Relocating to Latin America is not easy. First of all you have to learn another language. But not only that - you also have to learn to understand the culture. And this second aspect can be so much trickier!
For instance, it can be quite weird (to not say something else) when random guys blow you kisses in the street, call you "mami", "mi amor", or other love words in the weirdest of situations: at the cashier in the supermarket, in taxis, or at the bank for instance. The loudest whistling will definitively come from workers on construction sites (sometimes phrases that are borderline to inappropriate).
I'm aware there is a debate out there about how appropriate it is for men to whistle at women but if they're just saying nice things, there really isn't any harm in my opinion. In fact it can be flattering. Obviously this isn't the case if they are being rude, vulgar or doing something else.
A European or someone from North America will automatically feel offended, whereas here in Panama it is perfectly normal, and not considered offensive (most of the times, as long as it is not vulgar or anything else - another good reason to know the language!). Matter of fact, it can be considered a compliment!
The same is true when locals call an Asian “Chino” even though he or she may not be from China, a dark skinned person “negrito” or a heavy person “gordo” without anyone taking any offense. I love this actually, but I must admit that I was quite shocked at first. Try that in the US and you will see what happens! If you don’t get arrested for being a racist you may at the very least get slapped in the face...
Panama is a melting pot of races from all over the world. Referring to someone by the color of their skin (or amount of weight they're carrying or not) is not a crime over here.
I moved to Panama about 4 years ago, and I have somewhat learned to adapt to Panamanian culture and become more tolerant about things that are different from my own culture. I do speak Spanish now, however I have noticed that sometimes words alone don’t get the message across properly, and what you are trying to say can easily be misinterpreted if you don't say it in the right tone or use the right words (and even if you do, "latinos" in general can be a bit more sensitive). I've had my fare share of rubbing someone the wrong way without wanting to.
One of the major “culture shocks” I have felt is at the office. First of all, I have noticed that people in Panama and Latin America in general are much more sensitive to criticism than in any other country I've been to. This was probably the hardest part to get used to for me, coming from a an industry where it is quite normal to having to swallow and suck it up because of ruthless bosses, stress, or long working hours. You don’t take things personal. In Panama I have learnt to sugar coat everything I am trying to say, in order to make sure not to offend anyone when I give any sort of feedback or criticism. And when I do offend somebody inadvertently, I make sure to explain what I was trying to say and that I meant no harm (serious, I feel like a mom sometimes). It's challenging for any organization in the world to create an environment where co-workers are encouraged to give each other constructive feedback - in Panama it's A LOT more challenging!
Yes, I've made people cry without wanting to! Be quick and try to understand why you've hurt someone and get them to know you didn't mean any harm!
Sometimes we blame it on the "language barrier", when in fact it should really be blamed on the "cultural barrier". I am European, and even compared to North Americans we can come across as short when we are writing an email or asking for something. We get straight to the point, and often forget the “hello how are you” at the beginning of our sentence. We do that because in that moment we care much less about how you are doing, and a lot more about what we are asking, but that doesn’t mean that we mean to be rude. This is something I’ve learned to change since I work at Habla Ya, and I always make sure to be extra polite.
The second difficulty I came across (and still do sometimes) is the pace of life in general. I have always had zero tolerance for anyone slower than me (be it while walking, driving, talking or eating, and of course working!). Living in a tropical country such as Panama has made me slow down a bit, and has taught me to take a breath and appreciate life as it goes by. I don’t have to walk so fast all the time. It would make me sweat anyways. I do not have to inhale my food anymore during lunch break as I now have a full hour to eat (and besides it gives me a stomach ache). I do not have to stress over work being done faster because at the end of the day it all gets done regardless.
We're in the tropics: there are plenty of reasons to slow down, chill out and enjoy life!
I have to honestly recommend any newcomer to just accept this new rhythm of life, because stressing over it will only land you an ulcer. And at the end of the day who lives better? I hear a lot of expats criticize the locals for their inefficiency because as human beings we are conditioned to negatively criticize something that is different. Sometimes we may be right, but a lot of times I believe our ignorance is what makes us think that we are better.
Granted, in the so called developed countries there is always a well engineered system in place for everything, especially when it comes to customer service! But how many times have you become annoyed by call center representatives reciting the same lines with each client? Sometimes you don’t even get to talk to a person anymore.
Have you ever tried to ask a question that a robot is not programmed to answer, and felt so frustrated you wanted to throw your cell phone through the window?
In Panama things work differently. You will be treated as a human being, which is something we have lost while so desperately trying to become efficient. We are robots. They are people. They may work a bit slower, or not have reached the efficiency of "wealthier" developed countries (mainly with regards to computer systems) but they will be flexible when you ask for something. If you ask for a favor, someone will help you out even with a task they are not trained to do, whereas in Europe for example you will just be told “the computer says no”. I would much rather live in a place where some rules can still be bent.
I'm totally fluent in Spanish and know more about the culture in Panama": now I can feel the love from my colleagues!
At the end of the day you have to make a choice. Perfection does not exist! If you have relocated to Central America, then you have made a conscious choice to live a different lifestyle, so don’t expect others to adapt to you but try to adapt to them instead. Start by learning their language, then learn the culture, and you will live a much happier life.
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