English, or Spanish? Expat Gringos in Panama

Disclaimer – anything I say here or anywhere else on my blog is only my opinion based on my short time of living here, and my personal experiences. I don’t claim to be an authority on anything!

I was in Canasta Basica the other day, a small food store with good prices on basic items. Oliver, an employee, recognized us and saw a chance to practice his English, so we were buying our chicken in English. The woman in front of us turned to him with a glare “por qué no Español?!” I quickly explained (in Spanish) that he wanted to practice his English and she let it go.

Many people in the US complain about foreigners who don’t learn English. People complain that Miami is becoming a Hispanic city where more Spanish than English is spoken. Is it any different when we go to someone else’s country? Of course it’s difficult to learn a foreign language, but effort counts. I see how people open up when I ask them how to say something in Spanish, when I take an interest in learning more, and express appreciation for their help.

I also notice the attitude towards gringos (folks from the north who speak English). Many of us live in expensive houses, band together, make our own communities, sometimes with walls and gates and security. Many of us never learn Spanish. It would be like hundreds of (insert any foreign country’s citizens) came to your neighborhood and built compounds, and wouldn’t learn English. If these newcomers are rich and happily pay inflated prices for everything, which drives up costs until you are priced out of your own neighborhood, you’re not going to feel too kindly about these newcomers.

When we first meet Panamanians, they usually assume we live in a gringo area. When we tell them no, we live here in the city, in an all Panamanian neighborhood, the smile becomes genuine and the attitude relaxes. They realize that we want to become part of their culture, their community, and their way of life. When we try to learn their language, take an interest in their food, their interests, and their culture, it is very appreciated and they welcome you with open arms.

Why do some expats keep to themselves, and others do not? Why are some expats very happy, and others are so unhappy they eventually leave? I think there are a number of factors at work.

Hype – there are for profit organizations that make money off of expats, who will tell you: Come live in paradise for a fraction of the cost! Invest in property and get rich! You can afford your dream life in this other country! Spend big bucks on our seminar so we can sell you property and make money off you, and then leave you living in a foreign land totally unprepared for the experience. Is it any wonder this doesn’t go well?

Lack of homework – similar to the above. You believe the hype. Instead, you need to visit and check things out for yourself,  talk with other expats in your destination country, learn the language, study about the customs and way of life, and rent before making any decisions to buy. Then, you are less likely to be surprised by the reality, and less likely to get yourself stuck in something that doesn’t work for you.

Lack of knowing yourself – as Joel (my husband) always says – “You can’t get what you want until you know what you want”! Do you have to have American TV, or certain food, or medicine, or something else? Is it impossible to deal with barking dogs, or slow mail service, or whatever else isn’t going to work for you? You must choose a place that has what you require, and enough of what you want, or you are going to be frustrated and unhappy a lot.

Flexibility – sometimes I think we can be a bit arrogant. Our ways are the best, and we know more than everyone about everything. The Panamanians have managed to live with their ways for a long time. Maybe it’s different, maybe worse, maybe better, but what right do we have to expect them to adopt our ways? And, if we are open to learning about them, we’ll find the things which enrich and improve our lives.

Hanging out with other gringos – There are wonderful gringo expats! But, don’t limit yourself, or get sucked in to the negativity that abounds in the expat community. We have run into many unhappy, complaining expats (I don’t know why they stay!)  It’s nice to have expat friends but if you don’t make friends with the locals, you are missing out on so much!

Trying to do business – from what I have heard, having a business can be very difficult. There may be different laws, regulations, expectations, customs, and language. A lot of people get very frustrated or have bad experiences, so really do your homework before attempting this.

Last – be a good ambassador. Panamanians get their ideas of the US from television and the expats they meet. We can’t control TV and the media, except to explain that it’s mostly fantasy. But, we can control the image we present.  If someone came to your community from (insert any foreign country) what would make you welcome them, or avoid them?

These people are no different from you and I. They want to be valued, listened to, appreciated. In my opinion, if you come here and don’t integrate into the community, you are really missing out! Your life will be so much richer, so much more interesting, and so much more fun if you get to know the people here.

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About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
This entry was posted in expat, expatriate, Panama and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to English, or Spanish? Expat Gringos in Panama

  1. Very well written! I totally agree. If you don’t want to become part of the culture, just stay in the U.S. You’ll be a whole lot happier!

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    • kristc99 says:

      Thank you 🙂 I think unfortunately people come to get away from something, high cost of living, problems at home, etc and not because they want to experience life here. Or, they are afraid to venture out.

