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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Santiago, Panama

Sep 28, 2015


An expat in Santiago, Panama shares her experiences with culture shock in Panama. She appreciates so much about life there such as the excellent and affordable healthcare, the lack of politically correct speech and much more. She shares some of the things about the culture that are the most challenging as well.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Santiago

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

No

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

Spanish is spoken here. I learned Spanish here. I cannot imagine living here without speaking Spanish.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

no

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How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

It sneaks up on you. I have lived here in Panama for 8 years and it still gets to me sometimes.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

Yes, I went through all of them.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

Quite a lot of extra frustration. But I also learned to slow down a lot and not have such exact and high expectations.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

I appreciate the excellent and affordable health care -- that doctors think of themselves as regular human beings. I appreciate that family comes first. I very much appreciate the lack of consciousness for politically correct speech. I appreciate that calling me a gringa is not derogatory but descriptive and even endearing and that because people do not take offense with such nicknames, there is very little if any racial tension. I appreciate that if I am late for an appointment due to traffic, for example, I don't have to stress because no one expects anyone to be on time. I appreciate that privacy from the government is still valued. That people still dress up a little when they leave the house to run an errand, that traditional music, dance and dress are kept alive and taught in the schools.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Learning that now actually means later, that pinning down someone to a specific time is almost impossible. That this is a nation of many first generation drivers, that there is very little "do it yourself ability here". Maintenance is not something that most people see the point in doing. Fast service with a smile almost doesn't exist. Most stores have no idea what they have in inventory and the process of giving them money for goods is cumbersome and painful. Although labor costs are low, mandatory benefits are extensive, for example one month of paid vacation annually, an extra month of pay every year, 14 legal holidays, 25% contribution to social security with no cap. There is an absolute inability to give directions. Most people are patient to a fault.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

I received a printed invitation to attend a 40th birthday party from a neighbor. It was to start at three in the afternoon on a Saturday. We showed up at 3.30. the hosts were still getting dressed and still had to go get the chairs and tables they were renting. The party actually started at 7pm, which was when most of the guests show up... how do they know this?

Many errors with the language. My neighbor told me her son needed arena (sand) for a science project and did I have a small amount, I gave her harina (flour).

I was in a government office waiting to see someone. . The attendant asked me if was not from around here. I said no I wasn't and asked how he knew - was it my blond hair? my height? my blue eyes? my American accent?? No, none of those, he said it was because I laid my purse on the floor. Women in Panama don't do this, all the luck will run out if you put your purse on the floor.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Don't expect the world to behave like people do in your home country. When the culture gets to you, close your door, put on some air conditioning and watch a movie in your own language!

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