Now that it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere, we see new people arriving in Panama almost every day, here at the beaches. In getting ready to move to Panama, there are lots of logistics to think about: containers, housing, furnishing, budgets, bank accounts, visas, pets, telephones, cable tv, transportation… the list is endless. Most people are prepared to deal with these unending lists of To-Dos but few are aware of, or ready to deal with what is universally known as Culture Shock.
What Culture Shock is and How it develops
Culture Shock is the cycle of feelings of anxiety, frustration, alienation and anger that initially occurs when a person faces a new culture. We all experience culture shock in a different way. At first glance, you may not think that a cultural difference would affect you, as Panama appears to be very first world. It is more developed than the Dominican and other Caribbean countries. Panama City is very modern. Be assured that there is a contrast in culture, however subtly it may affect you, there is no true way to prevent being affected. Knowing it happens to everyone and being prepared for the effects can help you adjust to a new environment with greater ease.
In the early stages of a move to a new country, there is a feeling of excitement. You look forward to living at the beach, warm winters, fresh shrimp and tropical fruits. Panama is seen in a romantic light: the pace of life, people’s habits, the way houses are made with lots of outdoor living space... It is important to remember all these things that initially endear you to your host country. Take pictures, scrapbook, and journal to treasure these moments. You will need these reminders as time inevitably tempers the romance with reality.
Ironically, the things that you have prepared yourself to deal with – checking off the endless list of to-do’s, are the very things that place you face-to-face with cultural attitudes that are different from your own. Eventually, the compounding differences begin to create a subtle change of your attitude. This can lead to things becoming harder to accomplish as you put up a mental wall, distancing yourself from the people of your host country. Recognize this vicious cycle as Culture Shock. Be kind to yourself and realize that patience, and a lot of it, is required for yourself and others, as you move through the frustrations and difficulties ahead.
The honeymoon stage generally lasts about three months, until sooner or later, the differences between your home culture and Panama become glaring. What once felt exciting and exotic can suddenly feel “weird” and “annoying”. Feelings of excitement give way to frustrations. Unfavorable events caused by cultural differences can start to seem offensive to you. For example, quality in workmanship, delays in opening a bank account, antiquated systems in government offices. Add language barriers, and traffic safety to the mix, and it is easy to start thinking that your foreignness is actually an enjoyable target for Panamanians (Whether or not it is actually true).
This is the junction at which a disconnection to Panama can begin. It is common, especially for older people to get stuck in feeling isolated from the country. With growing expat communities throughout the country, it is easy to stay comforted by similar experiences, stereotyping Panamanians and becoming sheltered from having to truly adapt to a new country. The danger here is becoming stuck in a negative perspective, and never truly being able to feel fulfilled in the experience of living in Panama.
I know this from my own experiences and from those around me. It is common to find yourself struggling to do things here that were so easy to do back home. Like driving on busy streets or visiting the hair dresser and sorting out everyday problems over the phone. While dealing with these experiences here can be exhausting, they are an important part of adjusting to Panama.
You could be going through Culture Shock, if you are experiencing some of these ‘symptoms’:
· Excessive concern over cleanliness and health
· Feelings of helplessness and withdrawal
· Glazed stare
· Desire for home and old friends
· Physiological stress reactions
· Getting "stuck" on one thing
· Excessive sleep
· Compulsive eating/drinking/weight gain
· Stereotyping host nationals
· Hostility towards host nationals
How to overcome Culture Shock
Through a conscious effort, one can transition through Culture Shock to a place of genuine acceptance and mastery. The more you learn about Panama with an open mind, the better you will gain an understanding of the historical, social and cultural differences between this country and your own, until one day you could wake up to realize that you have arrived at your own unique cosmopolitan perspective.
Here are some tips that can help ease the transition through the stages of Culture Shock:
1. Know that it is happening. Understand that you will go through a Culture Shock of sorts. Being aware of what is happening to you goes a long way towards transitioning into a happier place. When you find yourself there, use a tip from this list to take a step forward.
2. Make a Panamanian friend. A lady I know who lives in Coronado, makes rounds of local businesses, stopping in for a short chat with locals. Not only does this help her adapt to the Panamanian culture, but it gets her practicing Spanish and she inevitably gets inside information about the going-ons in the area.
3. Learn Spanish. Ideally, begin before you come. . Once here, keep the language skills up. Challenge yourself to learn and use a new word a day. Very often expats learn just enough Spanish to get by and then stop. Learning the language also helps deepen your understanding of the culture. Panamanian Spanish has a lot of subtleties that are only found in Panama. Take every opportunity to use the language, even if your skills are not perfect.
4. Make friends with other expats. It is also important to connect to cultures you are familiar with. Venting helps you get through difficult and frustrating time. Just be careful not to slide into a Panama bashing session, which can lead you into feeling stuck and depressed.
5. Be a tourist. Check this country out. From Boquete to San Blas, Panama has bountiful and beautiful regions with vastly different vibes. Discover your host country and the wonder it has to offer.
6. Stretch out of your comfort zone each day. An expat I know, anticipates the errands she has and plans her conversations around them using Google Translate. It’s a great way to deepen the conversation while getting a mani-pedi.
7. Do your research. Often expats who come to live in Panama expect life to work in a first world way at third world prices. When it doesn’t, frustration and anger sets in. Expats also tend to view the country with a measuring stick of their home country. A little lurking on discussion groups, blogs and message boards in combination with other internet research can give you a more realistic view of what life in Panama is really like.
8. Develop new routines. A walk on the beach, Spanish lessons, exercise classes, spend more time on a hobby. New routines in your new life will help things settle back to normalcy. Once you feel more stable, you will automatically develop strengthened problem-solving skills to help you deal with the cultural differences.
9. Keep an open mind. There are layers of meaning behind why people do what they do. So when you think you understand something, stay open, as you are likely to learn even more.
While expats coming to Panama, go through culture shock, it is also interesting to note that, with the large influx of foreigners arriving in Panama, Panamanians over the last few years have also experienced a cultural shock of sorts in their home country. I try to remember that and have some empathy for their experience of us on our learning curves!
I have lived in Panama for seven years, and often find myself ‘stuck’ in a safe zone. I am one of those people who know just enough Spanish to get by, and I still find myself surprised at the similarities and differences between my Panamanian colleagues and myself. This article is my own challenge, and an invitation to you to join me. I would love to hear about your Culture Shock experiences and tips. Use the Contact page
to reach me.