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Tips For Expats In Panama City

Six Secrets To Success Launching A New Life In Panama

We gringos in Panama can forget that we’re gringos in Panama. The downtown of this city is multicultural with an international vibe and enough global fast-food and shopping brands to give the impression that Panama City is just another North American city. It can be hard to remember that you are in a foreign land.

But let’s not forget, fellow gringos: We are guests in this country, and, as such, we should pay attention to our behavior. Nothing is worse than an ungrateful guest.

Following are six things I think it’s important to keep in mind in this context. Don’t beat yourself up if you realize you’ve broken any of these social conventions for gringos; we all have. The point is to remind us all that we need to adjust ourselves to Panamanian culture rather than expecting it to adjust to us.

1. You are a gringo. Deal with it.

Some gringos object to being referred to that way. They complain that it’s an offensive and derogatory slur. That’s ridiculous. “Gringo” isn’t nefarious or even insulting. It’s shorthand. You’re not of this land or of this part of the world. You’re a foreigner…a gringo. Get over it.

2. Nobody likes a know-it-all.

Nothing is worse than the know-it-all gringo, the kind who thinks he can solve all Panama’s problems. A favorite topic among know-it-all gringos is traffic in Panama City. It’s as if every gringo has a PhD in urban design and traffic planning after one week in this town. Chances are your ingenious plan to solve the city’s traffic issues isn’t so ingenious; someone else probably already thought of it. Leave it to the experts. You don’t need to—and probably can’t—solve everyone else’s problems.

3. Monkey see does not mean monkey do.

Just because you see Panamanians doing something doesn’t mean you should do it, too. One important example comes to mind, and, as a guy, I can say it. It’s to do with the machismo aspects of Panamanian culture. Yes, men here sometimes whistle and catcall at women walking down the street. Would you do that back home? Don’t do it here either.

4. You are from Nobody-Cares-Ville.

You’re from LA? Toronto? London? New York? Sydney? Guess what? Nobody cares.

Well, people probably do care, but not as much as you think they do. I overhear expats (usually after a few too many at a bar) repeating again and again where they are from. They drop the names of their cities into casual conversation as if their origins pertain to absolutely everything.

It’s normal to want to let people know where you are from, and, as you’re meeting people and making friends here (which is really easy because Panamanians are very friendly), they will ask. That’s the time to talk about your old hometown. Otherwise, you’ll get further showing more interest in your new hometown.

5. Speak the language, at least a little.

Learning a new language is tough, trust me. Years of trying to learn Spanish have left me still only half-fluent at best. It’s a continuous battle, but I encourage you to make the effort. Seeing gringos speak slow, loud English believing that somehow that will help them to be understood by someone who only speaks Spanish is cringeworthy.

Don’t try and coast on English alone. Sure, many Panamanians and expats in Panama City speak English, but eventually you may be stuck in a jam and unable to do something because of communication problems. Even a few key phrases and basic skills go a long way. And making the effort to learn even a little Spanish shows respect to those you are speaking with.

6. Don’t be a stranger.

It’s natural for people to want to interact with people they perceive to be similar to themselves, but I encourage you to avoid having an exclusively gringo circle of friends. If you wanted nothing but gringo friends, why did you leave home in the first place? Make some new friends. Panamanians are cool people, and they don’t bite.

Matt Chilliak

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