I asked one of my Panamanian friends. Mimi Stewart, to share her advice about how you can be a good expat in Panama. Mimi was a Panamanian expat living in the United States for awhile so she has a unique perspective about being an expat. Getting advice about how to adapt to living in Panama from Panamanians is just as important as getting advice from other expats.
by Mimi Stewart
Greeting from beautiful Boquete, a small town in Chiriqui, Panama. I am originally from Panama, but from the age of 23, I joined the US Army. I spent 5 years in the service, living in Germany for 2 years and another 14 in the United States.
As a Panamanian living in the United States I knew that if I wanted to make it there, I had to go by their rules, that meant learning the language and respecting the culture. At first it was difficult coming from a Latino culture, you know.. where you do as you´ve seen and you behave as you´ve learned. So being a foreigner in a strange country is not unfamiliar to me.
I learned all I needed to, and beyond that; I fell in love with the North American systems. So believe me when I tell you that I understand 100% what you are going through and the challenges it represent to you and your family to adapt to other country and culture completely strange to you. I know the frustration of not being able to communicate your needs to the pharmacist or the cashier at the supermarket, but I also know how important it is to realize that now that you live in Panama, there are changes you must make to have a smoother transition.
For example, making the effort to get to know the locals, how they think, what they eat, and how they behave are few details to take in consideration. Never assume that because you are the foreigner the locals already know how you think as well. Never assume they know what you want and most important never expect to be treated extra-special just because you are from the United States.
Many expats come to Panama with the mentality that things are going to be the same as when they lived in United States, and it is not so, not at all. Understand and expect that some things will be done in a different way in Panama. You may be surprised to find that Panama does some things in a more logical way. But some will experience disappointment because they think they are going to have the same lifestyle as before. Please remember that your decision to move to Panama although is great if you have the willingness to adapt, it can also be challenging and not so easy for some people. Your attitude about your experiences will make all the difference in a pleasant transition or not. Learn to go with the flow. You can’t change things to adapt to the way you want.
You should visit Panama before deciding to move to Panama. Perhaps, before you make the decision to move you will need to spend a few months living in Panama, to get a sense of what is like to live here, make plans of what is it that you wish to accomplish by moving here, ask yourselves if by making this move, your life will improve or if you are so stubborn that making changes is not something you are up to.
If you have children, then pay a visit to potential schools for your kids, look for activities you and your family may enjoy together.
You might just find what you are looking for in Panama; or you might not like what this country has to offer. It all depends of your willingness to take a step beyond your own culture and explore the wonders and privileges that Panama has to offer.
We all know how expensive health care is in the United States, but I can tell you that here in Panama is actually much affordable, that is if you are fairly healthy. You should plan to get health insurance right away if you decide to make the move to Panama. Health insurance is also affordable in Panama.
Boquete, for example, has wonderful organic fruits and vegetables at a very affordable price. Local restaurants have wonderful meals from $2.00 to $3.00. Public transportation is also very affordable. You can take a cab from downtown Boquete to Alto Boquete for 0.60 cents.
Is all relatively affordable if you know where to look. That is why is so important to mingle with the locals, shop where they shop, eat where they eat, this is an advantage to you. Treat them with respect and they´ll do the same, be rude and expect the same. It is all about understanding that you no longer live in the US and that depending of your attitude you either will make it here or you´ll end up going back home.
THE DO´S and DO NOT’S
Learn the Language: This will make things easier for you to communicate, at least learn the basic. It is not necessary to be 100 % fluent but at least enough to get you by with the basics, like how to ask for a pound of onions or what to say to get your check at a restaurant.
Mingle with the locals: I find that many expats prefer to stick with their ´´OWN´´ people, and although this is very understanding, remember that when many times you are the one who needs their help not them yours. Make friends with your fruit lady, be friendly with the pharmacist. Know the taxi drivers .
Participate in charity events: There are so many ways you can make a contribution to the country and one of them is to participate in charitable events and activities. This way you will feel a sense of belonging , and having a purpose.
Be kind to the locals: When you arrive to a restaurant, doctor´s office or supermarket, please be kind. Be respectful of this people, they are here to help you, and they do a great job, but only if you are kind to them.
Get a Residency Visa and Work Permit: If you want to live in Panama get a Residency Visa. The Pensionado or Friendly Nations Visas are easy and affordable to get. Live in Panama legally or don’t come. If you plan to sell a product or service, even part time, you need to get a work permit. It’s the law. Many people don’t like immigrants coming to the United States illegally and working illegally, well guess what, Panamanians don’t like immigrants (you) living and working in Panama illegally either. Show respect for the Panamanian laws by getting a Visa and a work permit.
Expect to be treated special: I have seen this so many times, when an expat arrives to the pharmacy, he/she expects to be treated with certain specialty. Remember that you are just another customer they see and have to wait for your turn just as everybody else.
Speak badly about the culture: This is rude and very disrespectful. If you don´t like the system or the way things are done in Panama, then please by all means go back to the US. I’ve heard so many times some expats being rude to the clerk at the coffee shop, and when she doesn’t understand what he/she is trying to say, then all the complaints on how bad things are in Panama start to come up. It is your responsibility to adapt to Panama, because we Panamanians try to do the same with you.
Compare Panama with the US: Really, don´t!! We are from different worlds, upbringing and thinking. Panamanians drive very different here than drivers in the US. I must admit that we are far from being perfect, but as I mentioned before, we also try to accommodate your needs and do our best to make you feel welcome in our country.
It´s an adventure being in Panama! It can be very fun if you are open mind and the right attitude. Things are not always going to be smooth and easy, but remember something, you are here to experience something different. Embrace Panama as it is, it´s people, food and system, because it is you who are making the choice to move here, so it´s your responsibility to adapt. Have a wonderful journey and have fun in Panama!!