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  2. Amba says:

    I always love how balanced your take is on the whole expat experience. You always explain your point of view in a kind, sensible manner. What you are saying is absolutely true! When I lived in the middle east, I noticed that most foreigners, myself included, preferred to stick within the confines of our communities and interact only with localites who worked with them. But my parents had a lot of amazing localite friends, through whom we were exposed to their culture and way of life. It’s a great sensitization process to become involved with the locals of the country you live in, because that is something that you take with you for the rest of your life. You will always feel more kindly towards expats in your own home country, once you have experienced being an expat in a welcoming foreign country.

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    • kristc99 says:

      Thank you so much 🙂 I didn’t think of it the other way, being kind to expats in your own country but yes, you certainly understand more when you’ve done it. I also have way more understanding of people learning another language and how difficult it is! Thank you for your comment, and how wonderful you have had experiences too.

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  3. Roger says:

    Very wise words. It is sad that some US Expats havent discovered this before coming to Panama or dont practice this when living here. Bottom line is learn and adapt. There is and old saying that we use commonly in Panama: “when in Rome do what Romans do” to explain that we must adapt to a place we visit or chose to live.

    You are right… for us, panamanians… “effort counts…” and we appreciated it very much. We don’t mind if you said it wrong, use bad tenses or gender… we will try to help and will appreciate that you are interested in learning our language.

    Roger

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  4. kristc99 says:

    I see that. I know I use bad grammar, and any past tense could come out of my mouth, not necessarily the right one, or any gender, but no one seems to even notice. I have to ask for corrections. And adapting? I really need to talk to other expats because I’m not seeing what’s difficult, at least not here in David. Besides, I really like “what the Romans do” here, and think they may have their priorities more straight that we do in the US about many things.

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  5. indacampo says:

    Ummm, did I start something? So glad to see your story and your perspective on your neck of the woods!

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    • Kris says:

      I’ve been thinking about this subject ever since I got here, but I hesitate to say something negative about expats who choose to live differently than we do. But, I do feel strongly about what I said, and I think you opened the door for me to let it out.

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  7. indacampo says:

    Oh, by the way…consider yourself pressed!

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    • Kris says:

      Pressed? What did you do? ~~looking down, seeing the usual wrinkles, checking the mirror, yep, those are still there too ~~ Hmmm, what could this mean?

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  8. twoscamps says:

    You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometime you get what you need! The Rolling Stones came to mind with this great post…. Best not to have expectations and its good to try – the people of Panama are worth the effort.

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    • Kris says:

      You get what you need! This is excellent, love the quote. It hasn’t been hard though, at least not for us. There is more research I need to do on this subject to get more points of view.

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  9. oldsalt1942 says:

    Excellent post. I fully understand that living in the gated neighborhoods and patronage of gringo events like the Tuesday market and expat hangouts in Boquete provide a comfort level for certain kinds of people. I was kind of like that the first six months I lived in France. I hung out at the expat bars and made nearly no effort to learn French. My rationalization for that was that the job I had was presented to me as “how would you like to live in France for six months or so?” Neither the boss nor I ever expected that the job would last for three and a half years. When I saw that I was going to be there longer than expected I did start learning the local language, acquired a local girlfriend and everything changed.

    While I am fully believe that you should learn the language of the country you’re living in, it never really bothered me when I was living in south east Florida that there were so many Latinos who lived exclusively in a Spanish-speaking world there. Not unlike the gringo expats here. If they didn’t want to learn English what difference did it make to me? But, if that’s the kind of world they chose to live in DON’T come to me and ask me IN SPANISH if I speak Spanish. My reply was always, “Si, pero no aqui. Es los estados unidos aqui. Hablamos ingles. Cuando estoy en Panama, Mexico, Guatemala, hablo Espanol, pero no en me pais.” (Yes, but not here. It’s the United States. We speak English. When I’m in Panama, Mexico, Guatemala I speak Spanish, but not in my country.”) When I hear gringos here trying to communicate to the locals here in English because they haven’t learned Spanish I cringe. At a minimum learn to preface things with “Lo siento, you no hablo Espanol.” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.) Even THAT little bit will make a huge difference in how one is perceived and treated.

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    • Kris says:

      When you don’t speak any of the language and need health care, it makes a difference. That’s why I first started learning Spanish because, for starters, if you can’t understand me I can’t legally have you sign a consent for treatment.
      I carry my dictionary with me here and if I’m stuck on something, at least I can look up a word. Thread? ahh, hilo! Si, necisito hilo. and we are both much happier that we are understanding each other.

