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.