When on a bus or plane for hours, what do you do? Write blog posts!
My friend Haydee was at my house the other day and had an interesting question. She was watching a TV show from the US and there was a scene of a church service. She wanted to know why everyone in the church was black. Could it be possible that black people live separately from white people?
I explained that yes indeed, it is usually the case that most black people live in one part of a city, and whites live in another. What about Latinos? Yes, they also often live together in their part of town. I explained a bit about efforts to integrate schools and workplaces, and how hard black people have had to work for what equality they have.
Haydee was genuinely shocked. She could not imagine why someone would be treated differently because of how they look. She had never seen a church of people of only one color. She says in Panama everyone lives together, white or black or whatever color, big or small, rich or poor, Panamanian or foreigner, church going or not, straight or gay. If you are a nice person and treat other people well, you are welcomed. It is a very “live and let live” culture and they are quite unconcerned with personal differences.
It was very interesting to have my impressions of this culture confirmed by a Panamanian. I have always felt like a foreigner in the US. After 17 years I knew most of my neighbors but it took years. As an atheist Buddhist I feel very excluded by the ubiquitous Christian religion, and I resent the lack of separation of church and state. I do not conform to the expectations of appearances, consumerism, and constant striving for a higher rung on the ladder. The more I tried to be true to myself the farther I drifted from the mainstream culture and the less I felt I belonged.
It is so unexpected and wonderful to feel at home in Panama. Who would ever imagine in a heavily Catholic country, a different culture, and a different language that I would feel like this. People ask me about my beliefs and feelings, maybe ask a question or two out of curiosity, and that’s the end of it. I have never felt that a relationship has changed one bit because of any differences. No one has ever asked me to change a thing to align with their beliefs. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses – after refusing their offer of literature twice they have never asked me again. They just seem genuinely happy to see me, ask how I am, and make general conversation before proceeding on their way.
I am thankful beyond words that we have come to Panama. Living here is a joyful and life altering experience in so many ways. It feels really good to be home.