be expected when moving to a new country.
So while I’m in nostalgia mode, here are some things I learned while living in Costa Rica as an expat, like Pura vida mae! Just kidding, I learned a bit more than that 😉
What I learned while living in Costa Rica as an expat
To be more patient
First rule of becoming an immigrant or expat: Do not expect things to be done the same way as your original country. In the United States, customer service is normally the top priority for businesses (at least some). It is slightly different in Costa Rica. People work slower, don’t attend to their customers’ needs as quickly and sometimes it can be quite frustrating trying to get something done.
Pack your patience when you move. You will find that your errands take a bit longer than it used to as lines at the bank take forever or the computer system at the electric company might be down. This is just how the way things are in Costa Rica right now. Even Yeison, as a Tico knows this is a problem but this is how it is while they’re developing their customer service skills.
Also, don’t be that arrogant gringo that complains loudly. I’ve found that this is one of the reasons why Americans have a bad rep down here which I’ve seen with my own eyes.
That having expensive things doesn’t automatically make you a likeable person
Luckily I didn’t grow up in LA or NYC or a place where the culture is all money, money money but I did grow up in a consumerist society. I was influenced by the media and saw how much people adored celebrities just because they were rich and famous, hell I was one of them!
Thankfully my parents taught me very well the importance of hard work and the value of money so when it came to expensive things, society didn’t get to me in that aspect. I wasn’t exactly the girl who was wearing what was “in” that season nor did I care about spending a bunch of money on makeup or clothes.
Maybe that’s why I fit in so well here. Costa Rica is a country whose people live in the moment, not in their multi million dollar mansions. Of course you will find rich Ticos who love to show off their Jaguars but for the most part, all the Costa Ricans I have met value their time with family and friends more than their luxury car.
If you think flashing your money or showing off your diamond jewelry will make Ticos like you, you’ve got the wrong mindset. Costa Ricans care if you are a good person, if you have a good heart. They care about pura vida which is why that dicho is so perfect for this country and its people.
A third language
When I had to choose which language to learn in middle school, I chose French. My original dream was to study abroad in France, learn the language and live there for a bit. I remember thinking, “Pssh I will never need to learn Spanish!” Funny how life is right?
I already speak two languages, English and Mandarin and I’ve always wanted to learn a third. When I made the decision to move to Costa Rica, I was determined to learn Spanish. I’m by no means 100% fluent but I’m proud to be at a level where I can understand nearly all of the conversations (I get lost when they start talking very slang).
I know I still have a ton to learn (did you know there are 17 tenses in Spanish?) but when I moved, I knew just a little itty bit: hola and arroz according to Yeison’s friend. Now, I can carry on a conversation and talk to locals without being intimidated.
My advice: start learning before you move. Do it. Please. I have met so many people who have lived in Costa Rica for over a decade and don’t even know how to say good morning. They assume for some reason that every Costa Rican is supposed to know English. You’ll never be able to fully immerse yourself into the culture if you can’t understand what’s going on and plus that just adds onto the “lazy American” reputation.
Here is our introduction to basic Spanish to help you get started!
To be proud of who you are
When I was living in the States, I was fighting a personal battle for years. I was Asian living in America and yet, I didn’t feel fully accepted. I felt like I wasn’t a “real” American because I wasn’t Caucasian.
The United States is a giant melting pot but I think it is still developing. I’ve had some nasty encounters of people telling me to “go back home” and not believing me that I grew up in the US. As a child of immigrants, I spoke English as my first language but went to Chinese school every week. I loved pizza and burgers but only ate Chinese food at home. I felt torn between two worlds and always felt like society was telling me I needed to have blonde hair and blue eyes to be beautiful.
When I moved to Playas del Coco, the locals were fascinated by me. Asians are not common here (they are mostly in San Jose and Limon) and I was asked many questions. I loved that they were interested in my heritage, my upbringing and my background. I grew prouder and prouder of being Taiwanese but at the same time, I never hesitated to tell people I grew up in the States. Despite my inner war, I never put down the country that gave my parents the opportunity to have a better life and in turn, my brother and I.