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  10. traveller says:

    I fully agree.
    I’ve lived in the Middle East for almost two years now. As a European, I find many things new, quirky or simply culturally different. But this very novelty of everyday things is incredibly exciting.
    To the whingeing by default expat types, who spend their time bemoaning the this and the that and the other, I cordially say : Sorry mate, we are here as guests first and foremost, nobody’s making us stay.
    As far as I’m concerned, we’re incredibly lucky to be living here, most people have shown us nothing but hospitality and warmth and if we wanted things to be like back home we’d actually be….back home.

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    • Kris says:

      I hope you keep blogging because I have really enjoyed what I read so far. I get a sense of your enjoyment that is similar to mine here. You are right, we are very lucky!

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  14. Great tips, especially being a good ambassador.

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  15. mike says:

    Took the plunge and opened http://www.bambuhostel.com a backpackers hostel in western panama, many challenges and many rewards..love the writing here..stop by the hostel sometime! Se Habla Espanol

    Like

    • Kris says:

      Ah si, no hemos estado allí por un tiempo. Está usted en David ahora? Somos amigos de Greg, pero no conocemos a usted todavía.

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  16. Fr. John+ says:

    All this is very nice, but you miss a LOT in your post, that probably doesn’t WANT to be said, but needs to be said.

    First Language. The Only reason Panamanians speak Spanish, is because of the conquistadores and the imposition of a false faith (Roman Catholi-schism) on the natives, centuries ago. Had the English imposed the Anglican Faith on the natives, we’d all be speaking English in Panama.

    So, it’s not a ‘native’ vs. ‘non-native’ thing, if you are willing to say the truth.
    Secondly, what would Panama be, without the English/American investing in the Canal?
    Why should Panamanians who are Hispanic-indentified have such animosity against those Anglos who helped them MAKE their country what it is, today? Why should we have given up the Canal in the first place? It all depends on how you see it, wouldn’t you agree?

    Finally, if the Panamanians act so ‘superior’, then they could scrap using the US Dollar as their currency, and just revert back to the jungle existence most of the other Meso-American countries have- but they won’t do that.

    So, I think the argument goes both ways. It’s only guilt mongering on the part of non-Anglos (or self-hating White Liberals) to act as though Anglos- Americans especially ‘shouldn’t’ be there, when we DO bring the Money, the Infrastructure, and laid the foundations for the country in the FIRST place, as Panama finds itself in today’s world.. Now, if they went back in time, and did it all themselves, that would be a totally different story… but they HAVEN’T.

    Finally, I would welcome finding expats who WANTED an English-speaking congregation, whose pastor is both a) racially aware of his own ethnicity and not afraid to realize the greatness that Western Christian Civilization has given the world, and b) not afraid to speak truth to Power against those who spread false ideologies, and gloom and doom, much as our present Emperor without any clothes has been doing, since 2007..

    But that would offend too many people… and that’s also the EXACT unstated reason so many people are leaving Obamastan as well, though they would never say it… they loathe what a non-White hater has done to ‘their country.’ So, why should we apologize for what went wrong in our own land, when we then see the same racial hatred and animus in the foreign land we HAVE to go to, to get away from it in our own?

    Because they (liberals and miscegenationist heretics) foolishly think racism (an invented word/condition, with no basis in reality) can only be predicated of Whites- they are rendered immaterial, before the argument is even set up. I refuse to play by the rules of a civlization that never got beyond the Jungle, when they’ve used us to get out of there, in the first place…

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    • Kris says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for reading so far back into my blog. I stand by what I said and would say the same thing again today. It doesn’t matter to me why they speak Spanish or use the dollar. I’m only interested in enjoying my new home and relationships with my new friends and neighbors. I have a feeling that our political and religious views are quite different so we see things very differently.

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  17. Jaime Moreno says:

    Hi Ms Kris,
    Congratulation for your blog, the article “English, or Spanish? Expat Gringos in Panama” is really good and true. I’m Panamanian but am learning English and am always reading articles on Internet. My wife and I are also practicing it in an English speaking church here in Panama and it has been a blessing for us to get know so many Expats from different countries. By the way, though you life in Chiriqui, you are invited to visit us, the website is http://www.lifebridgeic.com
    Thank you and blessings,
    Jaime

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    • Kris says:

      Thank you, and good luck with your English! I think it is harder to learn English than Spanish. Thank you for the invitation to your church 🙂 I will keep it in mind if I spend some time in Panama City.

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  18. Robert says:

    I completely agree with the old saying: “when in Rome do what Romans do” or in Spanish
    “Allá donde fueres, haz como vieres”. (wherever you go, do what you see).

    Part of adapting to the culture will be to learn the Spanish language. So, to learn and listen to Spanish for FREE go here:
    http://www.SpanishClassesInLosAngeles.com

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