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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Playa Jaco , Costa Rica

Apr 24, 2018


Cartago, Costa Rica

An expat living in Playa Jaco, Costa Rica enjoys the family-focused Costa Rican culture and the slower pace of life. She has great tips to help newcomers adapt to life in Costa Rica.

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

Playa Jaco

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

No, I did not receive any cross-cultural traning.

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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?

When I first moved to Costa Rica, I knew very limited Spanish having acquired it while visiting as a tourist for many years. However, I was not prepared for the amount of Spanish I would need living in Costa Rica full time. For the most part, most Costa Rican's speak limited English as it is taught in the public school system. Words of greeting as hello, goodbye, thank you and such pleasantries are common. However, living as an expat in Costa Rica brings a new set of circumstances dealing with mechanics, banking, specialty hardware stores, car inspections and house maintenance. I would strongly suggest anyone considering living in Costa Rica as an expat brush up on the Spanish language. Wherein the Costa Ricans are unfailingly patient with a non-speaking Spanish communicator, it surely will make your life much easier!

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

Interestingly enough I was not at all concerned with culture shock! I arrived in Costa Rica with a sense of challenge, adventure and willingness to learn and adapt. I don't even think culture shock crossed my mind! I was looking forward to a different lifestyle so anything "new and different" I greeted with acceptance and willingness to learn. I have lived in Costa Rica as an expat for 17 years and believe this mindset helped me through many challenges faced by expats today.

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

In Costa Rica, there definitely is a "learning curve" for dealing with every day life. The pace of life is definitely slower and more relaxed. This slow paced life can be a positive factor or a detriment given your personality. In Costa Rica "Tico Time" is a reality wherein work expected to take a few hours to complete in the states, may require twice as much time here. An employee required to show up for the job may be an hour or up to many hours late. However, they will arrive! (Maybe not in your expected timeframe.) It can be a very frustrating situation! Tico Time also has it's advantages. Costa Ricans are genial and friendly. They enjoy socializing and enjoy a slower pace of life with family as the center of the society. This is not necessarily a "bad" thing nor a detriment. I believe there is something that we all can learn from this lifestyle! Slow and easy!

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?

I believe everyone experiences the honeymoon phase of expat life abroad. As an new expat you may continue the same activities as when you visited as a tourist. Living life on a perpetual vacation is fantastic but unfortunately unrealistic! The reality of everyday life with banking issues, language, shopping for groceries, taxes and public services ... all issues we deal with worldwide is a common stumbling block for expats. Irritation is common as things move at a slower pace. I often see the anger stage of my newcoming fellow expats. This is a stage which needs to be managed to become a happy expat. Costa Ricans do not respond well to angry outbursts and emotional shows of temper. It's best to "keep your cool" and calm down to resolve an issue. Not an easy task for those of us of the Type A personality! The culture adjustment phase only is achieved as you have an acceptance of the situation and truly believe that the goodness of the country, people and beauty outweighs the frustration.

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.

As an expat with family ties in the USA, I believe the most difficult aspect is homesickness and familiarity of friends and family. It is so very important to remember you are many miles away and friends/family will visit when they are able. However, they have a "life" also. They are busy with work, family issues and many other situations of everyday life that are soon forgotten once you become an expat. Keeping in touch via social media and inexpensive long distance phone service is key to keep loneliness at bay. Costa Rica is a country full of diverse activities, environmental parks and fresh clean air. Overeating may be an issue; however, the fresh fruit and healthy lifestyle sure helps to offset any ill effects!

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

There are many things I appreciate about my new culture in Costa Rica! Family ties, friendships and a slower pace of life is key here. Costa Rica is not a consumer-based society. There is less pressure on acquiring objects of status, impressing others and "keeping up with the Jones's!" How refreshing! Community life of home, family and close friendships emphasize what truly is important in life! I believe it is important to remember such a simple aspect of life in Costa Rica. You will be admired for your goodness, kindness and willingness to learn and adapt. Monetary riches and displays of wealth and superiority have little value in a culture based on family and country.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

The most challenging aspects in Costa Rica is learning to leave the mentality of "how things are done" back home. Costa Ricans are proud of their independence! You may have an idea on how to get things done or how it should be done. Leave that thinking behind. You may make a casual commment or suggestion and this is encouraged. However, it is important not to humiliate or act superior. Costa Ricans want to keep their culture alive and wherein there are interested in other cultures, they are very proud and independent of their own. It is important to adapt and not try to control or change your new homeland. Remember as an expat you are still a guest!

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

Oh my, embarrassing and humorous blunders! After 17 years in Costa Rica, I am still making such errors. Very lucky for me, Costa Ricans are unfailingly patient and have a quick sense of humor. Most of my blunders are language based. (Remember, learn that Spanish and avoid the embarrassment!) I've ordered aqua con leche (water with milk) instead of coffee with milk.. I've ordered more than one "mystery meat" at the butcher! Some meals at a local soda (Costa Rican local restaurant) resembles nothing of which I thought I'd ordered. I've also tried to master the language and having thought I'd done so, realise that I know nothing! Back to the drawing board and more self-taught Spanish lessons. It is a way of life!

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

The best advice I can give an expat for moving abroad, achieving satisfaction and having a successful and healthy transition is to leave behind everything you know to be "right" in your former country. Observe everyday life from the aspect of your fellow native people. Keep a VERY open mind! Learn the language and go about your day very much in the same manner as those that have come before you and live their life here fulltime. Make as many local friends as you can but keep strong connections to homelife in your former country. Expand your friendships to include expats for a sounding board when you become frustrated and need good solid advice. Don't take life too seriously and slow down! Life is short to begin with so try not to shorten it with moving to quickly or making quick judgements! Stop, listen, watch and learn! The opportunities are endless if you follow these simple steps!

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