This post is also available in: Spanish
By Evelyne Meyer
Relocating to Latin America is not an easy task. First, learn the language – then learn to understand the culture. And this second aspect can be so much trickier!
Hey pretty chica
Our students describe it as “quite weird” (to omit the expletives that young ladies use these days) when random men blow them kisses in the street, call them “mami”, “mi amor”, and a chorus of other love words in unexpected situations. These include at the cashier in the supermarket, in a taxi, or stepping in our out of the bank for instance. The loudest whistling will definitively come from workers on construction sites (and sometimes phrases that are borderline to inappropriate).
Somehow though, our female students stick the course. This is just one of the unexpected social realities of Panama – even up here in Boquete at the Habla Ya Spanish Integration School. Some of our students have even fessed up to the whole thing being down right flattering – others downright vulgar. Knowing the language is to know the difference.
The culture shock applies with race and appearance. 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 U.S. and you will see what happens! If you don’t get arrested you may at the very least get slapped in the face.
Panama is a melting pot of races from all over the world and they know it. 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 four 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. And I apologize in advance for that statement. Lo siento muuucho, pero es asi). I’ve had my fair share of rubbing someone the wrong way without wanting to.
On the job
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 an industry where it is quite normal to have to swallow and suck it up because of ruthless bosses, stress, or long working hours. You don’t take things personally.
A spoon full of sugar…
In Panama I have learned 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 (seriously, 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 this aspect is A LOT more challenging!
Yes, I have made people cry without wanting to!
Read the next edition of The Visitor for Part II of Evelyne Meyer’s cultural assimilation adventures in Boquete at Habla Ya, where she tries to blame her fumbles on “the language barrier.”