Also Costa Ricans are SO proud to be from Costa Rica and some of that rubbed off on me. Whenever I’m with Yeison and his Ticos friends, I love hearing them say things like soy tico mas que gallo pinto. Yeison is even more mixed than I am and he’s incredibly proud to say he’s from Costa Rica. Without even knowing it, he’s taught me to love every part of who I am.
That beans are delicious
Beans are not a common food in the States. I love chile and the red bean mooncakes and mochi my mom bought me but besides that, I never really ate beans until I got to Costa Rica.
Ticos love their beans. And I mean love. I’ve met some Costa Ricans who have to eat beans with every meal and some who can whip up so many different versions of beans you would be surprised it’s a real dish! It’s not my favorite food but I’ve grown to like them and learned to cook it the way Ticos cook them.
If you move to Costa Rica, be prepared to eat lots of beans. Yeah I know, it may seem kind of bland but you don’t need to eat them everyday. At least they are incredibly healthy and you can try other dishes. Yeison’s brother makes a mean blended beans, black bean soup and empanadas with bean filling.
You don’t need to love everything about Costa Rica but at least give it a shot. For me, food is the most fun and the best part of learning about a new culture so I’m always willing to try new things. I may not love it or eat it all the time, but I won’t stick my tongue out at it.
I don’t like the heat as much as I thought I did
Growing up in Washington, I lived for the summers. My favorite time of year was summer, not just because there was no school but because the weather was amazing. Hot, sunny and long days with fresh air and cool breezes. I always imagined myself living in a tropical place where the sun shined all year long.
Not anymore. After two years of living in an area where it is incredibly hot all year round, I found that my body can’t stand the heat as well as it did before. At first, I loved it. The first year I was happy and content and we didn’t even use air conditioning! But now, I avoid going outside in the middle of the day and am a baby to tolerating high temperatures.
We traveled around the Central Valley last week and Yeison and I both fell in love with the climate there, especially San Ramon. We loved it so much that we decided to move there when we come back to Costa Rica. Our love of the beach doesn’t win over our love of fresh weather.
Enjoying life and spending quality time is the most important thing
When you die, what will you take with you? Your money? Your fancy jewelry? Nope, nothing. One of my goals in life is that when I’m on my deathbed, I won’t have any regrets. I want to know that I’ve traveled the world, I did and saw as much possible and that I loved as much as I could. That’s what I want to take with me when I die.
Life is so short, it flies by in a blink of an eye. And time is so precious. I know I’m guilty of this but we shouldn’t waste our time being mad about little things. Believe me, it’s easier said than done but that’s one major thing I’ve learned from the Costa Ricans as another aspect of pura vida life. Don’t act with your liver, Yeison always says (a Costa Rican saying) and it’s probably one of the wisest things he’s ever told me.
Costa Ricans know how to enjoy life. In Nicoya, you’ll see that many of them live well into their 100’s and they all say one thing in common that really resonates with me – All that matters is spending quality time with your loved ones. They may not be rich but they are the happiest, enjoying time with their family and relishing in the little things.
This is probably the most important lesson that I’ve learned while living in Costa Rica and one I’ll take with me forever.
What will you learn?
Everyone has a different experience when they move to Costa Rica. It depends a lot on why they moved, if they’re single or with someone and what their expectations are but for the most part, everyone I know has had a positive experience. Many people move here to find solace from a stressed out life or to retire in peace, which they do. Costa Rica is the perfect country for someone to take a step back and live a more relaxed lifestyle.
I’m excited to start our new journey and am grateful for everything Costa Rica has given me. I know that I’ll learn even more through our future travels and I’ll be ready to experience a different part of Costa Rica when we come back!
Want to know more about my expat life? Here you go!